A Critical Conversation About Frank Ocean's 'Endless' Video Album
The wait for a new Frank Ocean album is over — sort of. Late Thursday night, the reclusive singer unveiled Endless, a starkly minimal multimedia project that does indeed feature new music, but leaves many other questions unanswered.
With listeners everywhere processing Ocean's latest creation in real time, we asked our NPR Music's Jason King and Ann Powers to share their first impressions. Jason fired the first volley: Hear his chat with All Things Considered at the audio link, and read on for his discussion with Ann.
Jason King: Discombobulation — to be confused, or upset, or disconcerted, or pained, or to feel like you've come apart, that you're all over the place — is the word that randomly popped into my mind this morning. Feeling discombobulated is the way many of us live these days, given the crushing weight that our overdeveloped media and war industrial complexes seem to impose upon us; living in the era of Trump swagger and Syrian warfare and Ryan Lochte falsehoods and music you want to hear but can't because it's locked behind a streaming-service paywall feels jarring more often than not. In some ways, discombobulation has become the new normal; even the randomness of feeling out of sorts can work like perfect serendipity, if you look at it from another perspective.
Discombobulation is also a word that suits the unconventional, messy rollout of two of this year's most highly influential albums: Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Rihanna's Anti. We can now add Frank Ocean's to the list of pop releases surrounded by misinformation and controlled by someone disinterested in getting with the program. Since going largely off-the-radar after his watershed 2012 studio debut Channel Orange, and teasing fans in the interim with numerous false starts and canceled deadlines, Ocean's new project, called Endless, finally dropped today. What's frustrating is that we haven't been given enough information to know if Endless is just a teaser for a more pop-oriented album that's rumored to be coming or if this is it. Indeed, Endless provokes a crisis of legibility — how to effectively read its value and meaning given the deliberate withholding of information that would help contextualize it. But context may be overrated these days.
Endless is billed as a visual album, meaning there are 18 tracks you listen to as you watch a 45-minute video (directed, executive produced and creatively directed by Ocean himself) in which the singer engages in some sort of unexplained power-tools construction project. If I were feeling especially generous I'd say the black-and-white video is wonderfully Warhol-esque in its pursuit of anti-narrative, but I can't help think that it's really painfully slow, visually inert and much less stimulating than Beyoncé's highly considered Lemonade. Far more compelling is Frank Ocean's new music itself, featuring buzzy-hip collaborators like Jazmine Sullivan, Sampha and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. The music and sonics of Endless are hydra-like, featuring a surfeit of creative ideas: The whole affair can be dark, moody, drifty, ambient, textured, druggy, somnambulant, melancholic, Eno-ghostly, synthy and depressive. It can be melodically rich, even if its lethargic sameness can sometimes be snoozy.
But the ADD way that Endless' songs and interludes change, move, shift and blend and bleed into each other, as Frank himself moves between languorous singing and draggy rapping, makes the hyperactive scrawl aesthetic Dev Hynes / Blood Orange recently explored on this year's Freetown Sound album seem comparatively straight ahead and conventional. Standout lyrics like "How come the ecstasy always depresses me?" on Arca-assisted interlude "Mine" and Ocean's ranty, freestyle-type delivery on "U-N-I-T-Y" are among the album's most artistically impressive moments.
Still, after the first few listens, I'm not particularly sure what Endless adds up to or if it's even supposed to gel at all. It's like having only one corner section of a jigsaw puzzle — it just so happens to be a musically gorgeous one. Keeping fans in the dark and teasing them only with eccentric, confounding parts of a larger whole is certainly one way to hijack their short-span attention. And if it's too early for my definitive critique of a 45-minute audio-visual project that probably needs more time to wash over me, props to Frank Ocean for releasing the most bizarre and artsy example of corporate-event pop ever. We all know that Ocean has collaborated with Apple as exclusive distributor of the album (at least for now), and it's more than a bit strange that he chooses to close the album with "Device Control," a Euro-disco-esque track featuring Wolfgang Tillmans chatting about a range of smartphones including ones made by Apple, Sony and Samsung. Given that it's the last track, the idea of Frank giving so much shine to Apple's competitors on an Apple-distributed project is either a curious F-you to the hand that's just fed him, or it's one blithely WTF moment in an album that seems to be full of them. So double props to Frank for introducing a potentially discombobulating, disruptive moment to the usually unassailable Apple.
Ann, I'd be curious to know your initial impressions of the album.
Last night, when Frank Ocean's livestream workshop came back to life after sitting dormant for two weeks and it became clear he was building a stairway to sudden-release heaven, I sat listening to the muffled music coming from his speakers in the background and started to think about other staircases: ones that lead nowhere, like those in the Winchester Mystery House, a famous haunted California manse where carpenters worked around the clock to stave off the demons of its mistress. That house has doors that open to walls, weird turrets and twisted hallways, and a Séance Room that only those who understand its mazes can reach. Endless is the sonic equivalent of that structure. Even after several listens to the actual album, I feel like this music is still being constructed. Ocean welds these tracks together in spiral patterns; the video asks us to observe this process of creation, to slow down and ponder how this carpenter builds along the lines of his story pole. As someone with a 2016-appropriate short attention span, I have always found such process-oriented music somewhat difficult to absorb. But I welcome Ocean's challenge that we do so.
Endless does fit in with the year's other "discombobulated" releases, especially Rihanna's, which has a similarly labyrinthine structure and depressive ambiance. The associations it immediately brings to mind, however, come from the art world. Ocean made his aspirations toward gallery life explicit by enlisting sculptor Tom Sachs as a collaborator, recreating his Jamaican-style sound system simulacrum and getting his advice on those stairs. Making his fans live with that off-and-on live stream, where he only tinkered for so long, did both challenge the norms of corporate product and make gentle fun of Apple's own irritating roll-out delays (come on, I really need a new Macbook Pro). But it also was part of the longstanding tradition of endurance-oriented performance art, which stretches back at least to the days when The Velvet Underground performed as part of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Hip-hop has always been intertwined with the gallery scene, from graffiti genius Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1980s heyday to Kehinde Wiley's current streetwise classical portraiture. Both Kanye West and Jay Z have extended this connection in recent performances: West has worked extensively with Vanessa Beecroft, known for her discomfiting use of live mannequins who must stay silent for long periods of time; Jay Z formed a brief, controversial partnership with Marina Abramović, who sat for nearly a month in MoMA's Atrium, welcoming silent interlocutors. In the rock world, PJ Harvey did something similar when she recorded her last album inside a glass studio in London's Somerset House. Waiting for Ocean to do something, anything with his power tools also made me think about the time-stretching magic of Christian Marclay's work, which is aesthetically and formally enmeshed with punk and art rock: the rough textures of Endless as heard in that first live-stream made me think of his film Guitar Drag, which, like much of this new release, confronts the tensions of a violent, racist world by releasing some noise into it. There's no getting past it — Ocean is super-arty. Releasing Endless before his hotly anticipated, "official" new album, Boys Don't Cry, tells us something about where he feels at home as a creator.
He also clearly wants to connect with an eclectic library of classic recordings. Many of the songs on Endless are very personal, with lyrics about Ocean's family troubles ("Alabama" is poignant and angry), his chemical proclivities (alcohol, ecstasy, insomnia), and his sex life ("He came up in Dallas / He had no hazel in his eyes / Had them sailors on his thighs," from the sexplicit "Commes Des Garcons," is a line Jean Genet would have recognized). But it's also essentially, slyly referential. Tom Sachs is known for jerry-rigging versions of other people's masterpieces, using duct tape and foamcore to comment on the ersatz nature of creativity. Ocean does something like that throughout Endless. As I listen, I hear so many ghosts of other gnomic masterworks and the artists who made them. He name-checks the Fugees at one point, and offers a homonym of The Beach Boys' Endless Summer at another, when he sings, as if from inside a wave, "I know you're in there somewhere." Production-wise, he and his collaborators are deeply indebted to Lee "Scratch" Perry and the experimental reggae of the great On-U Sound crew; I'd argue that his version of the Isley Brothers ballad "At Your Best You Are Love" is more evocative of the Caribbean than of standard quiet-storm R&B. The simmering thickness of these tracks, the way they veer from druggily rhythmic to diffuse — not to mention Ocean's self-tortured grapplings with success in songs like the moving lament, "Rushes To" — also makes me think about Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, another album deeply reflective of the dark political moment in which it was produced.
From this sawdust-covered pile of reference points, Ocean constructs his own meanings, grounded in an artistic identity that probably couldn't have sustained itself in earlier pop moments. His frankness about erotically fluid desire harkens back to the urban night wanderings of Lou Reed and the poetic challenges of Essex Hemphill. Has Ocean read Hemphill's profanely gorgeous "American Wedding," or spent time with Reed's odes to abjection on Berlin? I don't know, but those sources that never mingled in the past all seem to run through him. Ocean does strike me as an artist who absorbs source material eagerly, always adding more to the process he so openly shares. (And yes, I think of Kurt Cobain, too, of the hidden Nevermind track "Endless, Nameless," which announced the Seattle rock savior's refusal to conform to anyone's commercial hopes.) If Endless is merely the precursor to the larger reveal of Ocean's intentions and realizations that Boys Don't Cry will offer, it's still a work with plenty of currents that draw me in. I'll see you at the top of that never-ending staircase.
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