For years, lothario types have dominated R&B, play-acting all vulnerable and boo-hoo when it serves them but turning hypersexual and swaggy with the quickness. Los Angelino and Odd Future associate Frank Ocean is the inverse of this dichotomy, making anti-R&B R&B. Nostalgia/Ultra is Ocean’s independently released debut, a 14-track opus dedicated to the existential identity crises and romantic qualms that chase youth. Don’t let the Odd Future link sway you ― this isn’t pent up, aggro-noise. Instead, Nostalgia/Ultra is pulsing and expansive, a soundtrack to driving the Pacific Coast highway as the sun sinks or breaking/making up with your love. Ocean’s voice is cherubic, like The-Dream, but as one prominent music journalist noted, his delivery is slightly off-kilter, like Bilal.
Major label sheen, courtesy of producers Tricky and Midi Mafia, oozes off Nostalgia, recorded after Ocean ― a songwriter who has scripted tracks for Bieber and Brandy ― signed to Island Def Jam. But it’s his alt sensibilities that prove musically intuitive (and a corporate conundrum, hence the .zip and share release). There’s no reason “Novocane,” a concept piece about smoking numbing pot with a porn star/dental student at Coachella, dotted with fatty squelches of bass, and “Lovecrimes” shouldn’t chart. “We All Try” straddles forlorn and tender, and “Swim Good” is just beyond ― all crisp drums and claps, ghostly backing vocals, death organs and redolent lyrics. There’s stuff here about growing up fatherless and sampled strains of Coldplay, Radiohead, MGMT and the Eagles. Infinitely more earnest than Kid Cudi’s forced emo, Nostalgia is desolate, thumping and sophisticated, not to mention the album you’ll play all summer.