clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Album of the Year Is the Other Frank Ocean Album

‘Blonde’ was the most celebrated of Ocean’s two 2016 releases, but ‘Endless’ came first. It also represented a feeling few other artists were able to capture about the year.

(Def Jam/Apple Music/Ringer illustration)
(Def Jam/Apple Music/Ringer illustration)

Frank Ocean pulled a fast one. When an endlessly looping video appeared on the singer-songwriter’s website boysdontcry.co on August 1, hundreds of days after the first release date for his new album was promised, it was a surprise, but not a shock. A report from The New York Times about an impending new release allegedly spooked Ocean, who pushed back his new project to an unknown date. But still, there was the video, streaming on his site.

The video played like Fellini’s Tool Time, as black-and-white images of a man wielding a level like a lance and operating a high-powered saw were cast out to an unwitting public. This man was building something. (A table? A wall? An ark?) Some 24 hours later, the video suddenly began to play music. New music. Fans and media snapped to, parsing confusion, sifting through miasma, and crafting takes. They were directed to Apple Music, where a new project would appear — a new video contained on the platform, starring a still woodshopping Ocean and featuring the new songs in full. At The Ringer, we treated the release like Game 7 of the NBA Finals — bringing in all the voices and ideas in an effort to collectively understand this article of media. It was, after all, Ocean’s first public effort in 1,501 days, since the release of his 2012 debut album, Channel Orange. Was it The Other Side of the Wind? No. But to the many people for whom Channel Orange is a significant artistic document of the decade, this felt like an event.

Endless, it turns out, was an event — just not the event. The Apple Music video ended after 45 minutes, and was quickly tagged a “visual album,” a pernicious term that rose to great heights with Beyoncé’s Lemonade and has only sunk since. Frank, it seemed, had programmed his construction-working clip and made a short film about process while fans took in new songs. Their titles rolled in the closing credits. Screenshots came pouring in. Theories flew across the internet. A gentle sigh set in. That’s it? many of us wondered. What happened here?

There was no album available, just the video — no song breaks, no clarity, no traditional product to unpack. In the clips on his website and in Endless, Ocean was building something more metaphorical than a table or an ottoman or an album. When Endless debuted, the raw materials first seen on boysdontcry.co became a series of boxes that were eventually stacked upon one another, forming something bigger. Frank was building a staircase.

(Boysdontcry.co)
(Boysdontcry.co)

Twenty-four hours later, Endless became a prelude. When the visual album debuted, a representative from Apple Music also told Pitchfork, “keep an eye out this weekend for more from Frank.” Watch this space is one of the more unfortunate phrases of this century, but in this instance, it turned out to hold some truth. Blonde, Ocean’s third album and second in two days, appeared exclusively on Apple Music that Saturday afternoon. There was no short film, no tease, no staircase. Just 17 songs delivered in the format with which we have grown most comfortable. Blonde is an album. A normal album. A beautiful, elusive, striking, wandering album. But still an album, running just over 60 minutes. Its barcode and parental advisory sticker are brandished clearly on its cover, just below Ocean’s bandaged finger, green-dyed pate, and shielded visage. It can also be purchased on vinyl, and there is a zine. These are symbols of a transgressive act contained in conservative formats.

(Boys Don’t Cry)
(Boys Don’t Cry)

Blonde was hailed quickly. Like its formal predecessor, Channel Orange, it challenged perceptions about traditional R&B while fulfilling many of the possibilities the genre provides. “Solo,” in particular, seemed to capture the intimacy that Ocean’s best songs aspire to — with a warm organ, a far-flung whistle, and a do-it-live, riff lyrical style, he made a hymnal masquerading as a dance-floor confessional. Or vice versa. The song became an instantaneous and useful surrogate months after Prince had passed away. Blonde had other weighty attributes, like the heavy, thudding single “Nikes,” which toyed with pitch-shifting vocals and celebrated the lives of the late Trayvon Martin and Pimp C in the same breath. It felt like an important work, even if the haze on it was as thick as what surrounded Ocean’s life in his album interregnum.

Ocean is not a hitmaker, he’s more of hit maneuverer — you can hear him avoiding cliché in real time, putting a little extra Frank into what might be an otherwise standard operation. His artistic instincts are to be not obvious. But Blonde is still bound by the prestige of its form, clichés of a different sort. It has elliptical interludes, an André 3000 verse that comes on like a brush fire, tales of Facebook love lost, a song about a car that isn’t about a car, a nine-minute closer, and a message from Frank’s mom. These are tropes. Dynamically executed, but tropes no less. If I compared Blonde to a Chris Brown album, or a Foo Fighters project, you might think me an asshole — but I wouldn’t be a liar. Blonde quickly became the album of record in Frank Ocean’s return narrative. It debuted at no. 1 on Billboard’s albums chart. Endless never appeared — ineligible. When he declined to submit his work to the Grammys, many assumed Blonde was the one removed from consideration. Endless was hardly mentioned. A distant memory in the content wars.

So what was Endless, anyway? It’s a living sketchbook, for starters, a threnody for the discursive.

For purely listening purposes, I choose Endless over Blonde, and also every other album released in 2016. (I play it all the time, in an illegal MP3 version — a stroke of nostalgia.) That is, in part, because of delivery systems. Never in the history of consumed media has How do we get it? been more urgent and obsessed over than What is it? or When can I get it? But that is where things are. Netflix access, The New Yorker paywall, an adequate Airbnb review, a decent signal so we can order an Uber — these are the mundane struggles of young, largely affluent consumers. Being forced to watch Frank Ocean build a staircase — quite boringly, it should be said — as a trade-off for new music demands a unique brand of attention. A staircase isn’t just a ladder. It’s a door, too. It forced fans to watch and hear, to consider the relationship between the two mediums, and rather than, say, go for a walk or wash the dishes while listening, to just sit there and focus. This is uncommon.

For me, it deepened a connection to the music. I went searching for meaning in lyrics, and for how the film was edited. I obsessed over fragments. Ocean writes lyrics like bear traps — they hurt, and they don’t let go. I methodically looped “How do I crop your new bitch out my Vine?,” a stray line from “U-N-I-T-Y,” one of the album’s best and most unfocused songs. “U-N-I-T-Y” is like this all over, a millennial wordspill: “El Chapo,” “MoMA,” “Peace to Moschino,” “Silicon Valley,” “Chiraq,” “ayahuasca,” “Roger or Novak?,” “I had WhatsApp’d him for atonement.” At song’s end, we hear a snatch of dialogue from Crystal LaBeija in The Queen, a 1968 documentary about a drag beauty contest. “Commes Des Garçons” is a stylish ode to an empowered lover — two men tangoing toward something uncertain, though definitely while inside a luxury car. “Slide on Me” feels like the most clear-eyed torch song of Ocean’s career, before pivoting to allusions to his album’s delay, with references to Arabic words. It is fanfic that turns into fan service. This is all rich text, often indecipherable and unstable.

Do these skeleton keys open any doors? Who can tell, because before the meaning becomes clear, it’s on to the next sketch, a quivering bass line here, an abused drum machine pad there, a cry into the night way over there. The agonized “Wither” might be the best vocal Frank Ocean has ever released, even if it sounds as if it was recorded inside an oil drum. It’s all elegantly slapdash — as quick to come as it is to go. It’s a tweet thread, a solid podcast, a Snap. Visceral and fleeting. This is the music experience in 2016 — ultralight beams streaming into your home from all directions, a bombardment of the unfinished and unvarnished. Endless has this effect, like waving a flashlight in the fog. You can’t hold the light.

There are only two proper four-plus-minute songs on Endless, both of which lack Frank Ocean authorship. The first is a straightforward reading of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” which was made famous again in the ’90s by Aaliyah. It’s gorgeous, if inessential. It feels like a nod to an album that will never be — Frank Sings The Hits. The second is “Device Control,” an intro and outro buttressing the album, both of which are recordings by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. (Ocean doesn’t appear.) These are futuristic-sounding trance-house pulsations that feature Tillmans’s echoing, Germanic voice bellowing things like “With this Apple appliance you can capture live video.” It’s an obtuse rending of technological wonder and malaise in equal measure. (And was used, it seems, without Tillmans’s full approval.) These bookends confounded some, but it was hardly a goof. Endless wasn’t exactly a troll, but it was a stunt.

Frank Ocean didn’t just trick fans with Endless. He tricked his label, Def Jam, which was stuck with the visual album as the final installment in his recording contract. The bigger and more commodified Blonde, on the other hand, was released solely by Boys Don’t Cry, Ocean’s personal imprint. As The Ringer’s Justin Charity wrote earlier this year, “Frank Ocean left Def Jam, a historically successful record label, for Apple Music, a tech company’s billion-dollar sandbox.” If there is a more perfect metaphor for the fallacy of artistic ownership, I haven’t heard it. Even Tillmans has a sense of the cultural needling going on here: “The absurdity of living life through constantly depicting and broadcasting it is so funny when looked at in the serious words of the phone manufacturers,” Tillmans told Pitchfork. “As if any of it matters, and at the same time we are all doing it to varying degrees.” Frank Ocean, it would appear, agrees.

There are many reasons to love Endless, especially as a musical statement — it’s the rolling tide that carries in Blonde’s crashing wave. It takes its time, it ebbs and releases — it’s inconsistent and unpredictable. It is, in many ways, music in 2016. It’s also an artistic statement that is unrivaled — a power move leveraging technology and corporate structures against one another to engender personal freedom. That may seem haughty, but it is true. Frank Ocean is free because of Endless. That he has once again returned to his elusive state should be no surprise. He’s bound by nothing but himself now. The anticipation for his next move will have to wait.

The word “endless” appears just once on boysdontcry.co, in the far right corner of Ocean’s site. When you click the link, it slides the site back to its starting place and lands on the video for “Nikes,” from Blonde. On Apple Music, where Endless lives exclusively, the video is glitchy and often unplayable. In his lone interview during this cycle, a pair of long conversations with The New York Times, Endless is not discussed. No record sales or streams have been recorded for public consumption. There will be no ceremonies and no awards — the popular vote does not agree with Frank’s electoral college. It feels as if Ocean wants this album to vanish, like an act of self-erasure. He snookered everyone. What a neat trick.