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On February 16, 2011 a young songwriter and aspiring artist uploaded a 14-track mixtape entitled nostalgia, ULTRA for the world to download – for free of course – from Tumblr. Having joined the hip hop collective Odd Future the year before, Frank Ocean’s self-released solo endeavour quickly caught the attention of music critics and fans across the globe and marked the starting point of one of the last decade’s most celebrated and influential forces in music.
One thing can be said for certain about Frank Ocean fans – they are patient. Known for being a perfectionist, Frank has time after time left fans hanging after announcing or teasing the release of projects that later ended up either being pushed back into an unforeseeable future or never seeing the light of day at all. To date, only two albums – channel ORANGE and Blond – are widely available to listeners across streaming services.
Although it could be argued that there isn’t such a thing as an underrated Frank Ocean song, we took a deep dive into the catalogue to celebrate nostalgia, ULTRA’s 10th anniversary and dug out 11 songs we think deserves an extra listen.
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Even though the nostalgia, ULTRA tracks ‘Novacane’ and ‘Swim Good’ were re-released as singles in 2011 by Def Jam, Frank Ocean’s record label at the time, the majority of the tape has officially remained unreleased, supposedly due to the quite extensive use of uncleared samples. Now we say samples, but calling them samples could probably be seen as taking liberties at times. ‘Nature Feels’, the closing track of the mixtape, sees Frank “borrowing” the entire MGMT tack ‘Electric Feel’ and while the only changes made are to the lyrics, Frank still manages to make the track completely his own.
Often praised for his multi-layered interpretable lyrics, Frank is as blunt as one can be on ‘Nature Feels’ when he opens with the line “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden”. The song is a direct, raw and honest story of passion and desire, with all the cards laid out on the table from the very start of the song.
After a long four and a bit years wait for a follow-up to channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean’s universally-praised debut album, a 45-minute-long visual concept album entitled Endless was released exclusively via Apple Music in August 2016. The release fulfilled Frank’s recording agreement with his label Def Jam and enabled him to independently release his second studio album, Blond, the next day. Undoubtedly overshadowed by the success of Blond, Endless has also been cursed by the idea of being a collection of songs that didn’t make the album “proper”.
If the track ‘Alabama’ was placed in the middle of Blond it would fit in seamlessly with Frank’s uniquely phrased rap-soul-hybrid flow transitioning into a fleeting guest appearance by singer Sampha. It would be hard to argue that Endless is anything other than an unconventional album and placing it in a genre is next to impossible, but ‘Alabama’ is a prime example of the album’s moments of avant-garde R&B excellence, making it a masterpiece in its own right.
‘White (feat. Frank Ocean)’
Frank Ocean joined the influential alternative hip hop collective Odd Future at the height of their success and although Frank frequently appears on writer and production credits, much of their recorded material glares with his absence as an artist. ‘White’, from the collective’s debut (and only) studio album The OF Tape Vol. 2, is a rare exception. In the company of the more upbeat and at times even aggressive tracks on the album, ‘White’ stands out as a sophisticated reflection on the meaning of life, with lyrics being beautifully deep and strangely surreal all at once. After Frank has finished his dreamlike monologue with coming to the conclusion that one day we will “all fade to grey”, the track transitions into a dazzling yet mellow trumpet solo, a melody that was later reused in the interlude with the same name on channel ORANGE.
‘We All Try’
Being one of the few tracks on nostalgia, ULTRA without samples, it is surprising that ‘We All Try’ never came to be officially released. The track opens with a mellow guitar melody that is neither hopeful nor pessimistic: a musical dichotomy in a sense, that perfectly sets the scene for the remainder of the song. With lyrical lines such as “I know we sin but I do believe we try”, the track offers hope to someone, or maybe even anyone, who has “lost all faith”. Throughout the track Frank urges us all to “believe in something”, a message that feels personal, intimate and sincere when delivered through his distinctively delicate and vulnerable vocals.
What does a song from channel ORANGE do on a list of underrated Frank Ocean songs one could ask? Being one of the least played tracks from the album, the lack of attention in comparison to the surrounding songs is simply what earns ‘Sierra Leone’ its status as underrated. The track is underpinned by a muffled heartbeat-like drumbeat and its pockets of lush strings, glittering arpeggios and atmospheric choirs create an impression of being caught in dreamlike state. Lyrically the track sees Frank painting us a story of an unwanted pregnancy, but the track is also a study in recklessness, facing up to the consequences of our actions and about growing up.
After the release of Blond, Frank Ocean released a number of singles that premiered on his Apple Music 1 radio show blonded RADIO. The track ‘Lens’ could first be heard during the show’s fourth episode, when it was played on loop for an hour. Initially accompanied by minimalistic keys and sporadic strings, Frank’s autotuned vocals are vulnerably urgent and it almost feels like a relief when they are joined by steadily beating percussion about halfway through the song. Transitioning the lister out of subdued modesty, the lyrics are intimately personal, speaking both about having to hide your true feelings from the world and about coming to terms with being watched, and perhaps even judged, by other people.
‘Slide On Me’
A song about sliding in and out of a relationship, ‘Slide On Me’ starts off with a carefully tripping acoustic guitar to accompany Frank Ocean’s almost monotone monologue-style rapping. The track moves fluidly in and out of its more energetic and melodic 'chorus' parts, but the production remains minimal, with the guitar only being joined by percussion and a looming synth bass. In its final moments, the bass expands rapidly and takes over the entire soundscape, pushing the listener into the next track. Like most songs on Endless, ‘Slide On Me’ sounds like it is part of a bigger picture and it's almost hard to tell where one track begins and the other ends. It could be argued that the song reaches its full potential only when heard in the musical context of the rest of the album, but ‘Slide On Me’ still deserves to be elevated and celebrated for its individual qualities as a great song.
Cleverly built around a short and simple piano riff on loop, ‘Lovecrimes’ is inherently catchy despite the song’s lyrics being soaked in serious soberness. Appearing halfway through nostalgia, ULTRA, it may not come as a surprise that Frank Ocean has, once again, centred a song around a generously-sized sample. Heard throughout the track is Nicole Kidman’s famous Women vs Men monologue from the Stanley Kubrick-directed film Eyes Wide Shut. As the monologue intensifies, Frank’s looped piano riff slows down, eventually griding to a halt in order to let the monologue fully culminate in a crescendo of emotions. Frank’s lyrics have been interpreted to be about abortion, but with the monologue being about the dynamic between a man and a woman and their extramarital desires and affairs, there are other layers of meaning that could be read into ‘Lovecrimes’, making the song another prime example of Frank’s skills as a multifaceted lyricist.
Another single release having come out of the blonded RADIO show, ‘Biking (Solo)’ has been slightly overshadowed by the first released version of the song featuring JAY-Z and Tyler, The Creator. With a more stripped back production than the former, starting with a solitary guitar and a gently-expanding soundscape throughout the track, the solo version of the song leaves Frank Ocean exposed with all spotlights shining brightly in his direction at the centre of the stage. The track is a prime example of Frank mastering the art of both rapping and singing and, as with many other tracks from the more recent years of his career, they effortlessly inhabit the same space.
With cars appearing as a reoccurring theme throughout his career (‘Swim Good’, ‘White Ferrari’ and on the cover of nostalgia,ULTRA to name a few examples), ‘Biking’ sees Frank using riding a bike as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs and, perhaps lightly tinted in youthful naivety, its simplicity almost feels more relatable and clear.
Made available as an officially-unreleased single prior to the appearance of nostalgia, ULTRA, ‘Acura Integurl’ is one of Frank Ocean’s most vulnerable and intimate ballads. The sonically simple piano accompaniament almost suggests that the track was released in an unfinished demo version, but that does in no way make the song feel unfinished. With the song title being a reference to Frank’s 1991 Honda Acura Integra and the lines “I’m not just in it for the ride, in it for the ride” echoing in the song’s chorus, Frank is once again using travelling, this time in the more familiar car, to describe interpersonal complexities.
‘Dear April (Side A – Acoustic)’
Initially only released as a 7” vinyl, the acoustic version of the song ‘Dear April’ was made available on streaming services in 2020, becoming the first release post-Frank Ocean’s final run of blonded RADIO shows. The acoustic version is a pure, dreamy and heartfelt ballad, but the song also gives away subtle hints of it having the potential to take a whole other shape and from. The so-far vinyl exclusive Justice remix, premiered at Frank’s PrEP+ club night in 2019, stands out as a unique experiment alongside everything else in the Frank Ocean discography, but triggers all the channels of excitement and anticipation of what could be next. With the new releases having prompted rumours and discussions about the potential release of a new album, Frank Ocean has us hooked waiting patiently on the edges of our seats once again.
More about: frank ocean