Frank Ocean: The Lonny Breaux Collection & Nostalgia/ultra

I’ve been procrastinating r.e. the blog for several weeks, but this particular post has been in the works for several months. I’m telling myself the delay was a function of prudence. I had to wisely let the opinion mature before I could unleash it into cyberspace. Forethought is my M.O. I had to be sure that what I was going to write about R&B newcomer Frank Ocean represented a full and fair assessment of his work. Having let his music marinate now for quite some time, I think I’m finally ready to embark on this journey. And what a fascinating journey.

If it is not his greatest pursuit, authenticity is at the very least Frank Ocean’s best attribute as an artist. But before I justify that claim, I will provide a bit of background on the mysterious man himself. Ocean was until this year a virtually unknown performer, loosely affiliated with an offbeat hip-hop collective named Odd Future. Beknownst to few, however, Ocean had a plethora of unreleased music to his credit, mostly on one massive LP entitled “The Lonny Breaux Collection.”

Upon first listen, the whopping 62 song collection plays as an upbeat Friday night soundtrack, a fitting precursor to an evening out on the town. The individual tracks operate well together, each with cleverly produced club beats. But while the songs feel similar, reminiscent of contemporaneous radio hits, a closer listen reveals numerous tunes with their own original flavor. My favorites include a few shorter interludes, such as “Acura Integurl” and “Broken Pieces.” The former lays bare Ocean’s pensive lyrics above a catchy piano riff, and the track’s plainness works well. As Ocean describes a car ride with a potential love interest, I can imagine the song would translate well to a music video, but at 1:57 in length it’s a bit brief. Broken Pieces provides a nice compliment; a well-produced beat and sharp vocal harmonies grab my attention, but again at 1:17 the track is quite a tease.

Ocean’s songs on the album can be separated into two distinct categories: the slower, more instrumental offerings like Acura, and the club-influenced jams a la Broken Pieces. Other noteworthy entries for the former genre include Can’t Be The Last Time, J.O.B., Lonny, and No Bonnie. While Can’t Be The Last Time and Lonny are lyrically just standard love songs, J.O.B. and No Bonnie achieve a veritable degree of poignancy. “I catch zzzs at work now, so they’re gonna fire me soon,” begins Ocean on J.O.B, bemoaning the fact that his checks come “from the bank and not your heart.” Now, if “my job was only to love you,” Ocean claims, “there wouldn’t be no recession.” In the cliched world of R&B lyrics, in which male singers struggle to define their love beyond the use of three letter words, Ocean’s simple extended metaphor is a breath of fresh air (pardon the cliché!). No Bonnie – as in Bonnie and Clyde – follows Ocean’s own adaptation of the Hollywood storyline, as he reluctantly leaves the woman that he loves, unwilling to “risk her life for mine.” What Ocean is escaping from we don’t know, but we’re drawn into the possibility of him fleeing “the Feds.” Ocean makes us believe in his passion for the girl who he won’t let be “Bonnie.”

For his uptempo selections, my favorites are Time Machine, Read the Stars, When I’m Done, Dying For Your Love, Follow, and Quickly (also covered by John Legend). Riding his catchy and likable tunes, Ocean adeptly blasts his way through each song with a thoughtful confidence. Ocean’s vocal prowess is as evident in the faster-paced jams, and since I am biased towards talented singers, this attribute propels him squarely to the top of my iTunes playlists.

Nostalgia/ultra, Ocean’s better known and more recently recorded EP, is almost an entirely different animal. While Lonny Breaux is mostly original production, Nostalgia relies heavily on samples (including a memorable sample of The Eagles’ Hotel California); where Lonny boasts a hefty quantity of tracks, Nostalgia offers a tad more in quality. It should be noted that Def Jam signed Ocean two months ago and repackaged Nostalgia with entirely new cover art – the album is now available for purchase at most major music outlets. Nostalgia also features Ocean’s best known track, Novacane.

Most of all, Ocean’s personality comes to the forefront in songs such as Novacane and We All Try, perhaps the two standouts on the album. The former now receives regular radio play on  106.1 KMEL, our local hip-hop station, as the first officially released single. Novacane’s lyrics affirm Ocean’s status as an insightful – albeit eccentric – participant in twenty-first century American music culture and society. The song begins with Ocean describing a metaphorical state of numbness or unfeeling, admitting that he “can’t feel nothin’…even when I’m fuckin’, Viagra poppin’.”

Novacane certainly doesn’t shy away from mentioning drug usage – “I took a seat on a ice cold lawn, she handed me a ice blue bong, whatever” – much less apologizing for it. In the end, we are left wondering if the song is more about an experience of getting high with this particular girl (who apparently has a “stripper booty and a rack like wow”), or just getting high in general. What we do know is that Frank’s girl contributed to that sensational high; in the refrain at the end of the chorus – “love me now, when I’m gone love me none” – I also hear it as “love me numb,” as if Frank were pleading for love that will help him feel as he did before.

“We All Try” grew on me steadily, upon the recommendation of one of my friends. Of all his songs, We All Try could be heard as Frank Ocean Social Philosophy 101, and his provocative lyrics cannot be ignored. In the song, Ocean divulges his views on just about everything: God – “I believe there’s heaven,” politics – “I believe in war,” abortion – it’s her right to choose “but baby don’t abort,” gay marriage – it should be “between love and love.” Above all, Ocean urges us to “believe in something,” “try,”try to believe,” in whatever that something may be, and implies that passion can uplift while apathy denigrates. A powerful sentiment that hits home in the maelstrom that is the 21st century world. I look forward to discovering more about Frank Ocean soon; he has already made an indelible impression.

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