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The Zen soul of Frank Ocean: An Odd Future affiliate goes smooth

March 1, 2011 |  4:38 pm

Tumblr_lgqftld6L21qdrz3yo1_500 Frank Ocean wants you to know that he does not make straight-up R&B. According to his Twitter feed, he believes that no artist can be hemmed into a single genre. He also believes in the power of Zen and Real Food Daily. He hasn't yet endorsed the latter's nachos, but he's probably a fan. The kid seems to have things figured out.

At least, that's the impression one gleans from the crushed velvet crooning and bedroom funkadelia offered on his debut, "Nostalgia, Ultra." And it's true that the line between hip-hop and R&B has been permanently blurry since Sean Combs started slapping James Brown breaks onto Mary J. Blige's mezzo-soprano -- which partially explains why erstwhile Puff Daddy has endorsed the L.A.-based Ocean. 

But you'd be forgiven for mistaking the singer's slippery soul for one of the finest R&B debuts in recent memory. Ocean creates a next-generation R&B/rap hybrid that builds on the backs of the giants: R. Kelly, the Neptunes and Kanye West, and the older soul gods he'd probably never even enumerate.

In the way in which it balances rock, soul, and funk, it almost recalls a young Shuggie Otis. A Radiohead sample plays on an interlude, while Ocean laces the Eagles' "Hotel California" and MGMT with his West Coast Wolf Gang swagger. Yet the most encouraging part of the record is the revelation of Ocean's immediate and fully defined personality.

In an R&B world glutted with faceless pitch-corrected clones, Ocean has a storytelling skill that will take him far. On "Songs for Women," he admits that he never could play the guitar like Van Halen, while spinning a tender-hearted but wry ode to a high school love. Then he admits that he sings songs to get at women. While on "Novacane," he tells a story of going to Coachella and smoking out of an ice blue bong with a porn star who wants to be a dentist. R. Kelly would be proud.

For the last six months, every armchair critic has been hysterically decreeing that the future will be Odd, but no one anticipated the transition would be this smooth.

-- Jeff Weiss

Download:
ZIP: Frank Ocean -- "Nostalgia, Ultra"

 

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