nostalgia,ULTRA., by Frank Ocean

94-nostalgiaultra

Released February 16, 2011

42 min, 6 sec

Frank Ocean has made himself infuriatingly elusive since dropping channel ORANGE, one of the best albums of the year, in 2012. He’s surfaced for minor features – on Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” Jay-Z’s “Oceans,” Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” several Tyler, the Creator tracks, Beyoncé’s “Superpower,” and West’s “Wolves” – and he’s released one or two tracks of his own, in “Hero” for Converse, Django Unchained soundtrack b-side “Wise Man,” and two preview tracks from an alleged new album, but his public appearances have been incredibly few and far between, especially since his gorgeous Grammys 2013 performance (where he was fucking shafted, I might remind you), and any hints of a new album are even less frequent. Just as suddenly as he burst onto the scene with nostalgia,ULTRA. five years ago this month, Ocean seems to have become content with sitting on the sidelines, chipping away at an album at least three years in the making. And he’s already missed a release date.

Ocean’s random cameos in the music of his friends and the Circle of Jay spurred me to put both channel ORANGE and nostalgia,ULTRA. on repeat for the past two weeks or so. nostalgia was released for free on February 16, 2011, the product of frustration and neglect on the part of Ocean’s record label. Def Jam signed him after he made waves in the industry for the songs he wrote for artists as varied as Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Rihanna, moving to California in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to make a career out of his love of music and songwriting talent. Def Jam signed him for his potential and promptly let him sit and rot on the shelf. No advance for a record, no promotion, no singles, no nothing. Def Jam signed him like he was a trophy, an indicator that they could grab up hot names before they could become hot. Ocean eventually grew tired of it, gravitating to the young, quickly-developing Odd Future collective, lending his vocals to songs on nearly every Odd Future-associated album released ever since. By definition, he was an outsider, but he was accepted into the fold just like any of the group’s other members, despite being far older than any of them. But he kept his eyes on the bigger prize – his own album.

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Ocean grabbed beats from friends, and looked all over the Internet for interesting songs to rework for himself, unable to generate his own backing tracks at the time. nostalgia came together quickly, fueled by Ocean’s desire to do what he wanted to do, meet the goals he’d set when he’d moved out to the west coast five years prior. February 16 came, and Ocean posted an album cover to his Tumblr with no warning, and only a humorous exchange for context. The link leads to a now-dead Mediafire download of the album, for free, with no backing from Def Jam, and likely without a single person at the label knowing about a single second of it before its release.

nostalgia is the sound of Ocean breaking free from the constraints he’d worked under as a writer-for-hire, building a dark, relatively sparse album with a central theme of struggling with love. Some songs, like “Novacane” and “LoveCrimes,” are built to be pessimistic, demonstrating Ocean’s distrust of love and its sources (“Novacane” is also a thinly-veiled shot at the type of music that Ocean used to write for other artists). Others, like Ocean’s re-imagined version of “Strawberry Swing,” portray a purer love, even in the face of an apocalyptic end. “Songs 4 Women” demonstrates more of the shallowness and skepticism that Ocean treats the subject with on nostalgia, which comes to a head on the album’s thematic centerpiece, “American Wedding.”

A re-working of the classic Eagles hit “Hotel California,” using that song’s instrumental and distinctive guitar solo as a basis, Ocean laments a shotgun wedding and the false love the comes with it, telling the tale of a couple that got hitched too fast, as the relationship is torn to shreds, leaving Ocean with nothing but a broken heart and broken promises. It’s an interesting track to hold off on until the end of the album, particularly after “Swim Good,” another pure highlight, which details killing a loved one and dumping them off after they’ve broken your heart. Coupled with “Strawberry Swing” at the beginning of the album, the listener gets a sense of coming full-circle, viewing a relationship from both ends of the spectrum, on two tracks Ocean re-appropriated for his own use. And, naturally, they both end in tragedy.

The album is tied together with a series of interludes that are based around switching out cassette tapes, interspersed with video game sound effects and titled appropriately. These serve as palate cleansers, to prepare the listener for the next shift in tone, and they would recur on Ocean’s next project, channel ORANGE, forming the backbone of that album as well.

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Despite its low-key, self-made release, nostalgia immediately made waves in the R&B and hip-hop industries. Ocean was lauded as a genius and innovative songwriter with a gorgeous voice, and a number of major industry names wondered where the fuck he’d come from. Why hadn’t this guy been lighting up the charts? Wait, was he the guy that wrote “Bigger” for Bieber? What the fuck?

Def Jam was blindsided, naturally. Some of the execs didn’t even know that Ocean was the artist they had under contract – he’d written as Lonny Breaux before branching out for himself, and that was the professional name they’d known him by. Ocean took to Twitter to lambast the label for not giving him a chance and leaving him to fend for himself, exclaiming that he’d done everything for nostalgia himself, and that those stupid fucks at Def Jam had no fucking clue what they were doing. He absolutely ethered them in public as nostalgia continued to build and build in notoriety. Beyoncé came calling later that week. And Don Henley accused Ocean of stealing his music, because that makes sense when you put a mixtape on Mediafire for free. He even threatened to sue Ocean if he dared to play his own fucking song live. Despite people fellating the Eagles for decades and decades without Henley shitting his diaper about it. Maybe it was the “bastardization.” Maybe it was the subject matter. Maybe it was Ocean’s complexion.

Who knows. But all this attention mean something very, very important for Ocean – he’d hit gold. He’d done exactly what he’d set out to do in 2005. He’d made it.

The big time.

The big time also meant that Def Jam had finally taken notice, thanks in no small part to a change in management. New label head Barry Weiss made meeting with Ocean and understanding what he wanted one of his top priorities when he took over the company, and Ocean and his management team made it very, very clear what he wanted – fucking money. Money to make a record. Lots of it.

Def Jam dropped a $1 million dollar check in his lap.

They also attempted to commercialize nostalgia, with a seven-track EP titled nostalgia LITE, featuring the most accessible cuts from the mixtape, as well as two songs Ocean had recorded in the meantime in “Whip Appeal” and “Acura Integurl.” (“American Wedding,” Ocean joked, would probably not make the cut, so as not to invoke the wrath of Mr. Henley, though “Strawberry Swing” might have made it.) “Novacane” and “Swim Good” saw releases as singles with accompanying videos before work stalled out on the EP. Ocean confirmed the cancellation of the project with a few notes on Tumblr and an unofficial release of “Whip Appeal.” Instead, he moved back to channel ORANGE. Time to get to work.

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And, of course, he did – we covered that a while ago – and channel ORANGE was even more acclaimed than nostalgia, though it fell victim to the usual snubbing of non-white artists at the Grammys, quarantined in the “Urban Contemporary” category and being snubbed in Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Ocean himself for Best New Artist. Nothing new for the Recording Academy.

But Ocean likely would never have made it there if he hadn’t taken a chance on himself, fed up with being ignored and unappreciated. Who knows if Def Jam would have ever looked at its contracts and realized that they had an artist for an entire generation on their books – and no, I don’t mean Jay-Z or Kanye. Trust me, they know about those guys. But nostalgia put Ocean on the map, and it forced the world to take notice. Anyone who somehow overlooked him even after nostalgia was surely brought in by channel ORANGE. Frank Ocean had arrived.

And now, five years after the fact, we’re no closer to album three. Ocean’s Tumblr blogging slowed down significantly after the release of channel ORANGE – he’d previously posted a few b-sides in between nostalgia and channel ORANGE to keep fans engaged, but he separated further and further from his online presence as his fame grew. Ocean posted a cryptic Tumblr post early last year, featuring him looking over a set of magazines titled “Boys Don’t Cry,” and implying that an album of the same name would be dropping in July 2015. July came and went, and Ocean fell silent. No mention of any music has come since then. The waiting continues.

There’s no way to know how long we’ll be waiting for Ocean to release another classic. It could be this year – hell, it could be this week, after this post goes live. It could be next year, three years, never. Ocean plays it close to the vest – we know only what he wants us to know. Hopefully, he’ll feel generous again soon.

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