Frank Ocean never owed us anything. To hold a timestamp, due date, or quality check to his name is to assume he entered the music-making business to please, a notion so outlandish that every detail of his life — which, really, means a lack thereof — points to the opposite, to Ocean’s career being something he extracts enjoyment from and takes pride in, but never aspired to wring fame from. Ocean certainly didn’t sign up for that when he joined (and slowly slinked away from) Odd Future, when he rolled out standalone single “Novacane”, when he dropped Channel ORANGE and barely did promotional tours. His highly anticipated follow-up album grew in size and importance in the years following 2012, in part because he himself felt the need to craft genuine art. By definition, it’s a musician’s job to create music, but nowhere in the contract does it list meeting the expectations of fans. He owed himself a new catharsis, the type of internal searching and external experimentation that sees a human undergo changes. And on Endless, the 45-minute visual album prelude to a grander statement, Ocean finds what he’s long been looking for: a process which benefits him every step of the way.
Endless begins with Ocean waltzing into the warehouse many recognize from the live stream a few weeks back. He hops on a work bench, peels off black gloves, and another Frank Ocean enters the room. Then his cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” begins. Even with the revised version’s guest collaborators (James Blake, Sampha, Jonny Greenwood) and all that they bring, it’s Ocean who elevates the track to its chilling state, his voice floating through the air with a pine needle-thin falsetto that never bends off pitch. Overlapped footage shows Ocean and his additional selves setting to work: sawing, drilling, cutting, painting. It’s crystalline. When the song ends, it’s near impossible to feel like four years of waiting weren’t worth a cover that breathtaking.
And yet, while the visual album appears to be a gorgeous black and white ode to the DIY nature Ocean took on for this project, it wobbles between its highs and lows. There’s plenty to look at, including his wardrobe changes from a Jesus and Mary Chain sweater to a hazmat suit, but it’s not flashy, even with the sharp camera cuts. By the time it becomes clear Ocean is building a spiral staircase by hand, the literal interpretation of Endless is clear. The never-ending circle, the illusion of perfection, the appeal of synchronicity, of flawlessness, of the finished product. It’s the art of building what seems impossible, but more so the art of building at all. Construction is a process. To pretend Ocean’s new albums aren’t the result of practice and learning is to pretend he is superhuman — and as easy as it is to believe that, his desire to confound shouldn’t be dismissed as sleight of hand. This is an art project that lacks cohesion while still being a smooth listen. Endless breaks down theory and presentation to detail the reality of progress. It’s fascinating to watch and worth revisiting a few times — often as a mile-marker comparison, occasionally as a single-take joy ride.
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While Endless makes its visual implications clear, the whopping 18 tracks that soundtrack it muddle his intent. The warehouse becomes static quickly, forcing viewers to focus on countless sounds that could have been otherwise lost in flashy frames: background noises, steam purling out, car engines buzzing, soft backing vocals, gentle bass lines. Ocean’s lo-fi vocals echoing off the walls of what sounds like a locker room. The melodic sigh of the London Contemporary Orchestra. Alex G’s acoustic bedroom guitar. The ad-libbed lines of Jazmine Sullivan. The rippling woodblock of Arca’s programming. It’s R&B turning an ear to the speaker’s mesh, catching the emotional appeal of lo-fi production to emphasize his emotional lyricism.
Numerous sonic highs drift into the picture. The generational comparisons via tennis players in “Unity” and the climate change worries on “Wither” see Ocean feeding a wanting within himself, a desire for understanding. While captivating at times, those wishes lack form. The sporadic cuts and inserts of various songs spread out like a sample platter. There’s no sense of order or reason, factors that, whether we want them to be or not, are crucial for an album to be, well, an album. Endless is filled with beauty, but it feels like a dream where you don’t remember much, even if you take a pen to paper as soon as you wake.
Even the jolt of the closing number pays off for the larger criticism. Thudding Krautrock-like beats stomp into the frame as a digitalized voice reads off lines: “With this Apple device/ You can learn the order between still and motion pictures,” “I think I saw Billboard/ Describing life live streaming off your videos,” “Live stream your life.” The cold reading detaches itself from every emotional purge before it. This goes on for six minutes. Ocean beats everyone to the punch, mocking his own prolonged rollout and the commercialization of album premieres with the visual album’s all-white, hyper-clean, organized layout.
If fans were looking for indulging, for Ocean to bear his soul, Endless almost delivers. Almost. When Ocean completes the staircase, he paces around its circumference a few times, surveying his work. Eventually he squats on the floor and walks while sitting, a kind of childlike awkwardness from exhaustion. Finally, he looks at the first step, arches his foot, and begins to climb. The camera holds tight to his feet as he ascends. Then, sharply, everything disappears. The opening clip of Ocean hopping on a work table, slipping off gloves, and staring at his palms replays. Another version of himself flicks on the speakers, sequencing this closing number. There, right when viewers got to see Ocean build a handmade rendition of perfection, of sleek design and hard work, the reward of him climbing it is cut short. Endless isn’t about the product. It’s not about sequenced songs or proper delivery. It’s swiped away for a reminder that his album, his artwork, and his life are not for public viewing. It’s for curation and revelation as he and he alone sees fit. As the album’s final shots — the album title in 13 different fonts — scroll across the screen, a quivering still of “Blonde/ Boys Don’t Cry” sits at the bottom. It’s a reminder of what’s to come. After all, Endless isn’t a full-length of hits or emotional refuge. It’s a therapeutic act of change, progression, and method caught on camera, a look inside his brain through visuals far easier to understand after years of prolonged silence.
Essential Tracks: “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, “Rushes”, and “Wither”