The Enduring Appeal of 'Endless', Frank Ocean’s Underrated Masterpiece
Though it was seemingly lost in wake of 'Blonde', the album wasn't just a way for Ocean to get out of his record deal.
Frank Ocean's Endless had a build-up of four years and a shelf life of two days. No sooner had it arrived, it became a fixture in the background. It was clear this wasn't the much-promised "New Frank Ocean Album!" almost immediately after it came out. "Keep an eye out this weekend for more from Frank," a source told Pitchfork when Endless came out in August 2016, settling nerves in case fans thought this visual album sounded, to put it bluntly, unfinished.
Part of the appeal of Endless is that it is unfinished. A blurry, abstract, 45-minute, singular visual piece, it only became an actual album when fans ripped an Apple Music stream's audio and separated it into individual tracks. 24 hours after it dropped, Frank released the "Nikes" video. One day after that, out came Blonde, the actual new album, supported by pop-up shops in London, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where fans could get their hands on a 360-page magazine called Boys Don't Cry. After years of waiting, Frank Ocean had revealed three separate works all ready to be decoded.
Inside the Boys Don't Cry magazine were high-end fashion shoots, short stories and a Kanye West poem about McDonald's. The richly-produced songs of Blonde contained a thousand tangled thoughts and loose tangents, ready to be unraveled and speculated about via Genius annotations. By this point, Endless was nothing but a prelude. Or at least that's how the story went until last month, when a new version of one of the album's songs premiered on Frank Ocean's Blonded radio show – the Young Thug-featuring "Slide On Me".
The real purpose of Endless was for Frank Ocean to become an independent artist. By being catalogued as a full-length, it fulfilled Frank's obligations to Def Jam and Universal. He'd seen out his contract, and he was free to rake in the profits from Blonde. This was a genius move, business-wise, but it somewhat tarnished the record itself. To those who know Endless best however, it was so much more than a bargaining tactic, or even a standard album: It was a black-and-white, looped stream; a giant warehouse with blacked-out windows; a workbench with panels of wood stacked up against it; a set of speakers designed by Tom Sachs; and a staircase leading to nowhere in particular. It was freedom represented as art.
Prior to the release of Endless, Frank Ocean's reclusiveness had become a running joke. Even Adele, another hermetic star who'd refuse to release anything if it didn't feel right, told Rolling Stone: "I'm just fucking waiting for Frank fucking Ocean to come out with his album. It's taking so fucking long." First he promised a record in July 2015, maybe two records ("I got two versions. I got twooo versions"). Next came a library card, with old due dates scribbled out and a list of dates in the future. 8 January 2016, 12 February, 19 February, 25 March, 22 April, 6 May, 3 June and all of July passed without a sound. And so it got to the stage where if Frank Ocean turned up out of nowhere and chopped wood for two weeks, people would watch. Thousands did.
To recap: on Monday 1 August 2016, an Apple Music livestream appeared on his boysdontcry.co site. Out stepped a blurry figure in a black hoodie, who turned out to be Frank. A release seemed near-enough imminent, yet nothing came to fruition. Instead, Frank cut his way through sheets of wood. A mysterious source on Twitter claimed they'd given Frank carpentry lessons, and that he was building a staircase. By day five, there was still no album. Every so often a new snippet would ring out, but nothing that resembled a new and listenable song. At some stage, I began to wonder if I was a plank of wood, that this was all some weird fiction my nightmares had created in a state of desperation. I'd spend nights with my laptop placed on the drawers next to my bed, livestream playing, just in case I heard something new. It was beyond obsessive, but it was an experience shared by thousands more fans around the world. Talk about creating an event.
Conner, from Chicago, Illinois, relates a similar account. "Waiting for Endless was one of the most tedious things I had ever done... And I loved every minute of it," he says over email. Like most diehard fans, he checked the /FrankOcean subreddit for clues, and he tried to unpick some of his own. "I thought maybe the clothes he was wearing were important, so I started a list of every shirt and shoe he was wearing." Others managed to identify the warehouse Frank was filming in, and some – jokingly, if a little beyond sanity – plotted a kidnapping.
Robert, from Somerset, Massachusetts, wasn't even a Frank Ocean fan when the livestream first came out. "Something about the crypticness drew me in," he says. " I then got as crazy as most of the people on the subreddit were, looking for as many clues as possible." He remembers "freaking out" every time he got a notification from the @FrankMocean Twitter account, which tracked any movement on the livestream. This is how weird things got. Rey from Houston, Texas, sums it up: "I never knew a man building a staircase could put me in so much suspense."
On 19 August, something finally happened. The stream cut to a different room, where Frank began to assemble the wood panels into a staircase. As expected, those fragments of rich, stretched-out instrumentals began to piece together. Then Endless began playing. Dominic, from Lancaster UK, was one of the few Frank Ocean heads in the country up at 4AM when this all began to happen. "The screen started getting brighter. I sat for the next five hours listening." The stream ended with a list of credits – Alex G contributed guitar, Jonny Greenwood orchestrated string arrangements, James Blake played synths. Phoenix, Arizona resident Tyler remembers playing it for the first time. "I got to drive hours through the beautiful Rocky Mountains all while listening to this absolutely powerful, vocal, ambient collection of songs. I had no idea if this was supposed to be the album, I didn't care."
"I remember being so giddy with happiness that it was finally out – I had to get outside," says Conner. "I went on a walk that I will always remember. I played the entire thing beginning to end. It's a little embarrassing to say, but after first listening to it I teared up… None of my friends had even heard it. When I would play it, they would say, 'Why can't we just listen to Blonde?'. I think after having both records for eight months, Endless has left a greater mark on me."
Putting the label disputes and the subsequent vastness of Blonde on ice for a minute, it's clear Endless stands as a brilliant record in its own right. It just does so in a very different way: thriving on empty space and what isn't there. Songs like the fidgety, minute-long "Comme des Garçons" end too soon. "In Here Somewhere" stirs into a Spielberg-ready sci-fi soundtrack before being disassembled into a collection of broken beats. There isn't really one complete song. "Slide on Me" has a verse-chorus structure that the others lack. "Rushes To" and "Wither" contain flooring vocal parts, but they're all still loosely arranged – any traces of standard, perfectly-crafted songs tend to race out of shot the minute they've entered the frame.
Like recent singles "Chanel" and "Biking", Endless is a fluid work with a grand scope and no clear endpoint. In the case of the more recent releases from his Blonded radio show and Endless, Ocean is writing songs that capture the way most people think – the way emotions boil up before settling down, how big dreams can immediately disappear when something catastrophic happens, or the way loose thoughts enter your head as you think about the days ahead. Nobody thinks linear, uninterrupted thoughts – Endless mirrors this perfectly. It helps too that it's more ambient than pop, able to blur into the background like a loose, overarching soundtrack.
In all the years of Radiohead pay-what-you-like schemes and The Life of Pablo re-uploads, there hasn't been an album build up quite like Endless. Every time the record plays, I'm taken straight back to the warehouse, the white light and the haze of hearing the strings of "At Your Best (You Are Love)" for the first time, mid-sleep. It was a surreal, stressful couple of weeks. It probably took a few years off my life. But all the mania and sleeplessness came with a sense of communion. The album's been pretty much forgotten, but not by those who become so embroiled in waiting for its arrival. Those two weeks meant something, and that's why Endless won't always be an afterthought.
You can find Jamie on Twitter.
Lead illustration by Esme Blegvad.