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The conundrum of Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’

By Jonah Koslofsky

Section: Arts

April 28, 2017

Being a Frank Ocean fan can be confusing. After the release of the electric (but overly reliant on samples) mixtape “Nostalgia Ultra” in 2011 and his debut R&B masterpiece “Channel Orange” in 2012, Ocean retreated from the public eye—aggressively. He declined interviews, was not performing and refrained from any presence on traditional social media; Ocean’s genius was as obvious as his absence from the limelight. No one could dispute the man’s talent, but from early 2013 until pretty recently, no one could find him either. There were hoaxes and rumors that another album was coming, a full-length follow up to “Channel Orange.” A snippet of a song would be posted on Ocean’s Tumblr page, an “official” release date would come and go without any sign of new music.

That was until last summer, when the Frank Ocean drought finally ended. And boy did it rain in the form of a livestream on Ocean’s website. Starting on the first day of August, a feed appeared on what was undeniably Ocean’s official website, showing a black and white warehouse and Ocean building…something. He was physically assembling some kind of structure with power tools. Ambient audio could sometimes be heard in the background, but what was Ocean building, and why? There were theories all over the place, from a shelf to a speaker, but it was largely assumed that once Ocean finished building whatever he was making, he’d release the album.

He worked for almost three weeks, until around 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 18. On that evening, Ocean finally finished what he’d been working on: a wooden spiral staircase. With the music swelling and no longer in the background, Ocean ascended his creation. Then abruptly, the screen cut to black, and the stream was over. A day later, Ocean released “Endless” exclusively through Apple Music, a “visual album” which condensed all of Ocean’s construction work into 45 minutes with 18 songs playing in the background. Ocean’s representatives, meanwhile, spoke to media outlets for the first time in years, saying that “Endless” was not actually the much-anticipated album. “Endless” dropped Friday, August 19, and then finally, “Blonde,” the “real” album was released the next day.

The wait for new Ocean albums ended that Saturday, with the latter release of the full, spectacular album. Unsurprisingly, because “Blonde” is an actual album, it got all the headlines. To this day, the only way you can legally access and listen to “Endless” is through Apple Music, specifically in video form. That means you can’t have it on in the background, and to listen to it, you have to watch Ocean build a staircase (which even I, a die hard Frank fan, can admit is pretty boring). This is a visual album in name only.

But “Endless” almost makes sense with a bit of context. Ocean has never had a good relationship with his label, Def Jam, and was able to release “Blonde” digitally, completely independent from any record companies. It has since been revealed that Ocean had a three-record contract with Def Jam that he was able to fulfill with the release of “Endless” (meaning that his Def Jam discography includes “Nostalgia Ultra,” “Channel Orange,” and “Endless”). This narrative, that “Endless” is Ocean’s final middle finger to his record label, makes even more sense when you consider Ocean’s recent releases of singles. Finally free, he can release one song at a time instead of being trapped and obligated to the album format.

So is “Endless” anything more than a contract filler? I’d say it is. I have to reccomend finding it and downloading just an audio version online. It’s not particularly hard to find and is pretty good to listen to in the background while doing work. Ocean goes all in with ambiance, lacking a lot of the guitars that reverberated through “Blonde.”

There are some real standouts, though, that could have easily made their way onto the quiet moments of “Channel Orange” or “Blonde,” mainly “U-n-i-t-y” and “Slide on Me,” which are at the quality of Ocean’s more mainstream releases. I’d even argue that “Endless” has a better conclusion (with Ocean ascending his staircase you have just watched him build) with the track “Rushes,” which pulls the listener out of the muddy background vibe of the middle of “Endless.”

However, there is one truly amazing song, “Wither.” Ocean’s voice has never been more beautiful, reflecting on loss while desperately hoping for a long life with his lover. “Wither” sends a shiver down my back every time. I cannot recommend “Wither” enough, and I also cannot listen to it on any major streaming service. It’s a bit frustrating.

“Endless” seems like it was meant to be forgotten and to be fair, a lot of it is pretty forgettable. But I can’t help but admire it as well. Ocean seems to be saying that making something like an album is hard work, constructing anything worthwhile is labor, just as he gets his hands dirty building the staircase. To all the people that demanded an album, Ocean has subverted their cries by releasing an additional piece of work that they will likely never listen to that demonstrates how hard making something can be. It is not great, but it is also far from being bad.

And it may not be so hard to access for long: Ocean released a new version of “Slide On Me,” now with a pretty solid feature by Young Thug on his BLONDED radio show last Sunday night. I hope “Endless,” or at least parts of it, become more readily available. Ocean is an artist that loves to keep his fans guessing, and while I would not recommend “Endless” as an introduction to Ocean, it is still not bad. It is not better than any of his other albums, but the influence of “Endless” is all over his recent singles “Channel” and “Lens.” If anyone is looking for more Ocean, it’s out there. And it involves a staircase.

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