Early this morning, Frank Ocean did what we’ve been waiting for him to do for four years now: he released a new album. But it wasn’t the release we were expecting. Instead of the previously announced Boys Don’t Cry (which will reportedly drop this weekend as a separate project, under a new title), Endless is a "surprise" visual album, currently streaming on Apple Music.
Unlike Beyonce’s Lemonade, a visual album that accompanied each song with a distinct act with a distinct look, Endless is more fixed. Shot in black and white, the video is set in a warehouse where Ocean slowly and methodically builds what looks like a spiral staircase out of big blocks of wood. Throughout Endless’s 45-minute run time, the setting never changes, and the camera angles rarely do. If you were to graph the plot of Endless, it would mostly be a straight line. Plus, we’ve seen this visual before: the clip closely resembles the live stream that’s been living on Ocean’s website for weeks. But when you watch Endless in full, accompanied by 19 new Frank Ocean tracks (including interludes), it becomes an entirely separate project: an exercise in accepting stasis.
The choice to accept stasis
At around 38 beautiful, but slow minutes into Endless, Ocean is finally done building. He circles the staircase aimlessly, squats down to look at it from a different angle, walks over to a table and takes a sip of something, then leans back to admire his work. The song that’s playing, "Higgs," suddenly shifts from a soft, lilting thing to a heated club track; it sounds like an alarm going off. Patiently, Ocean walks back over to the staircase and starts to climb. One step up... two... three. He gets to the 10th step, almost to the top, before the entire staircase disappears. Frank is left sitting in the same room, but the staircase is gone.
It would be easy to feel pranked, if only because it feels like an analogy for the experience of being a Frank Ocean fan. Over the past five or so years since he broke out with Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, we’ve experienced the majority of Frank Ocean’s career waiting for him to do something. And now here he is, setting us up for a climax, about to unveil the true meaning of his craft, only to pull the chair out from under us right as we were about to sit down. It’s tempting to feel like a sucker for taking the bait, until you realize he’s actually given us an entire album. Why did we care so much what was at the end of the staircase?
It’s probably too easy to say that this is a metaphor; Frank Ocean’s way of telling us that we’re overly eager to get to the good part. But Endless does seem like a commentary on waiting, a suggestion that the good parts aren’t always what you think they are. The album hasn’t been released yet as a stream or a download, and it’s not clear if it ever will be. So even though Endless features credits and a tracklist at the end, there is no explicit delineation between songs as the video is playing, which adds to its amorphous feel. R&B singer Sampha, experimental producer Arca, and James Blake are all credited on different tracks, but chances are you’d have a hard time figuring out which ones.
A suggestion that the good parts aren't always what you think they are
The only two tracks that seem to exist outside the sonic rules of Endless are the intro and the outro. In the album’s first track, "Device Control," a robotic voice reads what sounds like an iPhone’s spec list: "With this Apple appliance, you can capture live video, still motion pictures, shot at high frequencies, blurring, blurring, the line." The album’s outro features another automated-sounding voice: "In endless communication, we all show interest in everybody’s life. Your life can be streamed." Endless allows us to watch (and forces us to appreciate) the act of construction, and to let go of the idea of actually finishing. The mystery of Frank Ocean, the mystery behind hours of careful, painstaking labor is that there is no mystery. And the thing you’re waiting for might not ever come, so you might as well pay attention to what happens in the meantime.