Regardless of how deftly Frank Ocean has eluded categorizations of his genre and sexuality, he could not escape his context. We all can be considered “products of our time,” but no artist in music has embodied such representation as artfully as Frank Ocean. From an industry perspective, Ocean has fully employed the practices of modern music business through mixtapes, surprise releases, and streaming exclusives; his professional choices are a Sign o’ the Times, as his hero Prince once sang.
But in an age of immediacy and artificiality, where modernity has rid us of the most organic components of creating art, Ocean chose to release the visual album Endless – a forty-five minute music video of three Frank Oceans constructing a staircase – to remind us of the protracted toils of creating… anything. Moreover, a five day stream of the carpentry featured in Endless preceded the album’s release. Was Ocean objecting to the contemporary culture of immediate music exchange with such a drawn out exhibition on long-winded process of creativity? Could he even protest such a thing when he himself owes nearly all of his fame and fortune to the internet? Was Ocean positing himself as an anti-generational spokesperson? No matter how long four years may have seemed, the album which broke Ocean’s hiatus forced fans to check themselves and question their impatient anticipation, and did so in a stroke of genius.
Endless is a unique multi-media presentation posing daunting, yet romantic, realist dilemmas. Time seems to be the obvious overarching subject of Endless. Its songs also explore love and hubris, but the visual platform of the album forces one to consider the focal points of Ocean’s lyrical matter in relation to the meaning behind his staircase construction. The best and most eloquent example of this is in the song “Wither,” in the line: “Pray [our children] get to see me wither.” The song’s minimalist instrumental brings the vocals to the forefront along with an earnest contemplation of the finite nature of life. The double entendre “see me wither [with her]” offers both a hope for long life and a desperate desire to share it with loved ones. While love forms the song’s thematic preoccupation, it ultimately becomes secondary to the protagonist’s worry of losing those he loves.
The production on Endless is highly experimental and quintessentially contemporary. Ocean incorporates rap vocal deliveries in the mode of Young Thug with highly electronic instrumentals and rapid-fire trap-style percussions. Ocean’s rap verses show a significant improvement from the verses previously released on his Tumblr. He demonstrates a greater command of cadence with bars that are less dense than previous and are more carefully spaced. A majority of the album is electronic, harkening to the style change made by Radiohead between 1997’s OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A. Ocean himself is undoubtedly influenced by the band, having incorporated Radiohead’s “Optimistic” (Kid A) as an interlude on his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA and covering “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s The Bends (1997) during his 2012 live campaign. Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood even contributes string orchestration to the album’s opener. The stylistic transition towards the experimental alternative-electronic is a sign of maturation for Ocean who previously deferred to samples to obtain such an aesthetic.
But while Endless ventures into experimental territory, it retains the accessibility of Ocean’s singer-songwriting appeal. The album opens with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Let Me Know” (made famous by Aaliyah) accented with the dreaminess of Greenwood’s string orchestration. “Comme Des Garcons” and “Slide on Me” are enticingly catchy with their ascending melody and call-and-response chorus, respectively. Between the album’s most experimental tracks are minimalist R&B songs that highlight Ocean’s potent songwriting ability. Standout consecutive tracks “Rushes” and “Rushes To” evoke Bon Iver-esque composition with sparse guitar backing and alternatingly spaced and overlapping vocals. “Rushes To” offers Ocean signing at his most passionate, straining himself with exhaustive effort as he belts the closing lines of the song.
The lasting impression made by Endless is the balance between Ocean’s minimalist composition and the abstract free verse communicated through an ethereal electronic palate. He forces us to accept the new with the old, which creates a conundrum for fans who may not be able to access the album’s experimentalism. Creatively, Endless is an opus which refocuses our awareness of our humanity through an ode to love, loneliness, and desire. It is in one sense, however, a detriment to the artist.
A day after the release of Endless, Ocean released a proper LP entitled Blonde, a more accessible album which absolves Ocean of the predicament of profitability. The album opens with the luscious “Nikes,” a dizzyingly atmospheric track featuring pitch-altered rap verses which carry over the abstract content of Endless. The song transitions into a more nimble instrumental of acoustic guitar plucking layered with soaring synths. Aesthetic seems to be song’s focus. The “Nikes” music video features Frank surrounded by cars sipping the contents of a Styrofoam cup, suggestive of some codeine-infused drink. It is the perfect visual for a song that perfects the disorienting and droning hip-hop production made popular by A$AP Rocky.
The ensuing song is one that Ocean performed during his 2013 California Live, You’re Not Dead Tour. On “Ivy,” Ocean sings about a love fallen apart, the nostalgia of a blooming friendship, and the disconnect between estranged lovers. The song’s pitch-altered vocals detract from the sincerity of its beautiful lyrics, effectively conveyed through Ocean’s live performances of it. Over the high reverb of dream-pop guitars, “Ivy’s” lyrical substance seems cheapened by the artificiality of the song’s production. Ocean appears to compensate for this creatively at the song’s outro with sounds of instruments thrown around a room in the distance, accentuating the frustration expressed in the lyrics. But the mere seconds in which this frustration manifests doesn’t recompense the botching of what would have been a beautiful and endearing song.
Blonde is consistently minimalist in its instrumental arrangement. Simplistic, yet catchy, piano and Rhodes melodies on “Pink + White” and “Solo,” respectively, yield some of Ocean’s most sing-along moments. Harmonies contributed by Beyoncé featured on “Pink + White” hilariously distract listeners from the song’s message of futility.
Several songs overtly borrow lyrical elements from Ocean’s influences, the most obvious being “Close to You,” which draws both its title and chorus melody from the Carpenters’ single of the same name. “White Ferrari” borrows from The Beatles’ Revolver (1966) hit “Here, There, and Everywhere;” Ocean singing the line “Spending each day of the year” in the melody originated by Paul McCartney. In these two songs, Ocean draws from two of the most iconic and commercialized pop acts in music history. It is no wonder then that Blonde’s appeal reaches a much broader audience than Endless.
But Blonde’s accessibility doesn’t diminish Ocean’s potency as a songwriter. The album’s most heart-rending single “Seigfried” tells of a man struggling to find his fit in the world. Also performed on the California Live Tour, “Seigfried” retains the minimalist arrangement featured in its live performance, again bringing Ocean’s vocals and lyrics to the forefront. Lyrical gems “I’m living in an idea / An idea from another man’s mind” effectively invokes feelings of displacement while the closing lines of “I’d do anything for you / (In the dark)” deliver a potent sense of desperation.
Ocean makes references to several real-life friends of his across the album, giving Blonde a deeply personal and seemingly autobiographical feel. The album closes with recordings of his friends interviewed in low fidelity while a dancing synth melody creates a sense of nostalgia. Questions asked in this recording, such as “How far is a light year?” remind listeners of the simple joy of sharing the company of childhood friends. This substance found in these interview tapes is not found in the exchange of dialogue, but rather, the realization of time passed between good friends, understood in the youthfulness of their voices.
Though the dual-release of Endless and Blonde consequentially forces the two to be compared against each other – a comparison in which Blonde loses creatively but wins with fans – Ocean’s choice to release two separate albums simultaneously is remarkably brave. As we began when he first revealed his queer sexuality, we may continue to know Ocean for his courage. We have all the reason to believe in his creative direction; so far, he has yet to miss a step doing things his way.