As we speak, Frank Ocean’s Endless is being reduced to a footnote. There are many reasons for this: the long, unusual rollout that culminated in Blonde, his second album of the year; the fact that the project is currently only (legally) available as a 45-minute video on Apple Music; the narrative that Ocean used Endless as an escape hatch to leave Def Jam, his label. Endless is too good for this treatment.
Practically as soon as Endless came out it was revealed that another album would soon follow, which relieved the pressure of grappling with it extensively. Some writers did, and did it well, but in other instances engagement with the album was folded into coverage of both projects. Typically, Blonde received the lion’s share of the attention. (Both Pitchfork and The New Yorker’s reviews have little to offer about 45 minutes of music from the artist who was burned in effigy on Twitter daily for not sharing his work with us.) This does a disservice to a strange collection of songs and song sketches, many of them great. In fact, Endless is stronger than Blonde in many ways, but because of the delivery, it can be hard to hear that.
But there I go again, screwing up this argument by discussing the extra-textual information when I only want to write about the music. The problem is, actually listening to Endless is unreasonably difficult. The music is trapped in a dull black-and-white woodworking video, confined to an Apple Music video stream that doesn’t allow for the listener to parse the tracklist or return easily to the best parts. (Unless you have the MP3 rip that breaks it down into individual tracks; email me and I’ll send it to you.) Convincing someone to sit through it, even for the long-awaited revelation of new Frank Ocean music, is no minor task.
And that’s before you get to the actual songs. Endless opens with a bit of confounding German techno about tech issues before getting to the first proper song, which is one you’ve heard before. Ocean’s tender cover of “At Your Best” by the Isley Brothers became available on Ocean’s Tumblr in January of last year, meaning you have to wait until the third track to get new Frank Ocean. Of course, there’s no telling that this is the third track; you’re lost in the experience, which is conceptually compelling but, in practice, mostly frustrating. David Lynch (whom Ocean digs, according to the film list in the magazine issued with Blonde) once railed against scene breaks on the DVD editions of his films, suggesting that a movie isn’t a book with chapters. Albums aren’t books either, but they are broken into songs. Even Prince couldn’t successfully alter this.
There’s virtue in hard work, duh, but thumbing through the Apple Music stream of Endless looking for the start of your favorite song is actively annoying. That I can’t leave the screen playing Endless to do anything else on my phone without stopping the music from playing might be a lesson in patience and focused attention, which could be Frank’s intention, but it’s not how music works.
One fail-safe test of a good song is if, during some mundane activity, it snags your attention and lures you back to it—that’s a good song. You’re pulled by a thread of the melody or a particularly sharp phrase into the music that was previously wallpaper for your day. In terms of attention, music is the most flexible art form; you can’t watch a movie while you drive, or read a book while doing the dishes. No one has sex to a painting. By attaching Endless to a video stream, it prevents us from discovering the album in the ways we usually do.
There’s an abundance of moments on Endless that grab your attention. That’s how you can tell it’s great.
The layering of competing vocal tracks like a head stuffed up with too many thoughts that opens “Alabama.” The casual stream-of-consciousness flow on “U-N-I-T-Y” that produces McMansions and apple pies warmed under heat lamps in the span of one line. The piercing brilliance of Ocean’s voice on “Wither,” and his repeated cry of the word be at the song’s end that is eventually manipulated to clip early, a digital effect that complicates the foggy acoustic guitar that grounds the song—something is happening here about nature and technology and how we change across time. The infectious collision of Ocean and James Blake’s gifts for preserving the humanity of a voice even as it’s digitally shuffled and pitch-shifted. The hard wisdom of “All this time I knew that average was something to fall back on after genius ends” offered on “Rushes To.”
You chase one moment into the next, the songs knit together by instrumentals and short vocal experiments. It’s like the back half of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Amid these sketches and fragments, you’ll find more great lines than on Blonde, more moments that bring tears to your eyes. Endless is a tighter listening experience than Blonde, which loses momentum around “Pretty Sweet.” It's more liable to keep you from start to finish (if you want). Blonde’s stream-of-consciousness songwriting (“Futura Free”) is no match for the stranger associative exercises of “U-N-I-T-Y” and “Comme des Garcons.” And if you love Ocean’s voice, Endless messes with it a lot less than on Blonde, even if Endless is less crisply recorded.
Endless is meditative and hypnotizing. If Ocean becomes Jeff Mangum and never releases another record—a legitimate concern at this point—and rumors spread that he’s repairing ‘80s BMWs in a small, sign-less auto shop in the French countryside, this will be his In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The longer you sit with it, the more its irritations harden into pearls. Armed with the album broken into tracks you can choose to become lost in it, as opposed to having that feeling forced on you.
It would be insane if, after all this time, we dismissed a new Frank Ocean album over a matter as malleable as medium. This is the future, after all. There are devices to fix this sort of thing. Email me.