Four years is, comparatively, not a very long time. Portishead vanished for 11, R&B legend D’Angelo for 14, The Avalanches for nearly 16. But since the release of the masterful Channel Orange, a sparse stream of tightly controlled media output and the whisper (loudened by grainy leaks that hinted at greatness) of a new project, the fervor for something — anything — billed under the Frank Ocean name has been enormous.
And for good reason. In July 2012, Ocean made (forgive the pun) waves when he opened up in an emotionally moving and paradigm shifting Tumblr letter about his first love, another man. For the unprecedented attention LGBTQ rights have garnered in the past few years, Ocean’s letter was nevertheless an outlier, an elegantly stated crack in a dam of homophobia and intolerance that is both latent and blatant in hip-hop.
The letter also forced a reconsideration for many of what exactly the face of “queer” could be. Ocean is not, in any way, a loud activist. His music, and more recently his essays, have been quiet tides that can and often do consume you in his thoughts, feelings and atmosphere. Perhaps his most powerful contribution has been his complete disinterest in doing anything any way but his own. When asked by GQ if he identified as bisexual, he audibly shrugged: “I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and bos and shit.”
At the time, that kind of fluidity may have been prevalent in college hook-ups or Ann Arbor’s marijuana laws, but in 2012, it was hardly mainstream. Yet in the mainstream Ocean remained, and remarkably so. It’s a testament to his ability to make his feelings — even if you couldn’t directly relate — palpable and vivid to listeners and readers. “Bad Religion,” a standout from his major label debut, was clearly about his sexuality, but even the most bigoted can’t help but acknowledge the power in his voice and the draw of the remarkable string arrangements.
His musical style thus mirrors his personal. The introverted rebellion of his interviews and letters seethes through the structure of his tracks, and certainly in the roll-out of the visual album, Endless.
After toying with fans for over a year with hinted and continually unfulfilled release dates, a minimal “live” stream appeared on the artist’s website in August. Over the next few days Ocean could be seen slowly — very, very slowly — cutting wood, painting boxes, assembling… something. Growing instrumentals were layered over the stream, mimicking the progress Ocean was making.
But just when it seemed nearly complete, boxes painted and ready to be assembled, Ocean disappeared. Fans did not take too kindly to this. Many penned letters on Reddit and other such forums explaining how they felt cheated, even personally wronged, giving a glimpse at both the importance Ocean’s music plays in the lives of fans and the give-me-now attitude that has been exponentially increasing with our ever-growing connectedness to the internet.
Over a week — also known as an eternity online — passed without sign of Ocean, and then, finally, he came back, assembling a spiral Endless staircase. New music played while he did so, alternating between shorts snippets, interludes and fully realized tracks.
When the project was finally released onto Apple Music, shortened and edited to play out over just 45 minutes, those sonic pieces were assembled together to reveal a continuous, front-to-back project.
It’s still far from cohesive or fleshed out — many ‘tracks’ hardly reach a minute. The effect is nonetheless clear: Endless finds Ocean toying with styles and moods, falsettos and beats, as he worked towards his new, once again masterful album Blonde, released the same weekend. What’s so impressive about this release is that the artist’s often simple and incomplete experiments can still be so powerful, almost brushing genius.
“Commes Des Garcons” which clocks in at just 57 seconds, marches reservedly, sparkles on its edges and develops into an endlessly repeatable chorus. “Rushes To,” a much quieter and slower track, finds Ocean at perhaps his strongest vocal performance ever. They’re two moments of many where Ocean tests out a design to be left on the workshop floor in favor of the proper album.
Endless also acts as a glimpse into the depth of influences Ocean pulls from. A large set of speakers dominate the background of the video as an art project by Tom Sachs, the contemporary artist renowned for his sculptural critiques of commodity fetishism and consumerism. That theme is rehashed by the satirical and downright strange final track, “Higgs,” a creation by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (who has also worked with closely with Arca, another producer on this album). The ’80s inspired track acts as a kind of tongue-in-cheek advertisement for technology, making a Samsung-Apple-Sony-etc. device sound, well, horrifying.
Tillman’s feature is the one most clearly in the foreground here. The rest act like Tom Sach’s speakers: they’re there, but they’re pushed to the rear. For those familiar with experimental electronic producer Arca, who works with the darkest and most industrial noises, it will come as a surprise that he had a hand in “Mine,” a slow, glowing pop track. There is but one clear addition: a faint, whining horn that roams on the outside of the beat, immediately recognizable as Arca. It’s a reminder of the fierce individualism of Frank Ocean — no one can argue he didn’t do things his own way (the recent revelations that this visual album fulfilled his contractual obligation to Def Jam so that Blonde could be self-released is further evidence of a relentless my way or the highway attitude).
Endless will doubtlessly be overshadowed by that self-released third album, but for more in-tune fans, the album offers plenty of gems on its own regard, and deserves — even if it won’t get them — numerous replays and revisits.