If you told me ten years ago that the teenage skate-rat collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All would revolutionise the modern music landscape, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
Led by Tyler, the Creator their take on hip-hop shook the scene and their obnoxious and deviant music was way too weird for general hip-hop fans to understand. But that didn’t stop them from growing a cult-like following and with a R&B singer joining their ranks, they grew at an even faster rate.
Extremely distinct from his Odd Future peers, he first emerged as Christopher Lonny Breaux in 2009 as a ghost writer for the likes of John Legend, Brandy and even Justin Bieber before re-appearing in 2011 as Frank Ocean. The transition from Lonny Breaux to Frank Ocean was a pivotal moment in his career. Under this new name, Frank Ocean wouldn’t simply work in the music industry. He would redefine it.
His unconventional approach to the industry has remained the same over the last ten years. He lives in the quiet spaces and is notoriously mysterious and cryptic. In his early years, he used Tumblr as a way to express himself, sharing childhood memories, deep cuts, pity one liners and even his coming out letter. Unlike many other artists at the time, he moved away from the help of his label and decided to unexpectedly release his debut mixtape, Nostalgia, ULTRA via Tumblr.
On the day of its release, 16 February 2011, Tyler, the Creator tweeted the link to his 300,000 followers and it quickly went viral, catapulting Frank from a place of insignificance into mainstream consciousness. Ten years later he is now one of the most popular and important figures of our generation and has worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West who have all dropped albums in surprising ways.
But what makes Frank Ocean and Nostalgia, ULTRA so special?
While the mixtape is centred on hip-hop and R&B-tinged sounds, it carries a rock flair at its core, which fits flawlessly into Frank Ocean’s ability to recontextualise sounds to fit his narrative. We should know by now that rock and roll is Black music, so the use of the genre in his music isn’t surprising and although he wasn’t the first black artist to combine rock, pop, R&B, soul and hip-hop into his production, his appeal grew from his clever, poetic lyrics and evocative storytelling allowing his listeners to feel seen, heard and a lot less alone.
The fourteen-track project dives into some of life’s biggest complexities and in over 40 minutes, we get an in-depth look at Frank’s life so candidly and vividly. Nostalgia, ULTRA is largely built around samples from other songs, cuts from classic games like Street Fighter and Metal Gear Solid and clicks and rewinds of a cassette tape all while still giving a unique and fresh experience for the time period it emerged in.
Strawberry Swing, Novacane and We All Try may be one of the smoothest three-track runs on the mixtape. Starting with a Coldplay sample from their Viva la Vida album, Frank Ocean’s version of Strawberry Swing immediately introduces the major theme of the entire mixtape – nostalgia as he reminisces the good times with a childhood friend in a dream before it abruptly ends with a blaring alarm clock.
On his lead-single Novacane, he describes what it’s like to have sex on drugs while detailing a relationship with a girl in dental school who pays her tuition by “doing porn in the Valley” eloquently over simple, stripped-back production. Fading into We All Try, Frank Ocean has conflict between optimism and cynicism when talking about several topics including sexuality, pro-choice and religion – which was hardly discussed ten years ago.
While you could argue Nostalgia, ULTRA helped paved the way for Channel Orange to really flesh out his originality, his debut mixtape laid the foundation for one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the 2010s who would go on to deliver two of the most important and game-changing R&B records of the past decade.
After all these years, the project still manages to sound as new and exciting as the very first listen. It’s difficult to find the full-length and official mixtape on any listening platforms or hear the track’s performed live due to sample clearance failures, which nearly resulted in a string of lawsuits. But sometimes, the big creative risk is worth it.
Frank Ocean has taught generational talents after him to learn how to wield all their influences and inspirations into a reflection of their creative being. In 2021, DIY releases and alternative R&B are at the forefront and all praise is due to Frank Ocean. You can hear his introspection in artists today such as Choker, Giveon and Brent Faiyaz, who recently dropped three tracks via DropBox without warning.