“What can I do to know you better?” It’s a question posed not just by Frank Ocean on “Alabama,” one of the songs featured on his brand new “visual album” Endless, but by UK singer Sampha. If you’ve been following the long, arguably overdrawn build up to this release, Ocean’s first since 2012’s channel ORANGE, the guest vocalist’s longing may well seem like a stand-in for the thoughts of many who have been so desperate to hear new music from Ocean. As of today, teary Twitter pleadings, text alert services and smarmy memes about the delay can be put to rest.
To be clear, though, while fans had been waiting for a new record since last summer, this isn’t the long-promised Boys Don’t Cry. Instead, it’s a separate suite of full songs and snippets that’s currently only available as a 45-minute video through Apple Music. The other album is rumoured to arrive this weekend, possibly under a different title. For the time being, we’ve got Endless, a collection which’s title matches the stream-of-consciousness song sequencing.
Fittingly enough, considering all the false-starts and teases over the last year, Endless doesn’t begin with Ocean’s voice. Instead, it’s that of electronic artist/photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, whose computer-altered voice gives “Device Control” a most meta-analysis about holding an Apple appliance. The quickie intro then leads into a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” which would be a confounding, were Ocean’s blown-glass fragile falsetto not so enveloping. The song is stark and stunning, and has Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood providing a washed out-and-distant string arrangement to the minimalist piece.
The aforementioned “Alabama” is the first proper taste of Ocean’s original music. Quick and to the point, the piano-driven piece finds a gang of overlapping Ocean’s running lines about family life in an overcrowded duplex. It gets mind-bendingly beautiful once Sampha slathers himself above the keys, but quickly dissipates into “Mine,” a seconds-long micro movement of layered vocals contemplating the following sad-sack drug quandry: “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?”
“U-N-I-T-Y” has Ocean flexing his rap skills, alluding to a changing of the guard by name-dropping longtime tennis great Roger Federer and current number one seed Novak Djokovic. The hypnotic and jazzy backdrop of guitar also has him tying together Apple Jacks, Houston hip-hop outfit the Geto Boys, Silicon Valley business ventures, and gun violence in Chiraq. It’s one of the headier songs on the set.
Despite its title, “Rushes” is a slowly unwound highlight featuring textural guitar washes from indie rocker Alex G. The song adds a bit of insight to Ocean’s current state of mind, explaining, perhaps, how he’s become relaxed, opting to work on his own terms instead of the industry’s (“First I was rushing full weight, this time I’m waiting for rush.”) “Wither” is a different low-key guitar piece that also explores pace, with Ocean waxing on past triumphs while wishing for a long and healthy life (“Know that I’ve enjoyed the sunshine/Pray they’ll get to see me wither.”)
As for Endless, the collection isn’t exactly Frank Ocean in full bloom. While there are definitely some stirring pieces in there, the minimalist approach might not be enough for those that fell for the full and lush channel ORANGE. While sequenced and presented in a such a way that it arguably acts as one long song, ultra-brief moments like electric piano freestyle “Hubolts” would seem utterly incomplete on their own. That said, Ocean is happy living in the ephemeral. As he suggests self-reflectively on “Commes des Garcons” : “feelings come, feelings go.”
From a visual perspective, Endless is, quite literally, a slow-builder. The black and white movie revisits the warehouse setting first teased in a livestream video feed earlier in the summer. Now, he’s found working DeWalt table saws and putting together a staircase to somewhere. The movie concludes before he makes it all the way to the top, ushering in a finale that showcases the full version of Tillman’s introductory track. Ocean casually sweeps the floor to the sounds of the guest musician’s stomping electro-pop club cut.
It’s quite a jarring change, but while another person’s music concludes Endless, it’s not the end for Frank Ocean. An Apple rep has apparently put us all on alert by saying we should “keep an eye out this weekend for more from Frank.” While we’ve been burned by ETAs before, fingers crossed the follow-up to Endless gets here on time.
-review by Gregory Adams