Though it has been described as such all across the Internet, calling Frank Ocean’s Endless a “visual album” instantly makes me recall the old cartoon show Gumby and the Black folklore figure known as Reach Armstrong. Sure, there is a visual component to the album. We are forced to click play and are provided the visual of Frank Ocean building a staircase while 45 minutes worth of new music plays in the background, serving as a de facto score to what has already been hailed as something that “mixes the avant garde with the accessible.”
Still, “visual album,” which already had a loose definition but is noticeably expanding by the week, feels too generous a term. Endless, with the same minimalist, black-and-white imagery shown throughout, doesn’t really resonate in the way Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Suede’s Night Thoughts, Kanye West’s Runaway, or hell, even R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” series do. Each of those offer a more compelling story being told whereas in Endless, Ocean is present throughout but a narrative—which feels pretty essential to the notion of a “visual album”—not so much.
I can already feel the contempt of the more artsy folks of the world rolling their eyes at me for saying this, but all I got from Endless as a visual is Rhythm and Home Improvement. But okay, if everyone else says so. Fine, it’s a “visual album,” too.
After sitting with Endless for a few additional listens, it’s better consumed without watching the New Orleans native get his Bob Vila on. Ultimately, when it comes to music, a visual can magnify what’s being heard, but I prefer to judge music largely by the music itself. Especially on Endless where the music is far more commanding of your attention than the visuals presented with it.
There are some immediate takeaways from the project. The first: it is not the album we were initially promised. That would be Boys Don’t Cry, which is said to be coming over the weekend under a different title. Whatever the case, Endless is the album we have now and despite the wait and its frankly bizarre delivery (he fits right in with Kanye West and Rihanna when it comes to wonderfully mishandling highly anticipated album releases), it is enjoyable.
The other immediate takeaway is Ocean is offering listeners much more polished vocals. We had hints of this as he covered Aaliyah’s cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love).” It was actually not my favorite rendition when it was previously released as “You Are Luhh,” but maybe with time and waiting obsessively for new Frank Ocean music, it sounds sublime. Ocean’s voice is not the strongest in terms of range, but there is something skillful about how he uses it—namely his falsetto. That remains the case throughout Endless.
That would include other tracks like “Alabama,” which features vocal work from the terribly undervalued singing phenom that is Jazmine Sullivan. Sullivan joins Ocean there and on three additional tracks. Their voices and his lyrics compliment each other terrifically—here’s hoping to a continued, blissful musical partnership. Other collaborators include Sampha, who joins Ocean and Sullivan on “Alabama,” along with other collaborators like James Blake (a whole lot), Acra (FKA Twigs, Björk, Kanye West),” and indie rock artist Alex G.
Together, they help give what has become typical Frank Ocean: a wide mixing of genres and moods happening all at once. What continues to shape them and make them singular is Ocean’s way of singing, and in some spots on here, rapping. It’s a somewhat lethargic delivery. It allows much of Endless to merely float throughout, though exactly where will require more time and many more listens. Or maybe further explanation in terms of intent and direction (like, is this your vision board of an album or nah?), but who knows if we’ll ever get that given this entire process and rollout has been shrouded in mystery and appears dead set on keeping it that way for the time being.
What I can appreciate—and do, mostly less than 24 hours after its release to Apple Music— is that Ocean is creative, unconventional, and confounding. Unlike many of his peers, he’s seizing on the privileges that come with being creative with making genuine efforts to be creative. However, I probably would be more receptive to this visual of him just building something for 45 minutes as music played in the background if I hadn’t been told an album entitled Boys Don’t Cry along with a magazine of some sort would come drop in July 2015. Many have risen to his defense about putting too much expectations on the artist, but the artist took up that mantle himself when he told the world about what was coming.
If there is indeed another, more formal album release on the horizon, I hope that it builds on Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. With Endless, I’m stuck on the intersection of “WYD? Frank” and “It Sounds Good.” Both of those albums—specifically Channel Orange—had structure. Perhaps the point of Endless is not to have such structure. Fair enough, but as a fan, this will take additional listens to truly get and ideally, appreciate more.
I see the staircase in Endless, but I’m still trying to figure out where Frank Ocean is taking me. I think that's what he wants.