Music fans may recall 1977 as the dawn of an era in which punk rock, running on the finite power of controversy, short haircuts, and untargeted scorn, set off a wildfire in the discourse around rock and roll. Even so, one of year’s most successful singles was “Hotel California” by the Eagles, a classic rock staple that sold millions of copies worldwide and even spawned cult-following one-liners.
When Frank Ocean—then known as a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future—shared his debut release, Nostalgia, Ultra, in 2011, he included a full remake of “Hotel California.” The track, which has since been re-named “American Wedding,” is a flagrant imitation; a brass-necked R&B rendition of rock’s most sacred chord progression. In the lawsuit-laden world of music licensing and sample snitching, using such a backdrop for a new song would mean paying licensing fees, not to mention poking the Eagles for permission.
That premise would hold, of course, if the record were to be issued by a label. But Frank took a different approach. In a nod to DIY punk culture, he didn’t clear at least 10 other samples, some of them sourced from other high-profile acts such as Coldplay and MGMT.
To avoid lawsuits and paperwork (fully embracing controversy), Frank chose not to position his debut release as a commercial endeavor. Instead, he christened Nostalgia, Ultra as a free mixtape and self-released it through his Tumblr, without further notes than a “Thank You” document and spell-binding artwork. Nostalgia, Ultra, adorned by the mesmerizing photograph of an orange BMW, and still absent from streaming services, features 14 tracks that touch upon the past, atom bombs on Frank’s lawn, divorce, numbness, and absent fathers. Samples, for their part, are far from obscure. The first tracks, “Street Fighter” and “Strawberry Swing,” lift instrumental bases from Coldplay; Radiohead’s “Optimistic” can be spotted on “Bitches Talkin;” and closing track “Nature Feels” is a remake of MGMT’s “Electric Feel.”
Similar to “American Wedding,” Frank re-worked staple cuts and transformed them into original narratives without letting these high-profile samples outshine his flair to tell a story. His mixtape called the attention of Beyoncé, who quickly cast Frank to her studio. Months in, he also wound up featuring on Kanye West & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne. The Nostalgia, Ultra effect kicked in right away.
What followed up this round of collaborations is now an afterthought: Frank would go on to release three full-lengths in four years to become one of the decade’s most celebrated artists and a flag-bearer for underground R&B. A decade in from the mixtape’s release, Frank’s debut album Channel Orange (2012) may stand as the definitive Alternative R&B keystone, but Nostalgia, Ultra provided foundations for the genre’s new direction.
Upon release, it was difficult to grasp such a development. More so, listeners were deluded into believing Nostalgia, Ultra was anchored in the past. The lyrics, the title, the hypnotic artwork—they traced back to moments lost in time, a feeling further propped up by samples from the Eagles, old-gen video game skits, or pictures of legendary vehicles. In perspective, though, Frank’s mixtape was not about the past—it was about the future.
Nostalgia, Ultra was not only the first salvo of who would become one of the decade’s defining artists—but it was also a fundamental document for the blooming Alternative R&B sound. This forward-thinking current transformed R&B by introducing production values linked to genres such as Dream Pop or Future Garage—that is, a fondness for reverb and syncopated beats that often sound like the teardrops of a stroll during a rainy, desolate night. With a keen eye on the sparseness that British producers like James Blake had pushed forward in the prior years, the Alternative R&B movement would hone a sound that would spawn several critically acclaimed records in the years after Nostalgia, Ultra saw the light.
Some of those acclaimed records belong to a contemporary superstar: The Weeknd. Curiously enough, Abel Tesfaye released his debut mixtape, the dark Alt-R&B project House of Balloons, just a month after Nostalgia, Ultra dropped. Even today, despite his influence within the world of pop, listeners must rummage around in blogs and fan pages to hear House of Balloons as The Weeknd initially intended it: the versions available in streaming services had to forego some of the initial samples. Death Grips, the experimental hip-hop outfit from Sacramento, followed a similar route. They uploaded their first mixtape in 2011 and, in the wake of critical acclaim, went on to release a string of sought-for LPs. Most importantly, and just as Frank and Abel before them, they also went on to take a picture with Beyoncé.
In perspective, the mixtape format allowed these artists to focus on what they did best: make new, forward-thinking music. With star status taken for granted, it seems like dropping that bunch of songs online was not only the right choice—it was a primordial one.
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