Frank Ocean's 'Nostalgia, Ultra' Came Out 10 Years Ago Today

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Looking back at Frank Ocean's debut mixtape.
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…
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