Frank Ocean was a ghost after 2012’s ‘Channel Orange’.
The California-born singer had established himself as one of the most important voices in popular culture at the age of 24, and then suddenly vanished, making few public appearances and even fewer features.
His tumblr became his main source of communication with the outside world, it was there that he penned responses to tragedies in Ferguson and Orlando, as well as teasing his coffee table publication ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. Confirmations and silent contradictions of a new album dragged for four years.
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Then on 1st August 2016 a video feed appeared via Apple Music. For the better part of a week fans would check back to find a looping black-and-white video of Frank preparing something in a warehouse building. On Friday 19th the loop was finally interrupted by a high contrast visual that depicts Frank constructing a staircase, set to a 46 minute set of new music.
The fanbase went into overdrive, rabidly ripping the audio, and when he ascended a completed staircase, the stream ended. The music was rough and raw, almost demo-like considering how long fans had been waiting for a new LP. A day later ‘Blonde’, which felt like a much more substantial body of work, was released, and the video piece - titled ‘Endless’ - was no longer of concern to most. The video remained available to Apple Music subscribers, and the music was only available via fan-ripped zip files.
While ‘Blonde’ rose to critical acclaim, ‘Endless’ sat in the passenger seat - people discussing whether the album was just a move to clear Frank’s deal with Def Jam so that he could release his real album independently.
However, in November last year ‘Endless’ finally received a physical, re-mastered release, when Frank put it up for sale via his website in VHS, CD/DVD and vinyl formats. It took until April for fans - who’d been told to expect up to six weeks - to actually receive the album, spawning a number of memes along the way, but when the album finally did arrive, it gave fans the chance to revisit the LP with the attention that it deserves.
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‘Endless’ takes a simpler approach compared to Frank’s more well-known sophomore record, stripping back the arrangement to raw essentials and drenching his vocals in haunting reverb. It’s more experimental in what is not there than what is, each odd whir and rumble of bass highlighting the other, sporadic drum machines and unforeseen brass popping into place. Longer tracks slip into snippets of conversation, snatches of dark moods, fades into silence. Think acoustic mixtape with dollops of James Blake and Burial, but much more deliberate. The sun is rising after a long, cold night.
It’s not just a mix of random musical ideas, though. Some initial analysis wrote off the project as leftovers from ‘Blonde’ when the only way it could be checked out was bad quality rips, but ‘Endless’ intentional contrast of upbeat and downbeat, busy and empty, hopeful and melancholic takes you on a cohesive journey with just as much careful planning as ‘Blonde’. There might be a lot of interludes, but there’s no filler. Everything is here for a reason.
It starts with a moving cover of the Isley Brother’s 1976 classic ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’, which has also famously been covered by Aaliyah. Sampha yearing “What can I do to know you better than I do now?” on ‘Alabama’ sends a chill up the spine; vulnerabilities and pain on full honest display.
Frank raps “Never want to fuck somebody you wouldn’t want to be though” on ‘U-N-I-T-Y’ like the crystal-clear bad idea it is, monologuing dense thoughts street violence, social media and artistic struggle before the beat glides skywards, crooning nostalgic memories.
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Florida’s gospel harmonies give way to minimal clicking instrumentation on ‘Impietas + Deathwish (ASR)’, “Are you with me?” leaving just as much of a haunting mark despite being a tenth of the length. ‘Higgs’ final yelping synth transports you to 2022 Los Angeles.
‘Slide On Me’s bouncy Spanish guitar is a great change of pace before Johnny Greenwood’s work on ‘Rushes’ rings into the abyss as vocals swirl around it. The climax, ‘Mitsubishi Sony’ is so overwhelmingly powerful, it might just be the best track Frank has ever done. Pummelling trap is a banging note to end on, too.
‘Endless’ is Frank’s second shortest project behind the 42 minute ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, but the songs, moods and thoughts linger just as long as that title suggests.
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Words: Jack Woodward
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