Frank Ocean's Endless is a failure, and yet I love it. Let me explain.


I first struggled to make sense of an album like this. But gut instinct tells me to approach it the way Frank Ocean intended: as a visual work. As such, Endless fails miserably. Its images—filled with tight cuts, harsh color palettes and harsher lighting—are unremarkable and sterile, exactly what the music isn’t. The only features they seem to share are a formal minimalism and a smirking sense of humor. (See, for example, Frank’s Playboy cardigan and the ridiculous techno-pop track from some German dude’s upcoming EP, which inexplicably bookends the album.) Endless may one day join other stuffy experimental films at a modernist art gallery, but I’m here for the music. My guess is, I’m not alone in that regard. 

Endless’ sometimes undercooked textures and its baffling release strategy have invited several comparisons. Popular among them are Beyoncé’s last two albums, both billed as visual albums, and Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled, Unmastered, a TPAB outtakes album. But those comparisons don’t really work for me. References to Beyoncé and Lemonade only hold firm on the surface. Dig deeper and it’s clear that Beyoncé’s visual albums were always meant to also work as traditional albums with meme-generating, bite-sized singles. They were recognizable pop records within art-house productions. The music Frank Ocean has delivered is, at this time, impossible to divorce from Apple’s embedded stream (at least without resorting to illegal downloads).

Unflattering nods to Kendrick’s Untitled, Unmastered, on the other hand, make a couple predictions I don’t quite share: (1) Endless is a collection of outtakes, and (2) Frank Ocean’s other new album, whatever it’s called, is the To Pimp a Butterfly of the duo. Both points may be accurate, and we’ll (supposedly) know soon enough if they are. But right now this line of thinking feels oddly specific, as if Frank couldn’t break new ground.

Sometime during my fifth or sixth listen of this beautiful album (and yes, I was listening to a homemade MP3 version; sorry Frankie, your movie bores me), I was unexpectedly reminded of Smile, the Beach Boys album lost to intra-band arguments and Brian Wilson’s deteriorating mental health. As it exists today, Smile is fragmented, yet exceptionally cohesive, a stream-of-consciousness work by one of the 20th century’s genius songwriters. To my ears, that’s how I make sense of Endless. Like Wilson before him, Ocean has delivered a non-commercial pop curio that now and then slows down to focus on an idea long enough to form a “complete” song, or not. Maybe this isn’t what Frank’s core fanbase wanted. Maybe the “proper” album will hit all the right marks, whatever they are. Or maybe Endless is the blaze into which Frank has thrown the rulebook.  B PLUS

Other takes on Endless:

Rumors, false starts, fake-outs and flake outs, and Endless is the ultimate outcome (or at least one of them). The most remarkable think about Frank Ocean’s new visual album may be its complete lack of flash. It’s disarming how sparse most of it is. Frank sounds terrific—as if that was ever a concern. The production is immaculate, each piece deconstructed, stripped to its essence, and allowed to gently fall into place. The opening tracks seem like they’re building to somethings grandiose, but that never quite comes—until the final minutes. This is a very different record than Channel Orange. The craft is there, the polish is evident, but the palette is judiciously, deliberately narrowed. It’s an interesting direction, and somewhat logical when you consider how daunting the prospect of creating a more expansive record would be. If the promise of more Frank wasn”t currently on the table, I think I’d be mildly disappointed by this. — Brendan Frank

Given the announcement that an additional, perhaps more traditional release is coming later this weekend, it’s a challenge to evaluate Frank Ocean’s Endless properly. Separated from its visual accompaniment, Endless is at many points unfocused and seemingly half-developed. The closest analogy I can draw is the juxtaposition of Kendrick’s TPAB with this year’s Untitled Unmastered. The former was a fully formed masterwork, the latter a scattershot, but nevertheless interesting peek into his creative process and the castoffs from the recording cycle. Both were undeniably “albums,” but they served different artistic functions. Based on today’s press cycle, it seems like Frank has given us a similar set-up, except in reverse. Rather than a belated peak behind the curtain, Endless is a teaser, a tantalizing appetizer of what’s to come (presumably). That might explain the impressionistic and all-too-short tracks like “Alabama”, “Comme des Garçons”, and “In Here Somewhere”. Frank is never short on interesting ideas—it’s hard to believe that undercooking them in this fashion is anything but fully intentional.

When Endless hits its mark, though, damn does it hit its mark. Even at its most random, Endless is a reminder of just how wonderful an artist Frank Ocean is. It’s just so nice to hear that voice over unfamiliar sounds. I don’t know what heaven sounds like, but the opening Isley-by-way-of-Aaliayh cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love)” must come pretty close. It’s quite simply one of the most breathtaking recordings I’ve heard in years—that perfect falsetto, Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous string arrangement, that atmospheric sheen. “Wither” and “Slide on Me” offer similarly intimate moments, and “Rushes” expertly oscillates between club banger and lovelorn ballad. I’m not entirely sure what the “Higgs/Outro" closer is supposed to be. I suppose I wasn’t expecting a Matrix-soundtrack-reject-meets-Hulu-Ad as the record’s final course, but then again, nothing about this album rollout has gone as-expected. I want to love Endless, I really do, and maybe with a few more listens, I’ll get there. Very eagerly awaiting your next move, Frank, if for no other reason than just to give this album a drop more context. — Zach Bernstein

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