This was too good to be true: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the mostly teenaged skate-rat hip-hop collective who had been barraging their way toward the center of music discourse, now included a 23-year-old R&B singer by the name of Frank Ocean. His voice was bright and clear and fluid, yet too muscular and gritty to be waved off as saccharine — think Stevie Wonder with more gospel heft or Usher gone slightly off-kilter. On his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, available for free on his Tumblr, the interludes were named for old video games: “street fighter,” “metal gear solid,” “goldeneye,” “soul caliber.” He sang over instrumentals from Coldplay, MGMT, and (much to Don Henley’s chagrin) the Eagles, possessing them as his own with the confidence of peak Lil Wayne. The project’s radio single was a story-song about going to Coachella to see Jay-Z and ending up entangled with a woman who just wants to be numbed by sex and drugs. Dude alluded to Radiohead, Van Halen, and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” within less than a minute of audio, just before implying he deserved at least as much attention as Drake and Trey Songz.
Obviously, this was an understatement. Nostalgia, Ultra, released 10 years ago today, introduced one of the greatest, most influential figures in the modern music landscape. To hear it was to recognize a generational talent in waiting. I vividly remember laying on a hotel bed and marveling at these songs for the first time, thinking to myself that, yes, this was quite an improvement on what Drake and Trey Songz were doing at the time. It also felt distinct from the output of Ocean’s Odd Future peers.
The most prominent members of the Wolf Gang to date had been spearheading an abrasive and juvenile form of populism, with the chaotic energy of punk and hardcore and the provocative pranksterism of shock-rock. Ocean was making straight-up pop music, slightly skewed and seasoned with a taste for basic pop culture at its best. He was too idiosyncratic to pin down and too gifted to ignore. No one could have predicted where Ocean would steer his abilities on the following year’s masterful debut album Channel Orange, and certainly not on Blonde, his legitimately game-changing 2016 opus. The extent to which this person could thrill and confound listeners was not yet clear, but the boundless possibility was self-evident.
Who was Frank Ocean, anyway? Information started to trickle out. Born in Long Beach, Christopher “Lonny” Breaux had moved with his family to New Orleans at age 10. After Hurricane Katrina, he traveled back to the LA area to pursue a music career. By the late aughts he got work writing songs for the likes of Brandy (“1st & Love”), John Legend (“Quickly”), and Justin Bieber (“Bigger”). A friendship with Tricky Stewart, the producer behind hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” led to a deal with Def Jam. But when the company held Nostalgia, Ultra in limbo, Ocean opted to release it himself through Tumblr, under the banner of Odd Future — a fortuitous choice given the heat the Wolf Gang was generating at the time. A few weeks later, on his since-shuttered Twitter account, Ocean lashed out at his label: “fuck Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through. fuck em.”
Both the dreams and the talent were abundantly clear as soon as you pressed play on Nostalgia, Ultra. After some scene-setting sounds from tape decks and 8-bit video games — sounds central to the millennial childhood experience — the project begins in earnest with an adaptation of “Strawberry Swing,” the swirling reverie from Viva La Vida that stands as one of Coldplay’s finest. Immediately Ocean introduces a deep longing for the innocence of youth, when “every moment was so precious.” Just as quickly, grownup problems come jarringly into focus. A blaring alarm clock leads into “Novacane,” the aforementioned drug-fueled Coachella sex odyssey, in which Ocean is first figuratively and then literally intoxicated by a dental student who was at the festival to see Z-Trip: “She said she wanna be a dentist really badly/ She’s in school paying for tuition, doing porn in the Valley/ At least you workin’.” Produced by Stewart, this was deeply accessible mainstream R&B, but with lyrics that veered far from the norm.
Ditto “Swim Good,” another ostensible radio hit, this one about driving straight into the Pacific with someone else’s dead body in your trunk. Again, this scenario was not presented with a giddy horrorcore sneer the way young Eminem disciples Tyler or Earl might have done it. There was a real desperation in this fiction, a palpable ache that animated Ocean’s arching melodies. Not that Ocean was afraid to agitate his audience, be it by getting off hot takes about abortion and the moon landing on “We All Try” or grumbling that “all bitches want is Jodeci” on an interlude. The house-inflected soul of “Lovecrimes” later made for an ideal Afghan Whigs cover, while the awkward but charming “There Will Be Tears” toyed around with synth-pop with the wide-eyed curiosity Kanye West brought to 808s & Heartbreak (with sampled vocals from 808s guy Mr. Hudson). Ironically given Ocean’s aversion to straightforward radio bait and what he’d later reveal about his “bent” sexuality, the poppy and pointedly hetero “Songs For Women” — on which he claims to write music as a means of picking up women and flashes back on after-school flirtations geared around his record collection — still stands out as one of his finest tracks. The fact that he can write songs this bright and inviting but has rarely chosen to do so makes it feel like even more of a flex.
Ocean could not have chosen a more timely platform for Nostalgia, Ultra than Odd Future. Hype around the crew was accelerating at frightening velocity. Tyler, The Creator’s iconic “Yonkers” video came out less than a week beforehand. The same day Ocean dropped his mixtape, Tyler and his OFWGKTA marauders put on an incendiary performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. They were the hottest thing going, and Ocean inevitably benefitted from that. Yet it wasn’t long before the fervor surrounding him had arguably eclipsed public enthusiasm for the rest of Odd Future combined. By the end of 2011, he was a luxury brand to be flaunted on Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne (again with the Mr. Hudson). By 2013 he was performing at the Grammys. As the decade wore on, he became an elusive, almost mythic figure, a reputation only amplified by his meditative visual album Endless, his deconstructed masterpiece Blonde, and a smattering of one-off singles that reminded the world of his pop pedigree.
On the phenomenal deep cut “Dust,” Ocean sang, “And the best advice I got was keep writing, yeah/ And keep living, yeah/ And keep loving.” He has followed through on all of that, disappearing for long stretches and then returning with fascinating new chapters in his legacy. Every time he pops back up, it’s an event. But Frank Ocean would be a legend even if he’d stopped at Nostalgia, Ultra.