Nostalgia, Ultra: A Look At Frank Ocean's Vintage Intimacy
Frank Ocean has been chasing the title of his debut album since its release.
“Random, but sometimes I prefer my childhood over all this serious adulthood s**t,” Ocean says in his Boys Don’t Cry magazine interview with Lil B. Nostalgia isn’t just an aesthetic choice for Ocean but a reminder of his innocence, youth, and moments that have become distant memories with age. The longing is celebrated and shared, reminding fans of what it felt like when life was easier and slower.
Flash forward to a recently prolific 2017, fresh off the road, curating and creating a portion of the latest issue of i-D, shooting two covers and a 32-page photo essay dedicated to the creatives that inspired his dream-like summer tour, Ocean commences with a personal note on the value of saying “Yes.” There’s a sense of nostalgia even to the medium — a tangible magazine; a collection of photos that, although taken in the present, look like they were captured by a film camera; a letter from an artist to their fans. There’s both a comfort and discomfort to Ocean’s presentation — a homage to images and forms of storytelling of another time.
However, from the very beginning of his career, Ocean has shown a fondness for nostalgia. Aside from his debut mixtape having the word in its title (Nostalgia, Ultra) it also functions as a tape player, with Ocean abruptly pausing, reversing, and speeding up through the project’s 14 tracks. The staccato clicks are more than just auditory effect — they reflect a period of time that has come and gone but people inevitably long for, especially as they get older.
The yearning for yesterday has arguably accelerated in the age of the Internet, especially for those who grew up or were born in the ’90s. In a 2016 interview with E! News, San Diego State University psychology professor Dr. Jean Twenge explained how Millennials seem to have a stronger connection with the ’90s because it was “last time the economy was doing pretty well and the last time we weren’t worrying about terrorism.”
“Nostalgia is a powerful connection to a time when things at least seemed more innocent and simple,” Twenge said. “Many Millennials experienced a ’90s childhood of peace and prosperity, only to enter adulthood during the Great Recession…So going back to the ’90s seems especially appealing to them. It was a safe and prosperous time as well as being colored with the usual nostalgia of childhood.”
Ocean is a child of the ’90s. He alludes to video games (Soul Calibur, Metal Gear Solid), anime characters (Goku, Majin Buu), films (Forest Gump) and other pop culture figures from that time through his music, references that are subtle but mean so much to a fan base that gets them. But just as much as music plays a role in Ocean’s exploration of nostalgia so does aesthetically.
Channel Orange, Ocean’s debut album, begins with a click like its predecessor. A PlayStation has replaced the tape recorder as the system’s iconic introduction music plays. The video game console reads the disc and transitions to what sounds like the character select screen for Street Fighter before going into “Thinkin Bout You.” The clicks then function as a remote for the rest of the album, evoking the act of channel surfing. When “Fertilizer” begins with Ocean clicking through channels only to finally settle on one before clicking on again, the days of adolescent ennui come to mind, when time seemed infinite, responsibilities were practically non-existent, and one’s only concern was finding a show that looked fun and interesting.
From Channel Orange, Ocean seemingly disappeared. Then, toward the end of 2014, came “Memrise,” a new song presumed to be a part of the follow-up to Channel Orange (that ultimately wasn’t the case). Following that was the announcement that Ocean was going to release a new album and magazine, both presumably titled Boys Don’t Cry, in July 2015. Fans’ patience went unrewarded when neither the album or magazine was released. Patience turned into frustration as fans took to social media to express their displeasure with Ocean, with comments ranging from funny and lighthearted to offensive and problematic.
Almost a year later Ocean hinted at a possible second album with an image of a library card on his website. Labeled Boys Don’t Cry, the card featured numerous stamps with due dates, referencing the dates associated with the release of Channel Orange‘s successor. A month later came the release of a live video which showed Ocean woodworking while instrumentals played sporadically on loop. The video ended up being a promotion for a 45-minute visual album titled Endless, which was followed by the release of the Boys Don’t Cry magazine at four pop-up shops in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and London and, ultimately, the release of Ocean’s highly-anticipated second album, Blonde.
The entire roll out leading up to Blonde not only borrows on Ocean’s nostalgic tendencies but expands the idea of what that is in the Internet age. Many music and pop culture critics observed how Endless‘ live promo video was a commentary on the creative process and how the experience takes time. Watching the stagnant sterility of a seemingly empty bombed-out room come to life as Ocean sawed away at pieces of wood, carefully and considerately building a staircase, people across the Internet not only tuned in, but discussed each progression in real-time.
The spectacle played on expectations in an age where marketing plays an even more pivotal role in the unveiling of an artistic release. Was the music heard in the background snippets from Ocean’s forthcoming project? Was it just another master-level troll? Once Ocean finished building the staircase would that trigger the release of the album on streaming services? As viewers accepted that they would have to watch on to find out, there came an almost therapeutic ease, going on about our lives but checking in whenever a new sound presented itself in the live stream.
The act was more intimate than anything else Ocean had done before, aesthetically. Viewers were here with Ocean watching him work. Ocean wasn’t only providing a commentary on the creative process with the video but also explored the ritual of an album’s release in the Internet age. The experience felt so communal as if we were all watching Ocean and awaiting the release of his album in the same room.
Ocean then brought that experience to life with the release of his Boys Don’t Cry magazine. Once the locations of the pop-up shops were revealed fans flocked to them hoping to get a copy of the limited edition item. For those fortunate enough to get one, they were rewarded with not only images Ocean had taken from his travels across the world, but an interview with Lil B, a McDonald’s rap from Kanye West, a poem from Tyler, the Creator, and seemingly endless pieces to a collection of moments. One part of the magazine even requires readers to view the pages horizontally in order to read one of its many interviews. Ultimately, upon skimming through the magazine long enough you’re gifted with a CD version of Blonde.
A year later, Ocean introduced his Blonded Radio show, a program where he plays music he enjoys as well as unveils his own new music. Unlike the curated playlists that have become commonplace now, the radio show feels more free form. Sometimes you may hear an interview between Ocean and Jay-Z spliced in between songs; sometimes you may hear a new Ocean track and not even realize it’s new well after the fact. The show functions as a fleeting experience which is a part of its charm, enticing listeners to listen again just in case they may have missed something.
Ocean has built a vintage fit for the jet age. But the more he’s had the opportunity to explore himself creatively the more he’s expanded how nostalgia can also be experienced, redefining it in a way that both those that grew up pre and post Internet can celebrate and enjoy.