Frank Ocean’s impact is difficult to express fully. His stunning voice, storytelling abilities, and ability to express emotions in the most relatable way have made him universally loved. His creativity has certainly impacted pop, indie, and rap over the last decade, and sad-boy R&B knockoffs are constantly popping up, attempting to replicate his sound and persona. With someone with the endless creativity and seemingly natural talent of Frank Ocean, replication is almost impossible. Even “nostalgia, ULTRA,” Ocean’s breakthrough mixtape from 2011, still sounds remarkably fresh ten years later. All the hallmarks of a classic Frank Ocean release are present, and looking back, it truly seems like the sound of a musical genius on the cusp of something great.
While Frank Ocean was working with rap collective Odd Future, he recorded “nostalgia, ULTRA” and self-released the collection of songs on Feb. 11, 2011, on his Tumblr account with no promotion. The fact that a self-released unpromoted mixtape on an online blogging platform could catch the attention of superstar artists like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West speaks volumes about the quality of the music. Frank Ocean’s songwriting brand seems so entrenched in popular culture that it can be difficult to think about how incredibly compelling his music first was.
The songwriting exists in a wonderful limbo state between the real and fictitious. Frank Ocean would fully fine-tune this later in his career. However, many songs on this mixtape still capture a specific bright and youthful understanding of the world that expresses melancholy, joy, longing, and almost every emotion imaginable. “Novacane,” the first single from the mixtape, tells a nightmarish love story of doing drugs and meeting a girl at Coachella. Now a classic Frank Ocean song, the story of meeting a “model broad with the Hollywood smile” and sly film references like “been tryna film pleasure with my eyes wide shut” still stands up as a uniquely crafted song full of intention and artistry.
Mixtapes are always interesting because of the freedom they express. They often feature overt samples of popular songs that would never get cleared for an official album. Frank Ocean included some incredibly memorable covers and samples that expressed nostalgia and the wide span of his music taste. A lowkey Radiohead sample on the interlude “Bitches Talkin’” is cheekily overlayed with women asking, “What is a Radiohead?” “Strawberry Swing” covers the underrated Coldplay song—a bold and risky move that few artists besides Frank Ocean could pull off. “American Wedding” is essentially a cover of the classic “Hotel California” with new lyrics. The song led to a threat of a class-action lawsuit, which never really reached fruition.
Frank Ocean’s love for movies is something that we are now all aware of (most notably Channel Orange’s “Forrest Gump”), but this mixtape is when we were first introduced to the musician’s love for film. The outro of “Lovecrimes” features a large portion of Nicole Kidman’s dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film “Eyes Wide Shut.” It captures Frank Ocean’s desire to embody and expand upon other people’s stories. It is also wonderfully memorable and unlike what was happening in a lot of other music at the time.
Two songs capture the two emotional poles of the mixtape. “There Will Be Tears” is full of emotion and pushes the normative R&B sound towards a more interesting indie style. It also features a cathartic release of sadness and a tear-jerking expression of having an absent father. The other side of the album can be seen in the closing track. “Nature Feels” heavily samples MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” but transforms it into something even more alien, and psychedelic in its own natural way. A nostalgia-inducing and lust-filled retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, but transported “underneath the cherry leaves.” It ends the mixtape on a colorful and mind-expanding finale. It fully announces the voice of a gifted songwriter, a ruthless perfectionist, and someone who seems able to push conventions with every breath. Everything on this mixtape felt fresh and unique at the time, and now with a larger body of Frank Ocean songs and a slew of copycats and inspirations, this jumping-off point feels truly nostalgic in ways Frank Ocean probably could not imagine.