Frank's Stairs

Black creatives are rarely afforded the opportunity to nourish their craft independent of a capitalist motivation.

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Aug 22 2016, 4:38pm


Still from 'Endless,' a visual album by Frank Ocean

Stairs are spaces between spaces, pathways circumscribed by the way our bodies navigate space and each other. Why don’t we think of them as prosthetics when they remind us of our human limitations? When the concept of humanness hinges on these bounds, by which we identify some as functional, able and normal, and others as deficient, disabled and different. Because they incriminate/expose our desire to exert control over our shared humanness, to transcend the limits of our bodies and ourselves. We’re reluctant to see our dependencies as crutches.

Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless makes humanness seem like a disability, something we’re both vulnerable to and expected to transcend. In effect, we’re all damaged goods, making sense of the world to feel less lost within it, seeking other people to combat our loneliness, longing for control when we feel like we’ve lost it. Stairs are compassionate in their care, affording the able the small dignity of keeping their dependencies invisible. But despite their humanity, stairs also alienate the differently abled, magnifying their failure to transcend their bodies, compromised as they are.

Disabilities are only thought of as such when they’re made visible. We’re often made to feel weak for falling prey to our worst human tendencies, depression, fucking raw, heartbreak. If being human is a disability, people are its necessary prosthetics; the beauty of our innate co-dependency is that it’s a rich source of empathy and kindness.

It’s hard to make an entrance if you never really left. Since Channel Orange, Frank’s vocabulary of life, love, and loss has only become more relevant, his ethos continues to linger over our emotional memories. He’s hardly had a chance for a clean break, the opportunity to forget and be forgotten, to be free of Twitter jokes, hastily-written hot takes and the weight of our expectations. In canonizing him, we kept the new Frank out by keeping the old Frank in. Endless is both a fresh start and a natural progression.

Stairs remind us of the relationship between our past and present selves. They separate there from here, real from unreal. Shot in the style of the cinéma vérité, we’re shown evidence that the staircase objectively exists—the performance of Frank’s labor, the visible film apparatus—a move intended to cut through the viewer's prejudice or preconceived notions to the "real" image, of Frank, a ghost made corporeal before our very eyes. It sounds profoundly sad, having to coerce viewers into making you visible because you weren’t seen, heard or felt. Yearning emerges as a recurring theme; we want what’s bad for us, or yearn for yearning’s sake. We’re called to bear witness to the past meeting the future, different conceptions of self colliding in a liminal space where time is trivial and being a passive audience member isn’t enough. It falls on us to acknowledge that the unfamiliar or unable are worthy of our care and affection.

Repeatedly, our compassion is called into question. As I watched him mount each step of his stairway, every complaint about the lack of an album felt like a gross overreaction. Who was I to demand anything of this tender-hearted man who simply wants to show me something he made with his own two hands? Who were we to suggest that there was something wrong with Frank for not giving us what we want when proclaimed to love him so?

When we talk about Frank Ocean, we’re almost always talking about ourselves. Our demands on Frank’s creativity speak more to our failings than to his; we reveal our dependency on him for our own emotional expression. Indeed, his tender masculinity and queerness gave us permission to be incomplete works-in-progress. We need him more than he needs us, to be sure. But the pressure he had to be under must’ve been immense, to be a therapist to a generation of disaffected and disenfranchised young people. If there was anyone who deserves our patience and gratitude, it’s Frank.

We do a disservice to our black creatives when their work becomes more valuable to us than their lives, when we don’t afford them the same ability to be compassionate to themselves. By showing us a small glimpse of the work involved in the creative process, Endless is its own justification for producing art at one’s own pace; creativity needs time, space, and energy to percolate. The new paradigm of surprise releases bucks the tendency to selectively listen to the singles; more and more, the immediate gratification of listening to the bangers sacrifices a bit of our humanity to the mindless compulsion to consume. We're too busy to start at the beginning and end at the end.

Black creatives are rarely afforded the opportunity to nourish their craft independent of a capitalist motivation. When resources and time are scarce, when producing a creative work is an all-or-nothing gambit, the easiest support an audience can offer is their compassion, that your humanity is being acknowledged, not evaluated. Frank makes us wait, but it's up to us to be patient, to allow the album to breathe and unfold in the same way that Channel Orange grew to feel like a rearview mirror on the dirtbag selves we used to be (and maybe still are).

Stairs have always been an allegory for reaching something greater than us. As Frank climbs the steps of his own making, he's in control over the spaces and identities he continues to negotiate. It's a powerful moment, almost as if he had broken an unspoken rule despite having made the rules. At the top of his ascent, he pauses; he could be enjoying the view or thinking about jumping. In these quiet moments, we feel Frank's mortality most acutely; he's a man who makes beats because he has to, because he loves us dearly, because we love him dearly. Endless balances these tensions with a quiet, almost silent conviction; it'll be some time before we feel the tremors beneath our feet.

Watch Frank Ocean's visual album 'Endless' here.

Vidal Wu is a writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.