Celebrating 10 years of Frank Ocean

It’s been a decade since the artist’s influential debut mixtape “Nostalgia, Ultra” 

When I was younger, music was my greatest companion. While I had “friends” and hung out with them at school, my eighth-grade self was a bonafide loner. But I found solace and comfort in music. Around that time, I cherished Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Though I only discovered it after Queen Beyoncé mentioned she loved its leading track “Novacane,” I quickly fell in love with Ocean’s knack for vivid storytelling.  

That was 10 years ago, before Ocean would infamously weasel his way out of a record deal, before he’d tell the world via Tumblr that he once loved a man, before Channel Orange would become the anthem of a generation. In many ways, it was a different world then: Chris Brown was recycling records trying to rehabilitate his public image, and The Weeknd hadn’t yet begun his ascent to the R&B throne. With Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean made it clear that he had something new to contribute to the musical landscape—and countless fans like myself have enjoyed the decade-long ride. 

We’ve watched him garner support from an industry believed to be too homophobic to embrace an openly queer man. He’s obtained critical acclaim for every album he’s released, and embraced an identity that’s rooted in redefining what queerness can look like. And though he’s considered one of many folks’ favourite artist, it’s Black queer fans who hold him in special regard. 

From the range of emotions and sources that inspire each song to his soft-spoken, sensual lyrics, Ocean makes Black queer people feel less isolated and, instead, understood. He’s cemented a place for himself in our hearts by never pigeonholing his music into one specific genre, the same way Black queer people buck gender and sexuality norms.

This month marks the decade anniversary of Nostalgia, Ultra and a solo career with an outsized impact. In recognition of this milestone, I spoke to four of Ocean’s Black queer fans about their relationships to the artist and what his music means to them. Below is what they told me, in their own words.

Authenticity

This isn’t of all time, but currently, Frank Ocean is a top-five R&B artist to me. I just feel like he’s a very original kind of person. Anybody coming out of the band Odd Future is very artistic; they’re the kind of people whose individualism just sticks out like a sore thumb. A lot of people talk about microwaveable artists. Frank Ocean is not that; he’s made his point by being somebody that is continuously making his name known by doing things at his own pace and in his own time.

 

I like when artists take their time. Frank’s strength is separating himself album to album. Blonde doesn’t sound like Endless. Endless doesn’t sound Channel Orange, and, of course, Channel Orange doesn’t sound like Nostalgia, Ultra. Frank made me realize you have to grow with your artists. Anybody that can collaborate with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, you up there! 

I think I can relate to him both as a writer and musician. I used to DJ in high school, and I used to produce music. Frank Ocean has this sense of self when he writes, and it continuously shows out because you want an artist to be authentic and real with you. In non-fiction writing, a lot of people talk about relating to the subject or making sure the subject has a certain connection to the audience. That’s the kind of music that Frank Ocean makes.

—Amber Dodd is a 23-year-old writer living in Maryland

Unapologetically Black

When I was listening to Nostalgia, Ultra, I was 18. I was in that weird transitional phase of leaving high school and moving into the world. When I look back on that time, I remember being so uncomfortable. So, I feel I owe a part of my confidence to Frank Ocean.

I was heavily into indie music around the time he released Nostalgia, Ultra, and if we’re being honest, Black people are not represented like we should be in the indie scene. He was one of my first examples of unapologetically Black music that wasn’t necessarily trying to be mainstream. He wasn’t trying to be this artist that everybody wanted him to be; he was just being himself. He really showed me you don’t have to sacrifice your Blackness to be alternative. 

He’s just like me and I love it. With his music and his [Boys Don’t Cry] magazine, he’s always exploring the idea of gender nonconformity and people that don’t necessarily identify within the extremes of the spectrum. Being a person that identifies as non-binary, it’s all the more sick to see that representation.

I love his music because he’s one of the few artists I consider to be perfection personified. His voice is perfect for what he’s trying to say. He doesn’t overtly talk about being alone, but he talks so candidly about all the things I think about when I’m alone. 

—Daijon Amos is a 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker living in Arizona

Beyond the mainstream

I might have been a freshman in high school when I heard “Nature Feels.” Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of secular music; I listened to gospel. Nostalgia, Ultra was kind of an intro to the kind of music that I was interested in, something that wasn’t mainstream and was intriguing. I felt like I was bending the rules and being kind of edgy, like “Oh, someone’s cussing in this and it’s so sexual!”

Whenever I would sing songs that were written about a woman, I would always feel the need to change the pronoun. Frank Ocean inspired me to play with that. I guess all of his music was kind of my entryway into playing with gender and my pronouns. People can assume whatever they want to assume, but being able to stand in your truth—he definitely inspired me to do that.

He’s also inspired me creatively. Being able to take elements from film dialogue, then the voiceover and then even the sound effects of a tape recorder, it really creates a soundscape. Frank opened up a world for me to look at music not only as something that’s in the background, but something that can be all encompassing. It can create different worlds to step into. Frank is a beautiful storyteller. When you listen to a Frank Ocean song, you’re in that world for however long the song lasts.

—Muse Dodd is a 26-year-old filmmaker living in New Orleans 

Zen mysteries

I think the best way to describe his music is that Frank Ocean makes you know that you’re not alone. A lot of his music I would consider to be very zen. If I’m in a bad mood, I can just take my mind off whatever is bothering me and focus on the music. Or, if I’m in a good mood, I can just listen to it on repeat and have a solo dance party. 

His song “We All Try” is very hopeful, and I don’t have a lot of hope in life. He talks about how he still has hope in people. Yes, we make mistakes and we’re sinners, but there’s still greener grass. I don’t love his music because he’s queer. I love his music because it’s amazing. He doesn’t miss, even with the singles he puts out. 

We’ve all been through middle and high school and he’s definitely got that cool kid mysteriousness. It’s the “Oh they’re cooler than me and coolness seems innate to them. They don’t even have to try.” He’s just so elusive and mysterious. We don’t really know him. I feel like I have to delve deep into his lyrics to get a picture of what he’s really like. Sometimes you don’t even know what he’s saying, but that can be powerful, too. He can manage to tell you the story or make you feel whatever it is he wants you to feel musically. The combination of the production and the sounds that go around his distinct voice, it’s all amazing. 

—Emily Lincoln is a 23-year-old educational equity specialist living in Minneapolis 

This story is published with support from the Ken Popert Media Fellowship program.

Precious Fondren is a Minneapolis-raised journalist who loves writing about music, race, pop culture and politics.

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