Whatever thoughts you might have on the album Frank Ocean released last night, it seems doubtful that Ah yes, just as expected is among them. For one thing, the album’s not really an album: It’s the score to a 45-minute black-and-white video of Frank using power tools to build a staircase. As a couple of interludes subtitled “Ambience” suggest, the music isn’t the sort of thing you can focus on. Endless is a loose creation, a patchwork quilt of themes, genres, and tones with little to unite them beyond the fact that Frank Ocean says it’s all one thing: The album is, effectively, a mixtape soldered to a video cut to the same duration of time.
How to talk about it, then? (Metaphors will only carry you so far, especially in music writing.) Let’s say that Endless is not a collection of the sort that could be meaningfully assessed in a standard review format — it’s too scattered and impressionistic to withstand the eye of objective scrutiny. Far better to play along with the thing; if it’s little more than an odds-and-ends collection, why not review it in an odds-and-ends format? Here’s a laundry list of fleeting takes regarding a fleeting (but beautiful) series of songs.
1. Song length
There aren’t any hard and fast rules as to what a standard track length is in the pop/R&B business, but it’s still safe to say that, given the general tempo and verse-chorus structure, most clock in somewhere between three and a half and five minutes. Of the 18 tracks on Endless, exactly one falls within that range. Eleven tracks are less than two minutes long; the longest, last track “Higgs” is over nine minutes. It’s certainly not the case that Frank can’t do a “normal” song; he started out as an industry songwriter, after all, and on the second track, a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” he pulls out all the stops to show how comfortable and creative he is within the form. But sketches, jam sessions, scraps, and slices of life are what’s on offer afterward, make of them what one will.
Categorically speaking, just about nothing holds the tracks on Endless together. There’s the R&B cover mentioned above, some tracks where Frank raps, others where he sing-raps, songs that sound like rock without the rock and roll, shoals of electronic atmosphere. There’s plenty of guitar work, all of it lovely and none of it easily linked to any genre. The only things that last are Frank’s voice and the masterful ease with which he dips in and out of disparate musical zones. If the genres of pop music were squares on a chessboard, Frank Ocean would be conducting a knight’s tour.
Love, honor, and memory, with dashes of commentary on consumerism and technology. As he often does, Frank touches on devastated landscapes (“Wither”), old relationships (“Comme des Garcons”), and old homes (“Alabama”), but he’s hardly organizing his predilections into a concept album on Endless. As the woodworking video suggests, he’s more interested in the creative process than the creative product. He’d rather be the palette than the painting — at least on this album.
“Feelings come, feelings go”: that’s about as clear of a mission statement as you’ll get from Frank on Endless. The transience of relationships and emotions seems to strike him with especial poignancy; the inability to grasp things with any constancy inspires in him a boundless (endless?) melancholy which constantly weighs on his voice. He rarely considers what he has in the moment without considering how much he’ll have to lose — really, if he weren’t so stylish, this whole Frank Ocean experience would be pretty depressing.
Perhaps the most precise way to view Endless is as a daydream: a collection of perceptions which flow into one another with minimal to no connection. The only permanent figure is the daydreamer and even the most specific of longings is indefinite, prepared to take on or let go of another object.
4. Technology, again
It’s clear that the daydreamer’s mentality on display in Endless has no small degree of similarity with that of a waking life spent perusing and diffusing bits of online media. And of course Frank has made a pact with Apple to put out Endless and its companion album. I don’t think he’s being super-sarcastic by ending Endless with a rambling repetitive series of promotions of electronic devices by Apple and Sony and Samsung recited over a techno beat. It’s more as if he’s baffled by the prospect of what’s to come from the confluence of his private, audiovisual lifestream and the tiresome, turbulent livestreams of self, currency, and hype enabled by swift digital communication. He’s always maintained a demeanor of mellow melancholia, but the HD-crazy world works actively against that. Can he fight it and still keep his cool? Endless doesn’t offer much guidance in this regard, but we’ll know more once the other thing (a “real” album?) comes out this weekend.