Potential album of the year is Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, ULTRA –a free download. This guy (nee Christopher Breaux) has some relation to the Odd Future hip-hop collective and was/is signed to Def Jam until he got fed up and released this album/mixtape himself. It’s a very eccentric R&B album that veers in and out of wildly disparate styles — one that sounds like Prince here (“Nature Feels”), gorgeous psychedelia tune there (“Strawberry Swing” –actually a cover of a Coldplay original(!)), etc. Frank Ocean himself characterizes the album as “Death Metal” and “Bluegrass” — “Bluegrass is swag. Bluegrass is all the way swag” — and also compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, “some visionary shit.” To be honest I am not 100% sure how much of the music is his own since some/a lot (?) of it is him rapping over other peoples’ songs, including an amazing riff about a failed teenage marriage over the Eagles’ “Hotel California” called “American Wedding” (“it’s just an American wedding/ they don’t mean too much/ they don’t last enough”…”don’t take this hard/ but maybe we should get an annulment/ before this goes way too far”). This isn’t just any teenage bride, either: right before the ceremony she turns in her final high school term paper, “a thesis on Islamic virgin brides and arranged marriage/ hijabs and polygamist husbands.”
Frank Ocean has a gorgeous, smooth R&B voice and has written songs for artists like John Legend and Justin Bieber (!) & part of what’s truly weird about this album is the way its formal eccentricity is combined with exceedingly high-gloss mainstream production values and high-level music chops. What most blows me away, though, are the album’s incredibly smart, weird, sometimes devastating lyrics.
“Swim Good,” which seems to be a suicide song, features our protagonist driving around L.A. in a black suit, “roaming around like I’m ready for a funeral.” “That’s a pretty big trunk on my Lincoln Town Car, ain’t it?” he asks. “Big enough to take these broken hearts and put ’em in it./ Now I’m driving round on the boulevard, trunk bleeding.” The cops stop him, but for some reason they never seem to notice all the blood from his broken hearts bleeding out from the back of the car. “I’m about to drive in the ocean/ I’m a try to swim from something bigger than me. Kick off my shoes, and swim good, and swim good.” Death at sea for “Frank Ocean.”
Or the sublime “There Will Be Tears.” “My granddaddy was a player, pretty boy in a pair of gators, the only dad I’d ever know, but pretty soon he’d be gone too.” “Hide my face hide my face/ Can’t let em see me crying/ ’cause these boys didn’t have no fathers neither/ And they weren’t crying./ My friend said it wasn’t so bad/ You can’t miss what you ain’t had.” And then the refrain, more or less: “Well I can” — miss what you ain’t had, that is — “I’m sad, and there will be tears.” This in an amazing aching falsetto: “There may be smiles, but a few/ And when those tears have run out/ You will be numb and blue.”
Several of the songs fade out into an alarm clock beeping; the whole thing is, maybe, a concept album about nostalgia, emotional numbness, and dreaming on L.A. freeways. And I haven’t even mentioned the ominously throbbing hit, “Novacane,” about dating a girl in dental school whose effect on him recalls a certain drug: “But girl I can’t feel my face, what are we smokin’ anyway?/ Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb/ Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb.”
Amazing record! Who IS this soulful genius??