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Music Review: Frank Ocean's solo debut "Nostalgia, Ultra"

In my quest to find new, awesome music, I bring you Frank Ocean's solo mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. If this is the state of modern day Hip-Hop/R&B, then I'm on board. Ocean is a member of the L.A.-based collective Odd Future Wolfpack, and while I haven't heard any of their stuff, I am pretty familiar with another Odd Future member, Tyler the Creator. Seems like what these guys are all going for is a new strain of R&B less beat-focused and more driven by lyrics that explore the dark corners of the subconscious. I actually just heard a reviewer refer to Ocean and others of his ilk as "PBR&B" or R&B for hipsters...a moniker that somehow seems quite apt.

Overall, Ocean's album is a smooth, well-produced (by him) collection of introspective tracks, mostly dealing with the vagaries of life as a young adult in this world: failed relationships, alienation, and abandonment. He's definitely ordering off the menu from the typical Hip-Hop diet of violence, drug-slinging, and indiscriminate sex, and it's a nice change. The album features loads of samples, notably from MGMT, Coldplay, The Eagles, Michael Jackson, and reportedly a handful of other musicians. That explains almost all of these tracks have that "I've heard this somewhere before" quality...but not when it comes to the lyrics. To me, that's where Ocean really shines.

Interspersed here and there with bite-sized segments (not quite skits) featuring the sound of a tape deck clicking, and various muffled conversations, the effect is an intelligent group of tracks that demands attention and provokes thoughts in its listeners and bears listening to repeatedly. Over the past two days I've played the album no less than six times all the way through and I can't find a serious weakspot. This is definietly an album you can play all the way through, but here are a few hotspots:

1.) Strawberry Swing -- Ocean covers Coldplay's Strawberry Swing. Not being a Coldplay guy, I can't really say which version is better. But I like Ocean's voice over the sentimental Coldplay-style riff.

2.) Novacane -- Here's where the album really starts to get interesting. A spooky, almost-nightmarish track about disorientation; it's about trying to numb one's feelings with drugs and a fling with a crazy-sexy vixen and getting in too deep. Thumping beat and a dark, tunneling synth make this one of the more spine-tingling tracks and a sweet showcase of Ocean's lyrisicm. Also includes one of at least two references to Stanley Kubrik on the album.

3.) We all try -- Right on the back of Novocane is this thought-provoking track in which Ocean express his support for same-sex marriage "marriage isn't between a man and woman, but between love and love," and his belief--if not in a higher power--then in the human race itself. Once again, Ocean's lyrics demand attention and yield insight. Shuffling beat and light, subdued synth action make this a very mellow track.

4.) Songs for women -- In my mind, the best track on this album. More upbeat and with a catchier hook than most of these tracks. More of a return to classic Hip-Hop, as Ocean essentially debates whether or not he sings songs to get chicks...either way, he gets them. This track sold me the album...not that I had to buy it.

Damn, that's four tracks and we're not even through the first half of the album. At this point I'm pretty sure I could gush for a paragraph about each one of these tracks. Maybe I'm going through over-exposure syndrome, whose symptoms include listening to an album so many times in two days that it just becomes great ("Dude...this is the best album ever!")...but I don't think so.

Just so I'm not guilty of giving Ocean a free pass...this album has what I consider to be a common problem inherent in this kind of forward-thinking, intelligent R&B, of which Kanye West's Dark Fantasy is a great example. That problem is, quite simply, there's really nothing here musically that stays with you after you turn the album off, and certainly nothing that makes you want to dance. Lyrically, this album is loaded with memorable lines and great observations on life, but if what you want is hard-hitting bass, and hooks that you'll be humming as you walk down the're looking in the wrong place. There's nothing here that makes you sit up and say, "Whoa...that's my song!"

Having provided that disclaimer...I'm definitely into this album and can't wait to see what else Ocean comes out with in the near future.


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