My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #18: Frank Ocean – ‘Novocane’

This summer I went to Primavera Festival in Barcelona, where I saw a group (more like a collective – the various members release their albums separately) that I’d read more about than I’d heard: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, or Odd Future for short. I’d heard Tyler, The Creator’s latest album, which had sparked controversy with the sort of violent misogyny and homophobia that made Eminem the bete noire for parents a decade ago. The had a lesbian producer and a following of hipster kids (mostly white) for whom they were an exciting proposition – genuinely terrifying for parents, they are gleefully nihilistic. For all the controversy, however, I thought Tyler’s album was over-long and dull (though the moment when he threatens to stab Bruno Mars in the oesophagus is priceless). The show I saw wasn’t much different, despite a wild stage invasion at the end that completely overwhelmed the festival’s security guards, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

Frank Ocean (real name Christopher Breaux) is a honey-voiced singer-songwriter, who has penned tracks for John Legend and Justin Bieber. He signed to Def Jam almost two years ago, but was ignored by the label. That was until he released his debut album, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra‘ for free on his Tumblr page. Oh, Frank Ocean is also a member of Odd Future. Justin Bieber and Odd Future. “Criminy”, I thought, what on earth is this album going to sound like? I downloaded it. If listened to casually, it could sound like pretty standard R’n’Bore fare, but you don’t have to look much beneath the surface to realise that this is seriously off-kilter stuff. Frank Ocean’s album didn’t bore me. There is a fantastically surreal remake of Coldplay’s ‘Strawberry Swing’, as well as an obsession with Stanley Kubrick’s manic, overblown and lusty final film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. It’s referenced in the best song on the album, the nightmarish Novocane, a paranoid, dense parody of smooth drug-fuelled R’n’B pop hits.

It charts the story of Frank meeting a girl at Coachella, who wants to be a dentist, but is working in porn to pay the college bills. Oh, she’s also doing a whole heap of drugs. He realises that to keep the affair going and stay close to the girl, he’ll have to do those same drugs with her, but which only end up leaving him feeling numb and disconnected. It’s such a deceptively simple song, but it thrives on odd details: Ocean describing himself “feelin’ like Stanley Kubrick” with no apparent rhyme or reason, the completely out-of-place use of “yikes!” in an r’n’b record, and the seemingly random bursts of swirling, squawking bass.

It’s one of the strangest love songs you’ll ever hear and a compelling slice of oddball pop music.

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