Albums of the Year, Part 2: Frank Ocean, “Nostalgia, Ultra”by Taylor K. Long on Feb 9, 2012 • 10:30 am 2 Comments
Love Me Now, When I’m Gone, Love Me None
By Taylor K. Long
For an emotional R&B singing moniker, Christopher Breaux aka Frank Ocean couldn’t have done much better. Writers often use water metaphors – an ocean, in particular – to represent feelings, emotions, and hidden or untapped desires, particularly those that are far-reaching or volatile. And Frank could drum up memories of classic crooner Frank Sinatra, or to be frank, in dictionary lingo: “open and sincere, in expression,” which Ocean most certainly is on his solo effort, Nostalgia, Ultra.
As suggested by even just the album title, Ocean struggles with and attends to his emotions in equal measure. Nostalgia, “a yearning for the past, often in idealized form” is one of the strongest and most deceptive emotional states we can experience. “The past” in this instance is also synonymous with things we have lost, whether that be something tangible like people (friends, lovers, relatives), or something less definite, like youth (and the naiveté or innocence that it comes with). Ocean examines, pays tribute to, and yearns for them all.
On “Novacane,” one of the album’s most successful singles, Ocean replaces the ability to feel with numbness, erasing positive sensations along with the unpleasant. “I got what I wanted / didn’t I / can’t feel nothing / superhuman / even when I’m fucking / Viagra popping,” he sings, before delivering a sharp insult on perhaps the biggest plague of modern R&B, “Every single record / auto tuning / zero emotion / muted emotion / pitch corrected / computed emotion.” It’s hard to argue with him –R&B’s melding with pop churns out a lot of killer karaoke and dance tunes, but its bigger hits in the last handful of years have been more breezy and light-hearted than, say, a song about driving around a car with the dead bodies of your broken heart(s) in the trunk, a la Nostalgia, Ultra’s other hit single, “Swim Good.”
Technically, Frank Ocean is part of the controversial rap collective Odd Future, but evidenced through Nostalgia, Ultra, it’s hard to understand the connection. For starters, topically and emotionally he’s more sophisticated, as a glimpse at the lyrics to “We All Try” shows: “I believe a woman’s temple / gives her the right to choose / but baby don’t abort / I believe that marriage isn’t / between a man and woman / but between love and love.” As for his attitudes towards women, he seems to get wounded by love rather frequently, but to have a broken heart implies there was love to begin with, in which sense he spends more time exalting women than deriding them. When he blurts out “bitches” in the line “If I was singing cause / it’s what the bitches wanted” in “Songs For Women,” it feels forced, awkward and not entirely honest, like a kid picking on a girl he likes. In the broadest view, Nostalgia, Ultra is about all the ways he wants to be with women, and all the ways in which men have let him down.
In the latter category, possibly the single most potent moment on the album comes in the middle of “There Will Be Tears.” In the midst of yearning for his absent father (“my friend said it wasn’t so bad / you can’t miss what you ain’t had”) – he belts, “well I can / I’m sad!” So many songs, so many books and films and other art forms, complicate or expand feelings, or express them in a complicated or expanded way. “I’m sad!” is so powerful here because it’s stripped down and direct. It feels like exactly what everyone else is trying to avoid saying.
That Ocean sings over mostly borrowed beats doesn’t really matter, because after the initial split second of recognition, you’re so enraptured by Ocean’s voice, by his words, by what’s coming next, that you never forget you’re listening to him, or begin to anticipate the original song. It connects perfectly to the album title, in a way, sending the mind briefly reeling back to youthful attempts at song-writing through making up lyrics or parodying pop songs.
As if it wasn’t enough to drop a successful album of his own, Ocean also pops up on not one but two of 2011’s blockbusters. Firstly, through his pen, having written the song “I Miss You” on Beyonce’s 4. Secondly, through his voice, with two singing cameos on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne: news that broke nostalgically, of course, when Ocean wrote to himself of five years ago on his tumblr, “i don’t wanna spoil too much for you, but.. you’re on a plane right now to the east coast to work with kanye west & jay-z. it’s all working out kid. you made it.”
So what happens to a sentimental singer-songwriter whose future, it would seem, might finally be eclipsing his past? I know at least a few people who will be yearning to find out.