CLASSIC REVIEW: Frank Ocean, Endless
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
…four years is an incredibly long time between a debut and its follow-up. However, most artists aren’t Frank Ocean. After releasing the game changing Channel Orange, he bought himself plenty of time and good will. Besides, he didn’t completely fade into the background, he was dropping solid features on Odd Future projects, the most prominent being “Oldie”, "Rent a supercar for a day/Drive around with your friends, smoke a gram of that haze." Blonde was what most people, including myself, considered Frank Ocean’s sophomore album, but what about Endless? I won’t lie, in 2016 when the stream for Endless came out, I was puzzled. This video of him building a staircase with new music playing in the background was cool, but disappointed. It felt like Frank got to his own head, like he was trying so hard to be different that he ended up flying too close to the sun. Of what I could parse at the time, he was rapping and singing ballads over demo quality recordings, and allowing his producers to experiment with sound. It felt totally different from the Coachella and Tumblr worshipped music he made in 2011 and 2012.
Buying the vinyl version of this album changed everything. I should’ve bought five or six because it’s resale value is between 600% to 800%, but I digress. When I finally heard this finished version, I was absolutely stunned, I still am to be completely honest. While Channel Orange is a straightforward series of supremely emotional pop-R&B tunes with slight glimpses into Frank’s personality, Endless feels like stealing and going through his laptop. Frank is still the same movie referencing, smooth as hell star he was in 2012, but his intentions are different. Endless was literally and symbolically a send off to commerciality, it saw him crossing into the threshold of independence. Instead of giving Def Jam 15% of Blonde, he juked them by giving them this instead; a project that is just as artistically sound as Blonde but without all the “hits”. There’s no “Nikes”, “Pink + White” or “Nights” to be founded within 100 miles of this album, but the CD-quality version is just as important.
Enough context! What’s does it sound like? Endless is a sonic collage of Frank’s inspirations, film influences, vocal range, songwriting talents, life experiences and an introduction to his camp, including wonderkind producers like VEGYN and Nōka, guitarist Alex G and Ed Banger Records signee SebAstian. Unlike Blonde, we don’t get a Beyoncé or a James Blake on here, the biggest name here is probably Jazmine Sullivan, who provides background vocals on tracks like “In Here Somewhere” and “Higgs”. A-listers make their way into the album via interpolations (Lauryn Hill on “Higgs”) or lyrical references (Queen Latifah and The Neptunes on “U.N.I.T.Y.”). Frank pays homage to those who inspire him subtly rather than wearing their styles on his sleeve. Even his hollowed-out cover of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love” sounds nothing like the original. The original is an untouched work of art, as is Aaliyah’s 1994 cover, which is equally as incredible in its own way. Frank’s cover sounds like it was recorded in the same workshop he created the stairs in. His voice echoes as does the spare keys and orchestration on the track. Frank sounds fearless as he reaches for and hits high notes that we’d never seen up until that point. The song serves as an artistic torch passed down to him from two legends.
On first listen, this record is completely unpredictable. Frank and his associates are like experiential film directors without editors, taking the listener on a journey of what they want you to hear, not the other way around. “Alabama” stands at one minute and 34 seconds. It’s instrumentally pretty bare, but lyrically and production wise it’s a marvel. It feels like Frank’s childhood flashing before our ears, a 1.5x speed recap of fragmented memories of family members, friends, brand names and hardships that literally overlap each other and are impossible to understand without reading the lyrics. The outro “Mine” (32 seconds) similarly duets the vocals like tangled cords to create this odd, dizzying effect. The aforementioned “U-N-I-T-Y” is a similar blur but of experience rather than childhood. Frank gives us advice, flexes his favorite food, name drops North Face and McDonald’s and hits us with existentialism in the digital age (“I whatsapp'd him for atonement”). Frank’s stream-of-conscious raps are so assured, effortlessly sliding back and forth between bars and sung vocals.
Speaking of, “Commes Des Garçons” is a criminally short exercise in Ocean’s loaded simplicity, using his newfound rap skills to paint a picture of his “hoe phase”. He was a multi-millionaire bachelor by age 28 on this album, Frank is rightfully going through guys like McDonald’s dollar menu items. “Feelings come feelings go, feelings come feelings go/Commes des Garçons (like the boys), Commes des Garçons (like the boys)”. 59 seconds man. Goddamn I need a 4-minute version of this, this was one of my go-to songs when I used to DJ. The album is chock-full of unfinished ideas and sketches even more fragmented and avant than this. “Honey Baby” is 8 seconds long and just features a woman yelling, while “Rushes To” is a combo of washed out guitars and machine drums that clocks in at under 3 minutes with not a single vocal to be found. These are some of my favorite moments on the record, it’s part of what gives the album such a unique and infinitely replayable sound (hence "Endless"). Like one of Frank’s favorite films Mulholland Drive it's an ambitious puzzle with seemingly unrelated parts brilliantly fading into each other. “Hublots” and “In Here Somewhere” are essentially one song, but where they stop and end are entirely up in the air. It’s just so interesting to hear these polished, studio quality versions of songs that are so purposefully bite-sized. Like damn, you got Jazmine Sullivan over here to sing four lines? And it sounds amazing?
Tracks like “Higgs” and “Wither” are definitely thinkers, songs whose lyrics should be dissected in classrooms, but I prefer when this album keeps it simple and sonically rich. Take for example “Slide On Me” and “Sideways”, which has a similar one-two punch structure as both “Pyramids” and “Nights”. The former is this Alex G guitar piece with these catchy, skittering hi-hats. Lyrically, Frank dives into a relationship with someone who’s overly competitive and underachieving, but then switches up the subject matter. As I said, this song comes after four years of complete radio silence on Frank’s end. His friends and fans are all encouraging him to do this and that, but they are not HIM and therefore have no idea what types of decisions Frank Ocean needs to make. “Boys in the building give me updates like they know the weather/If you ain't in the streets you can't see the sky, I'm out here”, he uses being outdoors as a metaphor for being in his position. I also love how the chorus details an endless push and pull in a relationship, he’s constantly going back and forth with this guy and the guy is doing the same, ∞.
The transition from this track to “Sideways” is one of the major highlights of this record, it’s so woozy and drugged out. The track goes from a trap guitar ballad a la Pretty Thugger Girls to what sounds the opening music for the PS6, which Frank probably had somehow. The beat is tense and a syrupy, a digital dirge that stops me dead in my tracks every time, as do the lyrics. This is peak Frank flexing. He getting necked up in $2000 a night hotels, sleeping in cars that max out at 200 mph, and moshing at a Kanye West hosted fashion show at The Garden. His life is just way better and cooler than yours. Frank, like Drake, has this keen ability to make everyday phrases and sentiments sound brand new; “When I'm up they gon' hate/When I'm sideways yeah I set me straight/When I'm up they gon' hate”.
The record continues to experiment as it comes to a close. “Impietas + Death Wish (ASR)” is this ghostly, modulated trap banger about giving up control to a lover in the same way one puts the safety in the hands of their cars automatic braking system. Will the brakes fail like in a bad dream or will they work allow the rush of romance to continue? “Rushes” is an incredibly powerful ballad about all the “rushes” that occur in life. There’s rushes of wind on a motorcycle, a rushed relationship, a rush to get through life quickly, the rush of a sexual experience (“Cut your teeth on sheets in Paris”).
After the aforementioned “Rushes To” and “Higgs”, we get the album’s strongest track. I’m way too tired to finish this review but go listen to “Mitsubishi Sony” it’s a banger. I’m too lazy to not release this right now so I’m gonna pretend like it was an artistic decision that I made to match the tone of the album and…