By Steven Hyden March 15, 2011
Much like the ’80s BMW on the cover of his debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra, gifted singer-songwriter Frank Ocean apparently is out of touch with the times. That doesn’t jibe with his résumé, a seemingly impeccable combination of mainstream R&B credentials (he’s co-written songs for John Legend and Justin Bieber) and underground cool (he’s associated with outlaw hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All). But after going nowhere as a solo artist signed to Island Def Jam, Ocean decided to post Nostalgia, Ultra as a free download last month. Hearing the record, it’s no shock that Ocean’s label didn’t know what to do with him. Nostalgia is a moody, frequently downbeat character study, a sort of musical version of the Reagan-era confessional Less Than Zero.
Ocean presents himself as a troubled guy in his early 20s who does cocaine for breakfast (as he sings over an aestheticized shuffle supplied by superstar producer Tricky Stewart on “Novacane”) and can’t decide whether to rue or revel in his conflicted feelings about women (the hit-single-in-waiting “Songs For Women”). Sampling world-class sulkers like Coldplay and Radiohead, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s queasy dissection of marriage, Eyes Wide Shut, Ocean saves his boldest move for the 7-minute epic “American Wedding,” fantasizing about his nuptials as the ultimate hymn of coke-addled self-absorption, The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” plays out in its entirety. Like the rest of Nostalgia, it’s dark, playful, a little tasteless, and absolutely riveting.