ENDLESS by Frank Ocean
Genre: Experimental R&B
Favorite Tracks: “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Alabama,” “U-N-I-T-Y,” “Comme Des Garcons,” “Rushes,” “Rushes To”
After the ongoing album release saga to which Frank Ocean has treated his fans, seemingly with good intentions but riddled with frustrating teases and false promises, generating huge amounts of eager internet speculation, it would be very easy for a listener to roll their eyes at the developments of the evening of August 18th. In ENDINGS, we finally got that album we’ve been expecting for about a month and a half — except it’s something completely different, not just stylistically, but LITERALLY a different album than the one we were expecting to be “surprised” by. However, the aforementioned listener would be missing out on something that, while not quite up to par with his previous work, is a good reminder of why Frank is worth waiting for in the first place.
Ever since Ocean’s fame rose to its highest point after 2012’s CHANNEL ORANGE, he has relished hiding in plain sight, seeming to shy away from the spotlight as much as possible, as well as only addressing his personal life when the rumors of his sexuality seemingly threatened to undo everything he had been building. ENDINGS, as well as the politics and interactions with others that surround his career, are defined by his unwillingness to satisfy the expectations that surround him. As an artist working in a genre with severe historical problems regarding the acceptance queer artists, Ocean was able to simultaneously keep that trait from taking over his career while also incorporating it into his outsider persona. It’s hard to say whether this is by design, but Ocean has resultantly become a unique and enigmatic pop star whose mystique recalls a time before artists suffered from massive overexposure at the hands of the media.
Ocean’s ability to manage the expectations that surround him are key to his success as an artist. He is one of the most gifted popular songwriters of the day, in large part because he understands the music he makes in a way that is rare for any musical artist, and thus has the ability to add musical and lyrical nuances that make it distinct from his contemporaries and instantly more memorable. His music pulls from multiple genres, coalescing into a sound that truly feels unique, and he is an expert at getting as much mileage out of the words he writes as possible, being a highly descriptive and evocative writer. Though it isn’t perfect, suffering from a tendency to be self-indulgent and overly extensive, ENDLESS is a piece of work that few other artists are capable of making, as it constantly surprises and feels like a wholly deliberate and thoughtful album, especially for a “side project” to Ocean’s still upcoming album.
Ocean chooses to begin the album with a gorgeous cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” in the style of R&B martyr Aaliyah, which he had previously released on his Tumblr. It’s a bold way to start, and turns the focus immediately to Ocean’s significant vocal chops, as he glides effortlessly through some purely ridiculous falsetto notes with unmatched precision and fullness. The lyrics don’t really match the rest of the album, but the experience of listening to it as a piece of music has an emotional pull similar to the magnificent CHANNEL ORANGE track “Bad Religion.”
Ocean also throws in some very solid middle tracks on ENDLESS. “Alabama” effectively captures an unnerving family experience both lyrically and musically, like a more musically anxious version of “Pilot Jones.” “U-N-I-T-Y,” which serves as Ocean’s best rap work since his days with Odd Future, shows that his skills as an MC rival the genre’s best. He puts together three verses with several pop culture references that paint Ocean as both slightly preppy and streetwise, making prominent use of his signature wordplay ability. “Commes Des Garcons,” another song purportedly written about Ocean’s ex-boyfriend who served as inspiration for several parts of CHANNEL ORANGE, features a beat reminiscent of something that could be found on a recent Kendrick Lamar record and sounds like a jauntier, sped-up version of Ocean’s hit “Thinking Bout You.”
ENDINGS does take a tumble in quality — just around halfway through — that is fairly significant. This is the point during which the album begins to rely more on incorporating its visual element, which, by and large, is the weakest part of the album. The visual, which features a real-time video of Ocean assembling a small staircase, is completely unnecessary for the first half of the album and slightly distracting for the rest. Ocean is clearly going for something understated, and one could probably extrapolate some meaning from it, but the images rarely have the feeling of intent found in other prominent “visual albums” that have worked well in the past. Additionally, “Slide on Me,” a track that follows around five minutes of instrumental pieces, is unquestionably the weakest on the record, and probably the only outright bad song he’s done. It lacks the sizzle and creativity that most of his work has, opting for a rather basic 2010s R&B compositional style rather than Ocean’s mixture of contemporary R&B, neo-soul, and 70s-era music. Though its lyrics are still relatively impressive, for the most part it’s a dull, blandly written song that feels particularly disappointing from someone like Frank Ocean.
Fortunately, Ocean gets back on track toward the end with “Rushes,” “Rushes To,” and “Higgs.” “Rushes” in particular is a gorgeous but simple tune that recalls the most successful collaborations between Bon Iver and Kanye West. The song features Alex G on guitar, and though he’s credited throughout half of the album, his influence is particularly notable on this tune, perfectly accenting the most powerful moment of the visual as Ocean nears completion of his staircase. “Rushes To” tones up the vulnerability in Ocean’s voice, as he adds a raggedness to it that isn’t often present while he sings over a simple acoustic guitar line. Finally, “Higgs,” another song that features Frank Ocean the rapper, is not as effective as “U-N-I-T-Y,” but features a solid beat and serves as an effectively jarring closer.
Despite it being the length of a full album, and a worthy one at that, it’s hard not to think of ENDLESS as a prelude to the album formerly known as BOYS DON’T CRY. It’s far from perfect and could do with some judicious edits, but it serves as a reminder of Ocean’s artistic skill and ambition, and even on its own would likely satisfy Frank’s fans. However, allowing it to serve as a precursor to the upcoming Frank Ocean record could open up a whole new realm of possibility for ENDLESS, as it presents a lot of themes that are never really resolved. It’s very likely that we won’t be able to truly judge this record until the next one is released, but it’s well worth your time as we all collectively sweat it out waiting for FKA BOYS DON’T CRY.