Weak in the presence of beauty: Frank Ocean’s “Nostalgia, Ultra”

I haven’t heard an R&B album* this year as fulsome as Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra. This member of the Odd Future collective specializes in spare, slivery tracks in which admissions of swinish behavior and professions of love intermingle, uneasily. On one hand, Ocean can ask, “Is it really wrong that I want to be your baby daddy/Is that a love crime?” over a deflated piano melody and an outro sample of a pissed off woman letting her man have it; on the other, he’s begging for novocaine from a lady dentist to numb the pain of said swinishness. Sin and salvation — does it get more R&B than this? Speaking of which, “Hotel California” serves as the exoskeleton for a crucial track, which is appropriate: the Eagles were the original Wu-Tang Clan. He’s compelling in both modes though, especially when he stumbles upon a correlative for his restlessness as fetching as the MGMT sample on “Nature Calls,” a song in which he admits, “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden/We’ve been breathin’ so hard we both could use the oxygen.” Ray Parker, Jr. couldn’t have said it better. What Ocean could say better are doubts beyond whose skirt his hand is up: did the U.S. put the flag on the moon? Is marriage between man and woman? Liberal sentiments or conspiratorial drivel? He doesn’t yet have the personality or patina to make the ambiguity signify on its own.

Nostalgia, Ultra deserves any success it gets. A resourceful songwriter, Ocean already has Beyonce on his phone: the best ballad on 4 is Ocean’s “I Miss You.”¬† Should The-Dream and Ne-Yo ever falter, a career as songwriter for divas beckons (and he’s better at sin-and-salvation than Terius Nash). Let me anticipate criticism: after a raft of articles in the last six weeks about Tyler the Creator and the other Odd Future members, the kudos has turned Ocean into the Acceptable Face of an impolitic collective. I was going to review Tyler’s thing a couple of weeks ago but deleted the post after deciding his smut-rap was decidedly unfunny and clumsy. It’s all on Nostalgia, Ultra anyway.

* Technically not an album. The record company hasn’t officially released Nostalgia, Ultra.

 

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