3600 Days Later: Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia, ULTRA”


Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape “nostalgia, ULTRA” turns 10-years-old. (Courtesy of Facebook)

A lot can change in a decade. In fact, if 2020 was any indication, a lot can change in one year, let alone 10. For some musical artists, 10 years can mean the difference between obscurity and superstardom. The music these artists produce is no less affected by time; a decade can drastically change the way a project is perceived, how it fits into an artist’s discography and what it says about the artist at the time of its creation. “3600 Days Later” is a series dedicated to considering these changes and more broadly reevaluating essential mixtapes, EPs and albums ten years after their release.

A decade ago, the then-23-year-old affiliate of hip-hop collective Odd Future self-released his debut project, “nostalgia, ULTRA.” Though he had been signed to Def Jam for a year by then, he had no real relationship with the label, so on Feb. 16, 2011, he took to Tumblr and put out the mixtape himself.

Ten years, three projects, two Grammys and one GTA radio station later, Frank Ocean is an indisputable icon of the 2010s. But in 2011, he was just a guy who had written songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Brandy, with nothing more than a few singles released under the name Frank Ocean. The success of “nostalgia, ULTRA” then is an even greater testament to the brilliance of the project that began Ocean’s ascent to superstardom.

Before becoming a star in his own right though, Ocean was crooning over samples of stars before him. The first proper track on “nostalgia, ULTRA” is “strawberry swing,” which sees Ocean sighing wistful meditations on mortality and a past relationship over a sample of Coldplay’s song of the same name. It’s the perfect introduction to a project that deals heavily in nostalgia, hence the title, and Coldplay liked it enough that Ocean was invited to open for the band on their 2012 European tour. Other artists were not so receptive to Ocean sampling their music – the Eagles’ drummer Don Henley threatened to sue Ocean if he continued to perform “american wedding,” Frank’s cover of the band’s classic track “Hotel California.” Such threats are a large reason why “nostalgia, ULTRA” never saw an official release.

If “strawberry swing” was a tease of the longing sentimentality Frank would later explore on songs like “Forrest Gump” and “White Ferrari,” other songs on the mixtape serve as proof that his pop sensibilities were with him from the start too. “songs for women” is the catchiest song on the project, with Frank jokingly complaining about his girl listening to Drake and Trey Songz instead of his own music. The project’s two singles, “novacane” and “swim good,” stray into far darker territory but retain the wit and accessibility that make “songs for women” shine. The songwriting range Ocean demonstrates on the mixtape is perhaps less surprising now that three more projects showing off that range have been released, but it’s no less impressive on “Endless” or “Blonde” than it is here, which goes to show that Ocean’s writing has only improved.

Further proof of Ocean’s improvement as a songwriter is the absence of songs like “nature feels” on his subsequent projects. A sample of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” the song contains the most cringe-inducing lines of Ocean’s discography (if you don’t believe me, read the lyrics) and remains the worst part of “nostalgia, ULTRA” 10 years later. Maybe it’s a good thing that Ocean has since eschewed such sample-heavy sounds in favor of production that more fully complements the hazy, lonely, nostalgic aesthetic that he encompasses from his music to the mystical persona he cultivates.

This is not to say that Ocean no longer uses samples or covers songs by his idols. “Channel Orange,” “Endless” and “Blonde” are all rich with samples of artists from Jimi Hendrix to Elliott Smith, and on what would’ve been Aaliyah’s 36th birthday, he dropped a cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love),” the Isley Brothers’ track that the late singer also covered. Ocean’s cover would appear a year later on “Endless, proof that the influence of his inspirations has remained even after he stopped using full samples the way he does on “nostalgia, ULTRA.”

The Frank Ocean the world knows today is clearly not the same person he was ten years ago; his discography is living proof of that fact. The debut mixtape that landed him on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s seminal collab album “Watch the Throne” (twice!) was the brainchild of a vulnerable and sensitive, but bright-eyed young man. Since then, Ocean has become decidedly more weary; it’s evident in his music that he’s had his heart broken again since 2011. But through repeated heartbreak, he has developed an emotional resilience that wasn’t there on “nostalgia, ULTRA.” Ocean has managed to develop his perspective on love, life and everything in between all while staying true to the sounds that drew the spotlight to him in the first place. 

Each of the three projects he has released since his first mixtape are wholly singular, but they’re all undeniably Frank Ocean. A listen through “nostalgia, ULTRA” is all it takes to see how the mixtape has been the blueprint for everything Ocean has done since. The lyricism, hazy electronic production, eclectic influences and even the pop culture references are all staples of Ocean’s music to this day, even as he takes these elements and pushes boundaries with them. As for the future, only time will tell where Ocean’s career will go; his next move is notoriously hard to predict. If the past ten years have been any indication, it’s doubtful his career will go anywhere but up. But, no matter the heights Frank Ocean reaches in the next decade, at the beginning of the 2010s, he was just a guy logging onto Tumblr to release his debut mixtape.