By Ryan Croke
Frank Ocean, a popular R&B artist, and one of the most critically acclaimed figures in music in the 21st century, released his debut mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA. to the world on February 16, 2011. It is still available for free download, and I will be sure to place a link you can visit to download the project for yourself down below. Ocean is one of my favorite artists of all time, and since the 10th anniversary of his debut just passed, I thought what better way to celebrate than to look at the superstar’s first mixtape and review it?
The album has a retro feel to it, and although it is listed at 14 tracks, there are 4 interludes, each titled with a different nostalgic video game title. Most of these interludes are the audio of a cassette tape being changed before the next song begins, which adds to the dated feel the album has all the way through. I am not going to cover the interludes, as there isn’t anything that I can say about them. They serve no purpose only to add to the nostalgic factor that is already a common theme of the project. Throughout the mixtape, Ocean samples many popular hits from years past, and also frequently titles his songs with the same title as the song he is sampling. That’s all you need to know before listening to the project, so let’s begin.
The first song of the album, Strawberry Swing, gets the album off to a great start. Sampling the 2008 song from Coldplay with the same title, Ocean recalls the childhood experiences he had with a friend. He delves into the nostalgic theme the mixtape has right away, and the lyrics express this perfectly. The instrumental from the Coldplay version of the song has a playful, joyous, calming feel to it, and it is great to listen to. Combining this with Frank’s impressive vocals makes for a great opening track that sets the tone for what’s to come.
The second song, Novacane, is the most popular from the album, as it was one of two tracks that were commercially released, the other being Swim Good. The title is a play on the drug Novocain that is commonly used by dentists to numb the patient before executing painful procedures. The numbing feeling the drug has on its patients is depicted through the lyrics, and the instrumental of the song also has a numbing feel. The lyrics tell a story of Frank’s relationship with a girl in dental school, and while the first verse tells the origins of the relationship, the second plays out as more of a love letter to his significant other. The lyrics on this album are somewhat basic, and not too deep, but they do tell a story effectively. It’s easy to understand what Ocean is referencing in his music on this project, and I believe that to be a major part of its success a decade ago. Novacane is another great track early in the mixtape.
The third song on the mixtape is We All Try. The beginning seconds of the song features a soft crackling sound that is intentionally added to add to the nostalgic feel of the project. In this song, Ocean shows what he does and does not believe in, but most of all, he affirms that he believes in humanity and that everyone does their best to be good people, although they do make mistakes. One of the shorter songs, We All Try gets its message across quickly yet effectively. This album, while not that lyrically impressive on a deeper level, is one of the most sonically pleasing to me, and We All Try is a prime example of this.
The fourth song on nostalgia, ULTRA. is Songs for Women. Here, Frank explains his conflicted feelings about women. He knows that making music gives him an edge when it comes to finding a girl, but he also knows that the time and effort that are necessary when it comes to making music inhibits his ability to spend time with someone he may love. It’s a struggle for Frank, but he manages. This is one of the few songs that are not sampled, although it sounds familiar. The beat is produced by Happy Perez. Songs for Women is not a bad song by any means, but it doesn’t measure up to the three songs that precede it.
Song five, Lovecrimes, features lyrics about relationships and the various things that can come out of them. The lyrics tell a story of Frank’s obsession with a girl. The repetition of the word “murder” throughout the song implies that Frank and the woman had to get an abortion, especially since Frank says, “Is it really wrong that I want to be the baby daddy?” Another song where there is little to no lyrical substance, I can’t go any more in-depth than I already have. This song, again, is not as strong as the first three, and I don’t believe it to be better than Songs for Women either. There is little lyrical substance anywhere on this album, but nowhere is this more apparent than on Lovecrimes, and because of this, it’s one of the weaker songs on the debut from Ocean.
The next song, There Will Be Tears, samples a song by Mr. Hudson with the same title. Mr. Hudson also has vocals at the beginning of the song, and they do accompany Frank’s voice pretty well. The soft guitar riff that plays behind Ocean’s masterful vocal manipulation is a pleasure to listen to. The song’s lyrics feature Frank mourning the loss of his late grandfather, the only father figure he had in life as his real dad abandoned him. Frank also tells of the anguish he feels because of his father’s absence. This song is nothing special, although it does have some form of lyrical depth to it.
The seventh song from the project is Swim Good, the second song from the mixtape that was commercially released. This song sounds heavily influenced by Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak album released in 2008, and it even references the West album in one of the lyrics. It features dark and sad lyrics and tells the tale of heartbreak, and the depressing feeling of being alone that Frank is going through. After a short stint of relatively weaker songs, Swim Good is a refreshing return to form and is another favorite of mine from this mixtape. It features what may be the deepest lyrics on the entire album, and I’m certainly not complaining.
Dust, song number eight from the project, is a classic Ocean love song. It features a soft yet beautiful instrumental over lyrics that tell of Frank moving on from his past mistakes and accepting who he is and the relationship he is now in. Another short song, there isn’t much more to say about the song, although it does feature some deeper lyrics than other songs that have preceded it.
Song 9, American Wedding, samples the hit Hotel California by the Eagles. Standing at a hefty 7 minutes in length, American Wedding is the climax of the album. The song caused quite the controversy, as the Eagles demanded to be paid by Ocean for every time he performed the song. Since the mixtape was free, technically the copyright laws did not have to be obeyed. However, the following and popularity the mixtape had been able to obtain led the Eagles to want compensation for every time the R&B singer performed the track. Intended to be the “new vision” of Hotel California, the song is a highlight for me. It is a little unoriginal, but the familiarity of the instrumental adds something to the track. Featuring vocals from James Fauntleroy on the outro, American Wedding is a standout track from the 2011 project.
The closer to the album, Nature Feels, features a sample of Electric Feel by MGMT. The production is the star here, and I can’t give much credit to Ocean for using a beat that isn’t his and making a good song. The song is good, but the lyrics are very repetitive and basic. This is another prime example of a song that is sonically pleasing, but the lyrics are not deep whatsoever.
Since the project is only ten songs, I thought it would be fun to rank the songs from worst to best as well.
My ranking of the songs on nostalgia, ULTRA. (1 being the best, 10 being the worst, obviously):
- Strawberry Swing
- We All Try
- Swim Good
- American Wedding
- There Will Be Tears
- Songs for Women
- Nature Feels
All in all, nostalgia, ULTRA. is an incredibly strong album, especially for a free debut mixtape. I don’t love it as much as I do Blonde or channel ORANGE, his two commercial albums, but it must be taken with a grain of salt because it’s a debut project. As a mixtape, I give it a 10/10, incredibly impressive from a free debut mixtape. The nostalgic theme the album has is accurately portrayed throughout, and it is certainly a pleasure to listen to. Unfortunately, it lacks the lyrical depth necessary to be rated as high as an actual album. The vocal manipulation abilities Frank possesses are on full display here, but his songwriting was not quite there yet. My final rating for nostalgia, ULTRA. is an 8/10.