clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Your Track-by-Track Guide to Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’

Frank Ocean is back. We break it down.

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Frank back! Four years and a couple of short-circuited livestreams later, our favorite aspiring zine-maker has returned with Endless, a 45-minute “video album.” He’s promising another album, maybe even this weekend. But forget the technical details (we’re pretty sure you stripped those screws, Frank) and commercial semantics, and remember what Endless is: a Frank Ocean album. We don’t get those every day. So our staffers went track-by-track on this sucker.

‘Device Control’ (0:00)

Sam Schube: Four years since Channel Orange, and the first thing we hear from Frank Ocean is a song about iPhones written by the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. “With this Apple appliance,” a voice drones as we watch Frank’s Apple-exclusive movie, “you can watch a live video.” Very cute.

But there’s something more interesting going on here. Because Frank isn’t just one of Tillmans’s subjects. The bodies of work by the 48-year-old from Remscheid and the 28-year-old from Louisiana share an ethic, a value system. An aesthetic — and a politics.

The Berlin-based Tillmans is a big-deal photographer who shows in museums and galleries. But he’s not an elitist. Far from it: Tillmans came up in the early 1990s, shooting his pals in Berlin’s fashion and techno scenes when each of those worlds was in the throes of real revolution. Their city was, too. Tillmans is a radically democratic and curious photographer, picking the sublime out of the everyday: those friends and lovers, but also foamy ocean waves, fruits. For an artist coming of age as the Wall came down, it was a sidelong approach to politics — but the work is political nonetheless. In Tillmans’s photos, the clothes are genderless, sexual identity is fluid, and the fruit is so, so ripe.

Tillmans had a solo show at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery last fall. There, on a cold weekend morning, I was struck as much by the context of his photographs as their content. Tillmans taped many of them straight to the gallery’s walls; some were printed on foam board and nailed in. Others still — and this feels like the important part — were housed in makeshift display cases: plywood tables with glass tops, flimsy and handmade. It felt so reckless to take these heartbreakingly intimate photographs and slap them up with two-by-fours and Scotch tape. But I wonder if that was the point, then and now: to take something radically vulnerable and put it in hurt’s way. To put it out into the world at all. All of which is to say: Welcome back, Frank. We missed you.

‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’ (Isley Brothers Cover) (0:58)

Victor Luckerson: Millennia ago, the music gods decreed that every Frank Ocean project begin in earnest with the Frank Ocean Falsetto. There’s a midverse tease of it on Nostalgia, Ultra’s “Strawberry Swing.” On Channel Orange’s “Thinkin Bout You,” the falsetto takes center stage as a disarmingly vulnerable rejoinder to Frank’s nonchalant, half-rapped facade built on a stack of flimsy lies. Now we get our longest exposure to Frank’s high-pitched cry yet on “At Your Best (You Are Love).”

The song is a remake of a 1976 hit by the Isley Brothers, originally dedicated to the group’s mother, Sally. Aaliyah released a delicate cover on her 1994 debut album that was remixed into a bump ’n’ grind radio hit featuring R. Kelly. As an homage to Aaliyah, Frank released a stripped-down interpretation of the track in 2015, just his wavering vocals and a somber piano. With the new addition of synths and strings contributed by James Blake and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, though, the song now sounds more like a dreamscape than a dirge.

Frank’s falsetto usually has a raw yearning to it that makes you want to clutch your own heart as you’re hearing it. But here, he’s more angelic than anguished, on the same frequency that Michael Jackson tapped into when he made the city lights spring to life on “Human Nature.” It’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and a stark contrast to the industrial rancor that follows it. This song is the jetway that transports us from Earth to the stars (or maybe it’s a black hole?) where the rest of the album resides.

Frank Ocean (Getty Images)
Frank Ocean (Getty Images)

‘Alabama’ (6:17)

Rob Harvilla: There is a silliness and pomposity to all this — the blown deadlines, the carpentry lesson, the queasy corporate tie-in, the audacity of the livestream’s mundanity, the threat that this isn’t even the real album — that makes you suspicious of a song this simple, and unguarded, and biographical-seeming. Like he’s just pretending to open up. “Alabama” is not complicated. A gentle piano riff, mellow and quirky, like Jon Brion noir, joined by multiple Franks, lurking from multiple alcoves in your headphones, just blurting stuff out. “Duplex in New Orleans East / I was writing down everything / Things I wouldn’t tell nobody / Some things I didn’t even tell me.” (So he’s inscrutable even to himself, which is a relief, when confronting a project this inscrutable.) “Sleepin’ on my back / My body would wake up after me / My father fresh out the penitentiary / The alcohol was stingin’ me.” This is vivid, and warm, and just slightly uncomfortable. It feels lived-in, and lived-among. “My four cousins stay with me / Stay with us.”

It fractures. A 17-year-old girl shows up (“braless titties swingin’”), and a bully (“we was cool after”), and a couple pairs of shoes (Reebok Classics, Air Maxes). Climax: “Lost the virgin on an air mattress,” which rhymes with “road rashes.” A wince: “Tension risin’, feelin’ unnatural.” A shrug: “It’s whatever dude / Just to show you / That it’s special now.” And then a question that we’ve lately been asking ourselves, about him, about all the fancy-album-release artistes like him: “What can I do to know you / Better than I do now? / What can I do to love you / More than I do now?” Sampha takes up the chant — he’s the vocalist you call when you need to convey Uncomfortably Intimate Ethereal Solemnity. Jazmine Sullivan moaning somewhere in there, too, warming up. And then a jumble of words I will choose to interpret, at this late and bleary hour, as, “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?”

That’s it. Ninety seconds and change, and we’re on to much lusher, weirder, even more inscrutable things. The whole time the Three Stair-Makin’ Franks are wearing Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts. I wonder what his favorite JAMC song is. I bet it’s “Almost Gold.”

‘Mine’ (8:14)

Micah Peters: So this is a Ludovician blitz of reverb and hushed, jumbled, aimless whispers about “pleasure,” “ecstasy,” and “soul” (from what I could make out) that just adds to the barometric French-New-Waviness of this whole ordeal. I wonder how many times Frank has watched Clockwork Orange in these four years he’s been away. 400 Blows? Breathless? What if this is it and there is no “other” album? What if this is all just some prolonged Godard film where he builds a staircase all the way to heaven and ascends with the only physical copy of the album in existence? What then?

Here’s what:

‘U-N-I-T-Y’ (10:14)

RAPPING FRANK.

Rapping Frank might be my third-favorite Frank. Behind Sexy Frank and Burdened With the Unbearable Lightness of Being Frank.

He — Rapping Frank, I mean — has this unavoidably 3000-esque bent for weaving rhyme patterns and melodies that feel spontaneous but are definitely intentional. It’s like tracing the path of a contour drawing; the lines meander all over the place, but eventually you begin to see ears. And then a head, and a face, then eventually a rough sketch of a whole person and maybe an offhand guess about why that person might do the things they do. And somehow he manages to say every cool thing ever in the process. Look at this right here:

I never ever trust a prerolled, I never let a random motherfucker shoot the B-roll / I never ask advice from him cause what could he know / never fuck someone you wouldn’t wanna be though.

What? WHAT?

Oh, you want something more topical? Maybe something about a plateauing tech industry? Paranoia over the intensifying impersonalization of interpersonal communication? We’ve got that too.

I want the Porsche, a Bugatti design / Silicon Valley new venture is tits up / How do I crop your new bitch out my Vine?

Teach this shit in schools.

‘Ambience 001: In a Certain Way’ (11:07) [INTERLUDE]

‘Commes Des Garcons’ (11:18)

Allison P. Davis: Here are my top-five rap songs that are dedicated to or refer to high-fashion designers who make things I can’t afford:

1. “Niggas in Paris,” Kanye West and Jay Z: “What’s Gucci, my Nigga. What’s Louis, my killa. What’s drugs, my dealer? What’s that jacket, Margiela?”

2. “Tom Ford,” Jay Z: “Tom Ford. Tom Ford. Tom Ford.”

3. “Gucci Gucci,” Kreayshawn: “Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada / Them basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.”

4. “Fashion Killa,” A$AP Rocky: “[Long list of designer names]”

5. “Blazin,” Nicki Minaj (ft. Kanye West): “I think I’m Marc Jacobs, I think I’m Lagerfeld.”

But then Frank Ocean dropped “Commes Des Garcons,” which surpasses them all.

First, there’s the caliber of designer he selected. Frank’s not Kanye, who’s still on some Balmain shit. He’s chosen (and can correctly pronounce) Comme des Garcons, a thinking human’s brand helmed by Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo is a genius: intellectual, creative, frustrating, pretentious, enigmatic, aloof (huh, sounds familiar!). She’ll never make a capsule collection at Kohl’s and she’ll probably never comment on being mentioned in a Frank Ocean song.

That choice probably says enough about Frank. And even though he probably wears 95 percent CDG, we can’t stop there because Frank Ocean is a confession wrapped in introspection shrouded in hidden meaning tied up with a cypher. “Commes Des Garcons” isn’t just about fashion, or a glimpse into Frank’s psyche — there’s a metric ton of Meaning compressed into this loosely tropical microtrack.

So when you hear Comme des Garcons, what comes to mind? Do you picture one of those ubiquitous shirts with the goofy little heart embroidery? Yes. So maybe (probably) this is a song about love — most likely one of Ocean’s past loves. It’s a song about wearing your heart on your sleeve (or chest pocket, as it were) — so a song about vulnerability.

Now look at the lyrics, which are heavy on Oceanic wordplay. This is also a song about sexuality (Comme des Garcons is French for “like boys” ); infidelity (“He was dating on the side, he was seeing double,”); sex, and having a lot of it (“All this drillin’ got the dick feeling like a power tool”); things ending (“Feelings come, feelings go”); and also about effective consumerism because now I really want a damn CDG shirt.

‘Ambience 002: Honeybaby’ (12:16) [INTERLUDE]

‘Wither’ (12:57)

Alyssa Bereznak: Frank Ocean will never allow a love ballad to be just a simple, happy thing, and the wistfully sparse “Wither” is no exception. As Bandcamp phenom Alex G plucks a guitar, Frank unfolds a bleak post-“Novacane” romance set in a landscape where the fields and trees have been burned away and he and his lover are left dancing in a Coachella-less desert, covered in dirt and staring up at skies “filled with pain.” Their intimacy is underscored by a kind of Mad Max–esque isolation (though I imagine their sitch to be slightly sexier); he reaches a fever pitch imagining the life of their kin: “Hope our children walk by spring and flowers bloom / hope they’ll get to see my color / Know that I’ve enjoyed sunshine / Pray they’ll get to see me, me wither.” All at once we can hear him mourning the comfort he found with her, and praying that the same feeling won’t wither quite so quickly for the generation he leaves behind. The song itself withers out, trailing with some soft vocals from Jazmine Sullivan. All I can say is that the dude still knows how to bring the feels.

Jazmine Sullivan (Getty Images)
Jazmine Sullivan (Getty Images)

‘Hublots’ (15:30) // ‘In Here Somewhere’ (15:50)

Justin Charity: Frank Ocean makes sedate, pretentious, Soulection-auteur, post-peak-prestige cable TV drama, “homie took Garden State a lil’ too seriously, a decade too late,” overpriced-coffee-table-book music. For that reason, I kinda respect his leaning with both shoulders first into the album-release format designed precisely for this sort of music and henceforth known as Streaming Music Exclusive Pop “Statement” Album, Release Date Stressfully TBD. (Shouts out to Rihanna.) There are a handful of songs from Endless that I immediately enjoy. “In Here Somewhere,” however, carries so much of what I find frustrating about Frank. No, not his cruel delays and misdirection, but rather his tendency to bury first-draft journal filler and an occasionally great voice under the work of producers. Here he’s asked Jazmine Sullivan to mumble unproductively over a Sherbet sample that Daft Punk already wore out. I guess this is the “Hold My Liquor” of Endless, a six-minute slog of allegedly artful static that you have to put up with before you make it to “Slide on Me,” three minutes of great music that my colleague Chris Ryan praises capably below. But goddamn if the static-to-greatness ratio isn’t a metaphor for the Great Frank Ocean Album Rollout of 2013–16, and for his potential overall. I want to hear Frank Ocean write himself into focus and sing the breaks off these sleepy-ass beats, consistently. When is that album dropping?

‘Slide on Me’ (19:03)

Chris Ryan: This is the one that plays during the part of the Endless visualization, or #longform music video, or carpentry-instruction vlog where Frank is dressed up as Walter White, and he sings “how the fuck you think I live, too many heads waiting for my downfall,” which is quite a one-who-knocks thing to ask. It’s an overtly sexual song, an airing of grievances, and a collection of creep-shot observations that you can make only when someone isn’t looking. It puts the contemporary adult in Adult Contemporary, playing with Fields of Gold–era Sting vocal phrasing. It longs like Everything But the Girl–ish, like the desert misses the rain. It hurts deep, in a dull way, and then slides away.

‘Sideways’ (22:13)

K. Austin Collins: It makes sense that the production on a song titled “Sideways” would slowly rock you this way and that like a love puppy swooning himself into seasickness. Is this what people mean when they say Frank Ocean’s music is “sleepy”? It’s possible he’s a master of the lullaby — certainly he’s a master of post-irony, and of an earnest specificity that’s hard to make sense of from the outside. That’s the attraction, probably. What’s the “it,” Frank? That’s what an old college teacher of mine, parsing these lyrics, would wonder. “I was in it,” “gotta cleanse it,” “Keep the safety off it,” “I forgive it,” “’Cause only God can forget it.” Weirdly, that’s the entire song. Every “it” is a rung in the song’s backbone. Climbing where? Who knows? I’ve never really tried to make sense of Frank’s lyrics before. Seems pointless, beyond pointing out a few clever pleasures (“Prime prime time on my life with ya / Puttin’ prime numbers up though / On em 777 flights ya”); a few points of historical reference (“free show at the Garden” = PABLO at MSG?); and a bit of shade (“When I’m up they gon’ hate” — don’t even, Frank). I like him as a lyricist, and as a magnet for production that sets me off on a nice groove. The persona, I’m getting wary of.

‘Florida’ (24:04) // ‘Deathwish (ASR)’ (26:01)

Danny Chau: A little over a minute of Frank Ocean turning his Brian Wilson harmonic dream suites into a reality, with only a droning, rippling bass murmur keeping his voice floorbound. As the song approaches its close, one of his yearning runs takes a new shape: a four-second sax solo. And then it’s over, and then you listen to it again, because a minute of Frank turning into Brian Wilson is better than no minutes of Frank turning into Brian Wilson.

Then it’s just under two minutes of Frank in the future-present, embedded in space and a skittering beat, taunting all of us:

It’s been a time for short attention spans and quick-cutting Vines and entitled fan impatience, for appetizers and small plates and building the perfect bite. We know the main course is coming, but these fragments aren’t just here to placate. The appetizer is an invitation: Take your hunger and wrap it around this little bit of an idea I’ve constructed. It gives you authority to fill in the blanks, to help make it something that matters to you. When it works, the moment can be unforgettable. When it doesn’t, well, what’s a minute of your time?

‘Rushes’ (27:15) // ‘Rushes To’ (32:50)

Sean Fennessey: “We’ve been here before / The first time is not the best time.” Is this a salve or an apology? A koan or a tribute? A sonnet or a eulogy? Is this “Tangerine” or “Fields of Gold”? “All Falls Down” or “What’s It’s Like”? Brian McKnight or David Ruffin? R. Kelly or D’Angelo? The twinned “Rushes” suite is among the most stark and plainly gorgeous things on Endless, but it’s not gorgeous in the same way as these other songs. Acoustic guitars and lyrics with no opacity. “Recreation is keeping us self-contained and aware,” he says, just one in a torrent of tiny phrasings that don’t always fill the sum, but create an ache in the center. This pair of songs has to arrive near the end of an album like this, one that is otherwise so consumed with modern context. It isn’t woozy or confounding. It is laid bare, a lot of pain and confusion. This is the “Forrest Gump” moment. May it soon have its “Forrest Gump” moment.

‘Higgs/Outro’ (36:32)

Lindsay Zoladz: When I hear the word “endless,” I think Kraftwerk. Specifically “Europe Endless,” the 10-minute opening opus on the German electronic pioneers’ 1977 masterpiece Trans-Europe Express — the greatest album ever made about the simultaneous wonder and horror of emerging technology. “Higgs” (which is what we’re calling the last 9 minutes or so of Frank Ocean’s gloriously amorphous new album) makes me think he’s heard it, and also that he’s been spending some late, sleepless nights staring into the existential depths of particle-physics Wikipedia. As a result, he’s made a deeply personal record so otherworldly that it occasionally sounds like an audition tape to be the new host of Cosmos.

I like to think of Frank Ocean as this internet-era folk hero, one of the last among us who has not given himself over to our streaming-and-smartphone overlords. (As the last four years have proved: Dude certainly knows how to go off the grid.) So I’ll admit I felt a little pang of disappointment when I saw the Apple Music logo in the top corner of his livestream a few weeks ago. Et tu, Frank? But what an inscrutably sly fuck-you it is to close this record out with a song that contains the words “Sony” and “Samsung Galaxy.” The digital marketplace is all about the narcissism of small differences: Asserting that Tidal streams sound slightly better than Spotify, that the iPhone is infinitely more special than a Galaxy or (shudder) a BlackBerry. Leave it to Frank Ocean to end his Apple-exclusive album with a droll shout-out to Apple alongside its competitors, making the life-improving innovations they all promise with their devices sound hyperbolic, absurd, and even a little bit dystopic. That’s a god-particle-level move. Your service provider is not your messiah, Frank Ocean reminds us, and your phone’s not going to save you. But music still might.