Reed Jackson is a Trouble Man.
Clicks are hard to earn these days. It’s not like in ’02, when a “YOU WIN!” banner would flash in seizure-inducing colors on your screen and you’d actually think about claiming your prize. Or when an email with the subject line, “HAHA CHECK THIS OUT,” would land in your inbox and you’d open it and contract a virus that’d send lewd, grammatically incorrect solicitations to your 81-year-old grandmother and everyone else on your contact list. People are now more guarded than ever about the rabbit holes they fall down online. When’s the last time you clicked on something without entirely knowing what you were getting into? And what’d it take for you to do it?
For me, it was about six years ago. I clicked on a random link tweeted out by Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who was just starting to get prickly toward the industry but still had some clout. The tweet has since been deleted (most likely a casualty of one of Lupe’s online tantrums), but I remember it being simple and straightforward, something along the lines of, “Yeah, this is dope.” His words were irrelevant. It was the image that accompanied them, a candy orange BMW roadster nestled against a leafy background, that suggested there might be something special on the other end. My curiosity was rewarded when I was taken to the Tumblr of a then-unknown singer named Frank Ocean, who had just posted his debut project, nostalgia, ULTRA.
I was a senior in college at the time. I lived with three other guys in Eugene, Oregon, in a house that had bedrooms tacked on in weird places so the landlord could squeeze as much rent money out of it as possible. My room, tucked away at the end of the driveway, looked like it was once part of a small garage and had cheap wood paneling for walls and a floor covered in green felt, giving it the feeling of an old cardroom. I liked to imagine its entrance was hidden behind a bookshelf. I would spend hours there, often feeling pretty shitty and alone, as my seemingly insurmountable awkwardness carried over from high school to college. But I’d also devote long, wakeful nights to discovering and listening to new music. I was reaping the benefits of the Blog Era, constantly debilitating our house’s wireless with loads of .zip and .rar downloads.
I remember playing Ultra on my desktop speakers and laying down on my bed, as I often did while listening to something new. The first thing that struck me was its moodiness. I’d felt pain in R&B songs before, but mostly in over-the-top, cheesy ways, centered around break ups and cheating lovers. Here was something much more complex in its sadness and, in turn, real. I racked my brain for what it reminded me of, and I landed on a cherished figure from my childhood: Marvin. Growing up, my mom loved to play Motown around the house, and Marvin Gaye was always her favorite. She would pop in “What’s Going On” while she was getting ready to go out and, in between putting on her chunky jewelry and taking sips of red wine, would clap along with it and tell me to do the same, to which I’d smile shyly. I loved how calming the song sounded. It’s opening, with that silken soprano sax, drew an image in my mind of Marvin grinning broadly between the upturned collars of his shearling leather jacket. At the same time, it sounded sensitive. Within his honeyed pleas I heard confusion, as if he was really bummed out by the actions of both the world and himself.
I felt the same kind of inner turmoil in Frank. This may be in part because I was feeling something similar at the time, a constant struggle between self-appreciation and -deprecation. Songs like “There Will Be Tears” and “Novacane” struck a chord for their mixture of sincerity and virility. A young boy trying not to cry in front of his friends; a young man popping Viagra and doing drugs to impress a girl. These were sonnets ridden in guilt. In Frank’s mind, nostalgia can run the risk of dredging up old demons, at which point you can either face them or ingest hydrochloride to numb the pain. This served as the struggle at the heart of ULTRA’s narrative: A 20-something trying to make peace with himself, but often coming up short. In the wake of his failures were enough broken hearts to fill a Lincoln town car’s trunk.
The production behind these failures was what made the tape so compelling. The little gold kernels of lyrics, the memorable ad-libs (“YIKES!”), the bold decision to rework not one but two of the sappiest rock bands of all time… it was obvious that Frank had major label chops when it came to songwriting. Perhaps his craftiest move was to keep some of the covers’ vocals in place, having a dialogue with their original composers rather than cutting them out completely. He uses an auto-tuned hook by M.I.A. G.O.O.D. Music singer Mr. Hudson as a starting point to lift off from and tenderly recount his relationships with his late grandfather, who was a “PLAAAAAAAYER” in a pair of gators, and father, who was nowhere to be found. On “Strawberry Swing,” a Coldplay summer strum turned into a love story based in a science fiction disaster film, he relinquishes singing duties to Chris Martin at the last second, just as the song’s strings swell and the metaphorical Earth combusts.
Listening to “Strawberry” while lying on my bed, sun pouring through my bedroom windows, I felt like Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai, staring at a gently swaying cherry blossom while a sword was being injected into my gut. I tried to share that feeling with others by playing at a party in our house later that week, but it was shut off almost immediately. A Coldplay cover isn’t the most compelling thing for a bunch of kids blitzed on Pabst, sure, but the more offensive part was its R&B makeup. We all had to recondition ourselves to understand that someone with a voice like Frank’s, unique but not vastly different-sounding than those of the hackneyed singers on the radio at the time, could build something beautiful and dark. If we didn’t learn that with Ultra, we surely began to understand with House of Balloons, which dropped only a month later.
In the grand scheme of things, both projects were hugely influential, but Frank’s debut remains patient zero for the temperamental shift in pop music that would take place in the following years. It’s also the record that’s stuck with me the most. This was proved to me over the summer when Blonde, his forever-in-the-making sophomore album, finally dropped. I listened to the new project while wandering the streets of a small town on the Oregon Coast, where I spent many wistful summers as a kid. Its drum-less ballads, shimmering and nuzzled comfortably within the sonic soft spot we’ve learned to love him for, were the ideal soundtrack for my walk. “Nikes,” with its high-pitched vocals that eventually normalized, served as a “guess who’s back?” moment; “Self Control” sounded like the under-the-radar jam that would become every DJ’s go-to closer. “White Ferrari” was calming and gorgeous.
But my mind was cluttered. I was at a crossroads in my life. I had just quit my job back in New York and completed a drug-fueled cross-country road trip with my friends, one of which was moving to L.A. after months of threatening to do so. I had also just learned that my father had cancer; my parents, after a decade-plus of divorce, were reuniting to tackle the disease together. As I began to worry, I found myself scrolling back through my phone to ULTRA and hitting play. Suddenly, everything—my life, my family, the Pacific that lay in front of me—stopped moving so fast. The gentle clicking of a Nintendo cartridge, the quiet plucks of a guitar as Frank’s voice comes into focus, the blasting off of spaceships and, finally, the loud buzzing of an alarm clock. The dream is over but the feeling lingers.