RETROSPECTIVE: Why You Should Listen To Frank Ocean's 'Endless'
One of the most intriguing, yet forgotten albums of the last decade
It is August 19th, 2016. The Rio Olympics have just finished, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union and Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th president of the United States. The world has been thrown into political uncertainty and turmoil, but something completely implausible is about to happen: Frank Ocean is about to release an album.
Frank Ocean is about to release TWO albums.
When a grainy black and white video surfaced on Apple streaming services, featuring Ocean building a spiral staircase, fans believed that the four year wait for the follow up to the Grammy-winning Channel Orange was finally over in the form of Endless, Ocean’s ‘visual album’.
At least until the next day, when Ocean’s main project Blonde was released, rising straight to number one on the Billboard 100 and turning platinum two years later. The flagship project was an instant classic, carving out a new style of pitched electronic pop and proved genre defining for Ocean. Blonde was met with astounding critical success, recently named the album of the decade by Pitchfork.
In all of the hype around Blonde, Endless has faded into the background, often forgotten and written off as a preliminary project. This notion seemed cemented when it was confirmed the album was released to free Ocean from a contract he had signed with Def Jam, using the visual format to fulfil the criteria of an album, but ensuring more attention would be given to the more widely accessible project that would immediately follow. Endless enabled Ocean to release Blonde on his own terms, artistically and commercially, through his own label Boys Don’t Cry, in a move ASAP Rocky called "(figuring) out how to finesse the record industry".
In the same breath, Rocky described Endless as a ‘bullshit album’, simply used to embarrass the record industry. However, the release of the album on vinyl back in 2018 gave listeners a confirmed track list and allowed for a more widely accepted view of the project as one that should be viewed explicitly as a part of Ocean’s discography. Where Blonde is expansive with Beatles-inspired choruses and arrangements, Endless sounds small and secluded, perhaps a reflection of the solitary life Ocean lived in the four-year recording period. He describes himself living solely in hotel rooms, a quality that seeps into the project – giving an album that is intimate and hazily recorded.
The project also sees the first instances of the spoken word style that Ocean seems to be carrying into 2020, with the recently released singles ‘DHL’ and ‘In My Room’, featuring rapping in a tuneful stream-of-consciousness flow over slow, melodic beats on tracks such as ‘UNITY’ and ‘Comme Des Garcons’. For a prolific and respected songwriter, most of the cuts are brief and feature quick refrains rather than choruses, but are filled with thoughtful bars, even if the focus is somewhat ambiguous. Ocean’s wordplay remains concise, as he deploys his recognisable double entendres, such as on the melancholy ‘Wither’, easily heard as ‘with – her’, and on the two tracks ‘Rushes’ and ‘Rushes To/Two’, a pairing of songs that take on the role of Ocean’s signature extended track, appearing on all of his studio albums, ‘Pyramids’ on Channel Orange, ‘Nights’ on Blonde and ‘American Wedding’ on mixtape Nostalgia Ultra.
The majority of the production on the project is handled by Vegyn, one of the co-hosts of Ocean’s Apple Music based show Blonded Radio. As a result, many of the songs take the form of ambient beats reminiscent of the work of Aphex Twin, and tie Ocean’s vocals together in short interludes and chopped up vocal samples (see Deathwish, Honeybaby, Mitsubishi Sony). The effect is a project of fragmentations blended into one composite piece. Endless sounds intentionally raw and out of focus, refusing to conform to a linear narrative, with sketches and ideas that pick up one after the other, making a listener unsure of when a song starts and another finishes, perhaps indicative of the ‘Endless’ title.
Yet the focus on ambient production does not distract from the vocal performances, which rival some of the most memorable tracks on Blonde. ‘Alabama’ features a healthy amount of the vocal layering Ocean and James Blake have become renowned for, and the track ends with Sampha and Jazmine Sullivan providing the haunting refrain ‘What can I do to know you better? / What can I do to show my love?’. The second track, a cover of The Isley Brothers' ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’ provides some of Ocean’s most impressive vocals to date, a breathy refrain ascending into a falsetto lamenting the emotional stability he derives from a relationship in a song that is at once captivating and dreamy.
'Higgs' is perhaps most reflective of the balladry of ‘Self Control’ as Ocean delivers one of his most strikingly raw performances to date, riffing between thoughts that build into a powerful bridge backed by Austin Feinstein and Alex G’s ethereal guitar chords, concluded with the piercing cry to ‘turn back… turn back’. 'Higgs' makes for an excellent penultimate track and sounds equally remarkable live:
While Blonde may have been the project released on his own artistic terms, Endless seems meditative and loose, as if the throwaway nature of the project allowed for more experimentation. While the tracks do not carry the polished nature of songs on Blonde, they are strung together in a way that makes for a hypnotic listen. The packaging of the album is unconventional and flicking through the Apple music video attempting to identify songs can seem an arduous and frustrating task, but do not let it distract you from what is one of the most unique projects of the past decade. It is certainly worth the effort.
Fin Cousins is an English literature student studying at Kings College London, he is an avid consumer of sports, fashion and music. He is still waiting for his rap career to take off.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England. Subscribe to our mailing list below to make sure you don't miss any of our articles.