There are drawbacks to fame. This comes as no surprise to anyone, especially in our now ever-connected reality. Celebrities of all sort are under constant surveillance, often to the point of mundanity: Kanye rants on Twitter about debt he’s incurred and I read a full article about it in The Daily Mail. Musicians are especially susceptible to this sort of scrutiny, with fans reaching out left and right wanting more music, fresh singles, a new album, and What’s taking so long?! Frank Ocean is the poster boy for this brand of ridicule. Fans anxiously waited for his followup to Channel ORANGE, a modern classic that launched him from relative obscurity to near-immediate fame. And they waited. And waited. There were hints dropped along the way, tiny clues inspected over and over, all of which seemed to be dead-ends. Ocean’s junior album, tentatively titled Boys Don’t Cry, was teased so many times that fans were resigned to the idea that he may never release it at all.
The minute it seemed all hope was lost, new music arrived. And it wasn’t even the album we’d been waiting for. Endless is Frank’s debut visual album, a 45-minute exercise in patience. It comes coupled with a fairly tumultuous backstory. Following it’s release, it was announced the album “fulfills Frank’s obligation to Def Jam and Universal.” Frank and Def Jam haven’t always been peachy (to put it nicely) and Frank was supposedly looking for a way out. Mirroring that relationship, Endless seems both a product of hard labor and frustration. Some songs feel complete, others merely demos, raw and formless.
Visually, the album is black-and-white and straightforward as can be; Frank builds a spiral staircase to nowhere, climbs nearly to the top, and the video cuts to the beginning, an endless cycle. I could pour over whatever metaphor Frank is trying to send about the endless hype that surrounded his impending release in previous years, that it’s all a cycle that will inevitably repeat a year or two from now when, again, there’s a very vocal demand for more music. But visually, it’s boring. That’s as plain as I can put it. Not much happens. The visuals of Endless require a four-word explanation: “Frank builds a staircase.” Musically, however, the album shines on it’s own, seeing Frank depart from the sunshine-pop of Channel ORANGE and turn inward, crafting an unfocused, self-reflective soundtrack.
Endless begins with a voice not belonging to Frank Ocean, but rather Wolfgang Tillmans, a German art photographer and occasional electronic artist. “Device Control” is a humorously meta introduction to the album, the first words being “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos.” Then we hear Frank, sounding sweet as ever on “At Your Best (You Are Love),” a cover of both The Isley Brothers and—certainly more famously—Aaliyah. His ambient falsetto soars above delicate piano chords, Jonny Greenwood’s elegant strings softly playing underneath. “Comme Des Garçons” is another highlight, a minute-long track reminiscent Channel ORANGE‘s “Fertilizer,” a brief but unwasted interlude. Frank hurriedly sings the rapid-fire bridge, “Feelings come, feelings go/Feelings come, feelings go,” as quickly as feelings come and go. “Slide On Me,” arguably the album’s best track, rides a surprising and much-welcomed guitar line, as well as a perfectly simple beat from French DJ Sebastian. Frank’s lyrics grab one’s attention as he very carefully self-reflects, both on his trouble with Def Jam and the last four years in general: “I’m just all day runnin’ numbers/How the fuck you think I live?/Too many hands waitin’ for my downfall/They’re like ‘something’s gotta give.'”
On “Rushes”—an atmospheric ballad featuring the hazy strum of Alex G’s electric guitar and far-off backing vocals from Jazmine Sullivan—Frank navigates the ups-and-downs of romantic love. He sings “We’ve been here before/The first time is not the past time,” a thematic echo of Channel ORANGE‘s brighter, more accessible love songs. This is Frank Ocean as I’ve never heard him before. He sounds distant, almost detached from the song, and I mean this in the most literal sense. Alex G’s guitar is a slight, almost invisible attraction; Sullivan’s background vocals echo in and out of focus, powerful in one second and barely there the next. Frank himself seems to wander about the song, searching for something simple and direct to say, never quite managing to find it.
Endless as a whole is a self-aware experiment, a visual mixtape not always yielding optimal results but often touching musical greatness in small, seemingly insignificant moments. What makes Frank Ocean not just an important musician but an important artist is his refusal to be forthcoming. He hides himself within his music, forcing the listener to make the first move. Endless feels in many ways like a trance, something that can play over and over and still retain it’s free, formless nature. Despite Endless not being the main attraction, there’s something Frank says on “Rushes” that has stuck with me since I first heard it last week: “I ain’t felt this way in years.”
Favorite tracks: “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Comme Des Garçons,” “Slide On Me,” “Rushes,” “Rushes To,” “Higgs”