The confounding elegance of Frank Ocean’s “Endless”

Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings
Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

This summer saw the release of not one, but two albums by elusive alt R-and-B artist Frank Ocean. Initially releasing “Endless,” the audiovisual album, only to release “Blonde” about 72 hours later. While many loved the Endless project, it was quickly overshadowed by sister project “Blonde,” many conjecturing that “Endless” was merely a preemptive offering before “Blonde’s” release.

While this may be true, this notion undermines “Endless” as a project in its own right. Perhaps this narrative is so readily ascribed too because of how cryptic the visual element of the project remains. After watching the video so many times, I have had a difficult time piecing together and understanding its critical narrative — a testament to its enigmatic subject matter.

To summarize, “Endless” features multiple Frank Oceans building a staircase in a black and white warehouse. As these multiple Frank Oceans construct this staircase, piece-by-piece, the music plays in the background.

Moreover, “Endless” is as progressive and radical in terms of songwriting as “Blonde.” The vocals on the opening track, “At Your Best (you are love)” are some of the most impressive vocals he’s ever done, pretty much staying in a falsetto throughout the entire song. This track also features James Blake and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead with the London Contemporary Orchestra. The production on every single song is absolutely stellar, oscillating between reserve string and piano melodies to synth-driven electronic beats. Sometimes he is rapping over these beats, or singing, but either way he sounds phenomenal.

The track, “Rushes” begins with very simple, but nonetheless powerful, acoustic guitar, which merges into blues rock chords. With these simpler beats, Ocean gives his electrifying vocals room to breathe, placing them front and center, instead of as merely another cog in the wheel of the song.

Moreover, this project’s visual element is equally challenging. To compare another high-profile audiovisual album this year, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” featured a straightforward narrative, told in part by the visuals as well as the music. Together, the two elements created a cohesive and dynamic narrative. “Endless” however, takes the opposite direction, completely eschewing narrative. The camera work is bare, with no movement whatsoever — wide-angle shots and slick editing are virtually the only noticeable elements of the cinematography. Furthermore, the entire frame is black and white with the contrast between the color maximized by the lighting. While this may seem boring or pointless, the end result is stunning and strangely compelling.


However, many times I watch/listen to it, I only come away with more questions, “Why a staircase? Why these songs? What is the significance of multiple Frank Oceans?” No matter which way I attempted to analyze and frame this project, I could not come away with a legitimate interpretation of its meaning.

 

And perhaps that is the point that Ocean is making: It does not matter which type of critical lense you attempt to apply, he will outshine that box. All we can do is sit back, and watch him as an artisan, as he creates.

 

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