record review: Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra. (self-released)

At 17, I’m in a pretty difficult place when it comes to discussing nostalgia. I finally have a sense of the way time and change affects my environment in a way which doesn’t centre around myself and my desires, but I’m not really old enough to begin rhetorical sentences with ‘remember when..’, or to reminisce about how things used to be like I’m Victoria Legrand and high as a kite. Still, unappreciative as I may be of the past as an emotional object, I am more than capable of yearning for bigger Mars Bars, junior school workloads and Loveless by MBV (skip the glaring anomaly regarding dates and age, please). What is it about the past that is so attractive? Is the most fulfilling thing mankind can wish for also the one thing it will never be able fulfilled by again? Or is it just a hazy smokescreen of projected, falsified happiness that we press upon memory; discoloured in polaroids and distorted in feedback?

It sells, too. Vintage independent stores frequently spring up and die down, in an effort to provide an alternative fashion style to that purported by the high street brands, and ostensibly its marketability is rooted in a clamour for appearing different whilst simultaneously offering a hand of recognition to the past, and its influence on day-to-day life. You won’t go far in any urban area without seeing a pair or two of Chuck Taylor’s finest, and symbols like these are common and easily identifiable as objects with their appeal cemented by sentiment. And it would appear that young Odd Future protégé, Frank Ocean, is no stranger to these concepts, either.

Right down to the genre, title, and album art, nostalgia is the central avenue of thematic exploration in this album/mixtape. The alternating swagger/introspective approach to Frank’s r’n’b crooning is a direct throwback to ’90s R Kelly and the contemporaries of his age, and yet not once does the vocal delivery feel redundant or unnecessary. Out of place, perhaps, in the general aesthetic one would generally associate with an Odd Future release; a sickly sweet record featuring Coldplay samples, and songs about enticing female attention through having a seductive voice are not the kind you would place alongside the rape-documenting handiwork of, say, Ace Creator and his fellow wolves. What Frank Ocean is guilty of, occasionally, is selecting the more superficial symbols of our society’s obsession with nostalgia in order to make an already enjoyable listening experience an increasingly accessible one.

Such symbols include the intermittent rewinding of a tape machine, which serves as an interlude between songs. It adds up to four songs of less than thirty seconds long, which combined only have the noteworthy shout-out to Radiohead, presumably supposed to demonstrate an acute understanding and respect for musical royalty. In reality, this constant assault with the tape sound seems forced and unnatural, achieving the opposite function of any successful interlude; drawing attention away from the mixtape’s fully grown tracks. The concept of using tape recordings is not one I am ideologically opposed to (see this and get into this) but here, the album would happily flow on without it.

At the end of the day, though, this is a collection of recordings that deserves to be firmly imposed onto your radar. There are some wonderful examples of pop songs deployed with a compelling purpose, and Frank Ocean is more than capable of constructing a vivid narrative. “Novacane” tells the story of a dental student/porn star he meets while seeing Jay-Z at Coachella – a simple premise, but one that undeniably involves the listener, and gives the song a life of its own. The use of sampling is also frequently successful; “Strawberry Swing” is a fantastic adaptation of one of Chris Martin’s better compositions that sets the tone for much of what is to come.

Aside from the occasional slip-up (“Lovecrimes” is as bland as the title would suggest), Nostalgia, Ultra. is an album which quickly becomes very easy to listen to and engage with, and the further the album progresses, the more gems it throws up; “Swim Good” and “Nature Feels” are noticeable highlights. Arguably the strongest point, however, on the mixtape, is “American Wedding” – a track bordering seven minutes in length and spending a good couple of those sampling some gorgeous guitar noodling. Here, Frank reflects on the fast-paced American culture that is chewing up and spitting out youthful romance, sadly but succinctly appraising the idea of marriage and commitment in the 21st century in the verse; ‘It’s just an American wedding / they don’t mean too much / they don’t last enough.’ Are we really still talking about an OFWGKTA mixtape here?

For all his flaws, and determination to be a physical embodiment of nostalgia (including all its superficialities), Frank Ocean has curiously succeeded here in carving out a very listenable niche for himself in a pallid R’n’B landscape; displaying a knowledge of when to drop hooks and when to pull punches in one fell swoop. Though at times it may not be clear exactly what he’s doing marauding around with the infamous Wolf Gang – it’s clear he’s doing it pretty well.

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