by Jason McCullum
There are few artists more universally beloved in the 2010s other than Christopher Breaux, professionally known as Frank Ocean. Gaining traction in Los Angeles as a renowned ghostwriter and Odd Future member, he quickly put out the acclaimed album Channel Orange in 2012, an album that received praise from fans and critics alike. However, many have overlooked the era of Ocean’s career, between joining Odd Future and releasing Channel Orange. Upon signing with Def Jam Recordings, Ocean experienced feelings of neglect, resulting in him working on music on his own. Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, nostalgia,ULTRA. stands as an incredibly captivating listen, both for its uniquely crafted instrumentals and introspective lyrics. This has helped to transform R&B into an increasingly experimental and deeply personal genre.
While many of the songs here are relatively poppy and upbeat, Ocean struggles to find a sense of belonging in the fractured world he finds himself living in. Take for example a song like “We All Try,” where the first verse is built on Ocean feeling stuck in the middle of controversial topics. He supports the ability for women to have freedom of their bodies, while also admitting he does not support abortion. Additionally, he struggles to accept that many of his friends in Odd Future have predominantly atheist values, yet he sympathizes with the events that brought them to their beliefs. Moments such as these on the mixtape set the stage thematically for his next three projects by stirring discussions of topics that have deeply divided America for generations, a motif that has been increasingly common amongst R&B.
More importantly, Ocean offered a raw emotional impact unlike any other on this mixtape. A prime example is the song “Dust” which sees Ocean continually claim that he wants the connections with his love interests to turn to “dust” upon them leaving him.. Similarly, in the song “Lovecrimes” he repeatedly sings about murder, which continues on his struggles with abortion. The lyrics are packed with gloomy descriptions of how it feels for love to die, but he maximizes the emotional potential with his stunning vocal range. Many of the tape’s deepest moments have a rather exposed quality to them, where Ocean’s vocal performance does not feel as meticulously crafted as the instrumentals do. The listener is offered a personal look into the emotions of Ocean due to how it stands out, compared to the bright, often shimmering melodies.
Musically speaking, nostalgia,ULTRA. is a distinctive blend of R&B and pop music, both through instrument choice and production techniques. As early as “Strawberry Swing,” the listener gets contrasting sounds. The song introduces those now-iconic Frank Ocean guitar riffs that are bright, clean, shimmering, and upbeat. They sound like something ripped out of a pop song on their own, but are flooded by reverb to create a moody atmosphere. In this particular song, the illuminating guitars are juxtaposed with crushing drums as the bass drum has some light distortion that creates an aggressively thumping tonal quality. Still, there is a sweetness to the song due to the loving guitars that are quickly counteracted in the following track “Novacane.” While the main organs hold down a steady eighth-note rhythm, they sound heavily manipulated and glitchy, which helps to signal a sonic change in pace for the mixtape.
On tracks such as these, Ocean establishes a new combination of ideas for the R&B genre. He never limits himself to either hip hop beats or upbeat pop grooves, but rather finds ways to blend the two. At times it is straightforward and enjoyable, like on the track “Songs for Women” where the bass line is low and groovy, while the drums offer a tone that is a bit brighter and more articulate to hone in a pop anthem feeling. Another excellent example of blending sounds is “Swim Good.” Similar to “Songs for Women,” the drums are dry with a highly tuned snare and clap that can easily get a crowd moving at any major pop festival. However, the bass on this song is more than low and groovy, it sinks deep into a more aggressive distortion that overpowers the mix, leading to a slightly darker tonal quality in the chorus.
Frank Ocean introduced himself not only as potentially the greatest member of Odd Future, but as one of the most in-demand forces in the R&B genre upon releasing nostalgia,ULTRA. While he would go on to revise and improve his sound with future releases, those projects would not have been possible without the blend of instrumental styles and deeply emotional vocals that are presented on this debut mixtape. Ultimately, that is why it is worth revisiting now, and maybe even ten years down the road. nostalgia,ULTRA. is arguably Christopher Breaux’s most important release because it launched an incredible decade of music by Frank Ocean that would inspire other R&B artists and the genre itself to do the same.