Since their Tumblr went live in February of 2010, the fashionable delinquents of Odd Future have released a steady stream of bizarre, disturbing, hilarious hip-hop in the spirit of “Slim Shady LP-”era Eminem. There’s an element of unpredictability and danger in Odd Future’s music missing from much of the club-directed hip-hop of the moment. But what distinguishes Odd Future from other intimidating rappers is the fact that the danger in their music is less “sleep is the cousin of death” gangster posturing than sociopathic slasher movie viscera delivered with skill and charisma far beyond their years.
At the same time, there are current trends in indie rock toward R&B, nostalgia and mutual admiration between the previously completely separate worlds of mainstream hip-hop and underground rock. Worlds have been colliding in surprising ways. U.K. producer James Blake uses both Aaliyah and Feist as source material, Chicago crooner How To Dress Well makes blurry music about memories that is somehow both indie pop and R&B and cultural pacesetter Kanye West himself had indie-folk hero Justin Vernon of Bon Iver appear on his album. Vernon, with his gritty falsetto and tortured romantic persona, is sort of a soul man trapped in a mountain man’s body.
All of this brings us to Frank Ocean and “Nostalgia/Ultra.” Ocean is a member of Odd Future, but replaces his contemporaries’ aggressive nihilism with sweetly crooned odes to women and memories past. As the mixtape’s description on the Odd Future Tumblr states, “Wolves Know How To Sing Too” (One of Odd Future’s quirks, along with a brand loyalty to streetwear company Supreme and a fetishization of the word “fuck,” is an insistence on Capitalizing Every Word).
However, this does not mean Ocean is out of place in the collective. He possesses a skewed sensibility that jives well with Odd Future’s dare-to-be-weird M.O. His take on loverman R&B doesn’t involve bottle service, but it does involve showing off his vinyl collection. His beats eschew the gleaming club-futurism of so much contemporary R&B for homemade head-nodders that sound like they were made between bong hits and video game sessions. He shares with How To Dress Well an obsession with hazy memory and using contemporary technology to look at the past. They’re side-by-side on the theoretical continuum between indie pop and R&B.
Ocean knows his indie, too: he turns MGMT’s “Electric Feel” into “Nature Feels,” where he turns the indie hit into a playful offer to do it outside. There’s also a skit based around Radiohead’s “National Anthem.” Ocean knows who his closest peers are as well. Vocally, he has much in common with smooth operators like Drake and Trey Songz, which he slyly, self-deprecatingly acknowledges on “Songs for Women,” singing, “She don’t even listen to the songs I record, but she be banging that Drake in my car.”
Frank Ocean is a perfect storm of zeitgeist: a guy in his early 20s making music that fuses the two trendiest genres about ‘90s nostalgia using his friends’ of-the-moment clout to release his work in the most contemporary fashion possible. Fortunately, as “Nature Feels” shows, Ocean is the best kind of Internet addict: even though he’s reliant on Tumblr and Twitter, he still manages to find time to go outside.