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An insider’s guide to Frank Ocean

L.A.-based avante-garde musician Frank Ocean has made a name for himself by producing polished records glittering with notes of baroque pop, hip hop and rap. Pioneering a genre which seamlessly integrates references to nostalgic Americana with personal narratives and multidimensional beats, Ocean’s worldwide fame belies one simple fact: he rarely releases music. 

Despite commanding an army of fiercely loyal fans since his formal introduction into the music game as a member of the hip hop collective Odd Future in 2010, Ocean has dropped only two studio albums. For almost a decade, supporters have clung to the smattering of singles and timeless tracks on “Channel Orange” and “Blonde” when they need a Frank Ocean fix.

On Oct. 19, 2019, however, Ocean released his first song in over a year, a smoky self-reflection entitled “DHL.” “DHL” is gritty and brooding, reminiscent of A$AP Rocky’s most recent album, “TESTING,” and while crisp and elegantly produced, the track plods through clunky lyricism. The drop is slick and simple, but while audibly satisfying, it leaves the listener longing for Ocean’s better works. 

So, left with a less-than-amazing single, fans like myself who have waited years for new music are forced to get creative to access hidden Ocean gems. Thankfully, deep in the recesses of the internet, Ocean has left a trail of incredible music that requires some digging to uncover. 

As a precursor to his monolithic album “Channel Orange,” Ocean produced a mixtape called “nostalgia,ultra.” The tape showcases Ocean trying to gain his musical footing and developing the unique style for which he is now globally renowned. Although the mixtape was lauded by critics and the tracks “Novacane” and “Swim Good” remain available on most streaming platforms, the release was canceled after Don Henley of the Eagles threatened legal action against Ocean. On the song “American Wedding,” Ocean lifted the master track of Henley’s timeless hit “Hotel California,” transforming it into a somber critique of marriage while preserving the existing melodies.

In order to evade the copyright laws that got him in hot water with Henley in 2012, Ocean initially released “nostalgia,ultra.” on his personal SoundCloud account. However, most traces of “nostalgia,ultra.” have since been erased, barring the occasional repost by a devoted fan. As a lover of Frank Ocean, I was devastated when “nostalgia,ultra.” disappeared, until I discovered where it has been cleverly hidden.

If one were to type the name of any “nostalgia,ultra.” song into Spotify, nothing would appear because the songs remain technically unreleased. But, if one were to type “Skies” into the search bar, a podcast by Enrique Jacinto would appear. “Skies” is not a podcast at all, but rather a full release of “nostalgia,ultra.” that disguises itself as an original podcast to avoid breaking copyright law.

Hidden under the podcast veil, the tracklist contains some of Ocean’s best work. Scrolling to the bottom of the list, listeners can find “Strawberry Swings,” a Coldplay cover that preserves the original production, showcasing Ocean’s raw vocal talent and highlighting a moment of ethereal optimism rare in his discography. The tracklist also contains “Lovecrimes,” a mellow reflection on the high expectations of a fictional romantic partner that blends smooth drum rolls with a sample of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” 

“Skies” also stashes “Golden Girl,” a Tyler, the Creator collaboration that dives between airy vocals and a stark rap verse that cuts sharply through the silky hooks. The “nostalgia,ultra.” repost is polished off by “Endless,” a 38-minute amalgam of unfinished projects that invite the listener to explore Ocean’s beautifully muddled mind. 

In the wake of a single that feels a bit dull, Frank Ocean fans must search for the familiar sound we adore. So, this week if you feel like soaring through bubblegum clouds of strings and muffled samples only to plummet into a forest of winding baselines and meandering outros, punch “Skies” into Spotify… I think you’ll be pleased with the results.