This week sees the return of a popular Heave feature, the Seven-Day Listen. Each week, Dominick Mayer will listen to one album every day for a week straight and see what he finds. This week: Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA.
“Novacane” inhabits some of that world-weary, guy-getting-laid-too-much territory as The Weeknd’s work, but somehow it’s not as uncomfortable here, just because Ocean isn’t quite so angry, nor as self-pitying as Kid Cudi at his navel-gazing worst. “Songs For Women” has a pretty incredible bridge, with the “We can go to my house/After school, after school/Because my dad won’t be home till/After late, after late.” The sentiment is there, too, with him just making songs for women to get himself laid and wanting them to get down with his music instead of all the other big-ticket R&B out there. In general, to echo early the most popular sentiments about this album, this has really put a lot of the fun and sex back into R&B. Yeah, I’m aware it’s one of music’s most blatantly sexual genres, but so much is in the vein of a man belting to the rafters about how he either misses his girl or has arrived to fuck someone else’s. Ocean, by contrast, is both a lothario and bemused at his status as such.
I thought about waiting longer to dig into the notable “cover” tracks on the mixtape, but I’m continually struck by “American Wedding,” which bites the melody from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and uses it to tell a tale of a shotgun wedding done out of nothing more than reckless lust. The eerie melody takes on a more melancholic color, and it works, especially for a story that’s at once a celebration and critique of reckless youth, filtered through a song that oozes hazy, pained nostalgia in so many ways. Then, there’s “Strawberry Swing.” Initially, I chose this mixtape for the first Seven Day Listen because I’d mostly slept on it, except for Ocean’s quasi-cover of a fairly mediocre cut from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, which is easily one of the best songs put out in 2011. Like “American Wedding,” it’s a dark tale, this time about the end of the world, but the dreamy tune conjures images of driving just to drive along a coastline somewhere, feet kicked up on the dash, because sometimes my mental monologue sounds like a Kenny Chesney song, I guess.
Because I believe in the twin virtues of full disclosure and candor here at Heave, I feel like I must concede that because I commenced New Year’s weekend festivities early, my notes for the third day of listening came to me courtesy of partial inebriation, and as such I will transcribe them as written. “That one song…kinda sex music. The whole thing really. Listening to this on the train makes everything at least 25% sexier. ‘Strawberry Swing’ is still really great.” To be fair, all valid points.
New Year’s, and therefore an inability to spin the record. For an idea of what would’ve been here, see day three.
Closing track “Nature Feels” doesn’t quite feel like it gels with the rest of the tape in some ways, and that’s not just because the short noise skit beforehand creates separation. Considering how laconic (and that’s not an insult) so much of the production is here, having the tape close with an MGMT sample seems a bit asymmetrical. It’s also one of a few moments where Ocean’s being into himself gets a little too blunt; a song about outdoor sex is fine until it gets so on-the-nose (“I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden”) that it doesn’t fit with a lot of the clever double entendres that came before.
In conjunction with all the listens I’ve given nostalgia, ULTRA this week, there’s also been quite a bit of Watch The Throne peppered in as well. In both cases, Ocean’s distinctive voice gives sometimes generic material an extra lift, which is arguably a pretty definitive mark of a real talent. His voice is just a tiny bit unusual, just enough to really set him apart in a way that lingers in a manner that most of his current peers can’t touch. Even on a track like “We All Try,” which veers between an earnest purpose and a hokey collection of platitudes, Ocean carries himself with a conviction that’s pretty remarkable. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he puts out a proper full-length, with what’ll undoubtedly be a murderer’s row of A-list producers given his past year, and whether he can really break through. It’d be quite a thing to see.