Too Cool For Swag: Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean is one of the cool kids in the room because he can sing, but moreso because he’s got a sense of humor about himself. There is unintentional comedy all over the radio dial: the ridiculous line to beat in my house remains Akon‘s “I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful!” And there’s plenty of unfunny, forced hamminess too: just give the mutants in LMFAO a few seconds to tell you how much fun they’re having. “Novacane” caught my attention when I heard it on the radio a few weeks ago: amidst a chorus of Chris Browns and Pitbulls, a kid crooning “She said she wanna be a dentist really badddd” is a voice of, if not reason, then at the very least self-awareness.

Ocean, on “Novacane” and throughout the rest of Nostalgia, Ultra, sounds like Usher minus the alpha male sex god swagger. He’s not swooping girls up: he can’t even get them to listen to his Radiohead tapes. But Ocean’s not holed up in his room either: it may be seen as cheating, as he notes on “Songs for Women,” but it’s the only game in town. And while he could go the route of Drake or Trey Songz (the boys his love interest in “Songs for Women” trades his own songs in for), Ocean’s less interested in chest-thumping or Don Juan Demarco posturing. It’s easy (almost too easy, sadly) to imagine Chris Brown singing on a track called “Lovecrimes,” but I doubt he’d work samples of Nicole Kidman railing against the double standards in the bedroom for men and women into the backdrop of the single. Ocean’s presence in Odd Future further complicates the homophobic tag placed on the collective’s output: witness his belief in marriage as “love and love” rather than “man and woman” in “I Try.”  Nostalgia‘s worldview seems downright progressive when placed next to Goblin.

And the claims that Odd Future sounds best when framed as the sounds of a young man’s mind grapes can be applied to Ocean’s work, only without having to navigate the minefield of Tyler and Earl Sweatshirt’s darker thoughts. Nostalgia finds a twentysomething taking stock of his formative years. The specific nostalgia traced throughout the record may be directed at the days when music seemed less like a business and more like a fun way to get girls to notice him: Ocean, despite being born in 1987, has spent the past few years writing songs for Bieber, Beyonce, and many other established acts. Nostalgia is framed by short clips of someone (presumably Ocean) shuffling between tapes, trying out different sounds and lines. The finished product isn’t polished, but it’s not completely spontaneous either: Ocean’s decision to release said finished product via Tumblr when he felt that his label wasn’t promoting it, that was more spontaneous.

I’m not in love with every song on Nostalgia — “American Wedding,” for instance, is the sort of undercooked social commentary one might expect from a 23 year-old — but I am charmed by the whole thing, enough that I’ve listened to it the whole way through at least a dozen times in the past week. “Songs for Women” is one of my current favorite songs: it’s a clear example of the way Ocean pulls off a catchy-but-kind-of-generic radio-friendly single about his troubles with the ladies. The song’s structure covers familiar ground — I write songs for women / I don’t write songs for women / all I write is love songs, no doy — and the complaints about heartbreak won’t have you reaching for the violins, but it’s nonetheless impressive for the way it displays how easy it would be for Ocean to trot out bland hit after hit. He’s a student of songwriting, but he’d rather sing about how his heart’s not in it instead of collecting a paycheck when his heart’s not in it.

“Swim Good,” on the other hand, leaves the terrain of love songs behind to focus on self-affirmation in the wake of heartbreak. The odd imagery of the first verse — Ocean, dressed to the nines, driving around with a Lincoln Towncar trunk full of bleeding, broken hearts — helps speed the song quickly enough to the chorus that we’re too busy singing along to break down the slapdash metaphors (“We’re swimming, we’re driving, we’re…what are we doing? Who cares, here comes verse two.”). And the way Ocean shoehorns the word “funeral” into his chorus — “And I got this black suit on / Rollin’ around like I’m ready for a funa- / rul” — still amuses me to no end.

Ocean’s outright co-opting of other songs — MGMT’s “Electric Feel” on “Nature Feels”; “Hotel California” on “American Wedding” — reflects what’s become an early rite of passage for young MCs and a savvy career move popular among some Top 40 R&B hopefuls: here I’m thinking of the use of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” on the recent Jason Derulo hit, “Don’t Wanna Go Home.” Ocean’s use of familiar hits seems more in line with the MC camp: they’re fun experiments in revision, not Frankensteinian creations born of the washed-up hands of an R&B Kid Rock wannabe (Rock, remember, is the dude who thought people weren’t already sick of hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio). Ocean amps up the already-pretty-sexual “Electric Feel” by declaring “I’ve been waiting to fuck you in the garden,” and he chooses to move completely away from the lyrical content of “Hotel California” while acknowledging the strength of the original song’s breakdown (which Ocean does not sing over, choosing instead to claim it as the moment to strand the imagery of “American Wedding” in time). I’m reminded of El-P’s description of the early days where he “stole part of a track and started to rap (watch the growth)”: though these exercises, in addition to showing off Ocean’s songwriting development, also demonstrate potential avenues of expansion for the backdrop of radio-friendly croonings into the sounds emanating from other genres across the dial.

Despite the emphasis on lost love and disappointment in many of its songs, Ocean is too busy being catchy to wallow in misery. Nostalgia, Ultra is like what might have happened if Bon Iver holed up with videocassettes of late 90’s Total Request Live instead of whatever he spent his time with in that cabin. In a good way.

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