why this forgotten frank ocean album needs revisiting
We asked Frank Ocean stans why 'Endless' is their favourite album and deserved of more recognition.
It’s almost biblical; before there was Blonde, there was Endless. But of the two projects Frank Ocean dropped within 48 hours, at the close of August 2016, one became a footnote while the other finished the year jockeying for top position on almost every music publication’s Best Of lists.
Endless became a prefix to the conversation surrounding Blonde; a 45-minute aperitif created only to whet appetites for the main event. It was an album released to free Frank from contractual obligations with Def Jam, whispered the internet. Later, when Blonde dropped, mutinous sections of the Ocean fandom deemed Endless an act of trolling. And it certainly seemed designed to be difficult.
Blonde comprised of 17 tracks that soon became available on all streaming services, while Endless was both confined to the clammy grasp of Apple Music and available simply as one whole visual album. Thus, to legally access it, you had to watch Frank assemble a staircase. Or at the very least, not minimise the app while he was doing so.
So the shadow of Blonde eventually consigned Endless to the same status of the fan-made Lonny Breaux Collection, a gathering of demos made back when Ocean was still legally called ‘Christopher'. Alongside Lonny Breaux, Endless became a specialist exhibit; a quirky work for dedicated fans to occasionally visit but ultimately disposable -- a drop in the Ocean.
But in the interim two years, revisionists have been urging listeners to give Endless another spin and, in recent days, attention has increased thanks to rumours that the album would finally be arriving on streaming services. “Fake news” wrote Ocean in response on Wednesday, dashing hopes of eager fans but failing to damp the renewed interest in Endless.
Endless is a record that deserves more than to be confined to stan Reddit threads. No, it’s not the best album Frank Ocean has ever made. Nor does it have to be. Current trends in pop culture critique seem to require work to be retrospectively declared the ‘GOAT’ for it to matter. That’s not the case with Endless; it wasn’t designed to be the type of project that would ever trouble Grammy Award nomination committees -- how could it be when at least half the tracks fade into the ether before you’ve had chance to fully register them? -- but it deserves more spins than it’s likely received.
Endless is Frank pulling back the curtain on his craft: it’s raw, unpolished and fluid to the extreme, but the record saw him push unexpectedly past the expectations we had of what ‘Frank Ocean’ should sound like.
That’s not to say Frank Ocean isn’t innovative; he is. But it’s undeniable that he’s created a sound profile that’s instantly recognisable, so much so that a viral tweet by musician Nat Puff last year managed to perfectly -- if lovingly -- skewer the signature Ocean style of making music.
On Blonde, that style (which is, according to Nat Puff, characterised by no more than two instruments, multiple pitch shifts and “different names for weed that you didn’t know existed before”) is front and centre. But on Endless, the pseudo-album, Frank swaps the epic sonic journeys found on the likes of Nights or Pyramids, for snippets that show a whole other side.
Take Mitsubishi Sony (extended when Ocean released the Endless vinyl in April 2018) which pulses brightly like the theme music of a Nintendo game, before morphing into a throbbing electronic outro that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of 2011’s Drive. It’s alien territory for the man who mostly opts to eschew anything more bombastic than three chords on the piano.
Or the electric thrum of Higgs, a deceptively simple ballad that is both one of the few fully formed tracks on Endless and one of the best tracks Frank Ocean has ever made. Beginning as a sleepy love song, Higgs transforms into a painful log of a relationship that was simply too good too last. Transparently tender songs about love are bread and butter for Frank Ocean but Higgs is that bit more open. That bit more real.
Rarely, too, does Frank unveil his belt range and yet on Higgs he yelps like a wounded animal. Neither is his voice completely smothered in the multiple vocal tracks he’s become so fond of, which provide a certain level of comforting, automaton distance. It’s just Frank, a guitar and the inexorable decline of feeling.
For fans who’ve long been committed to spreading the gospel of Endless, it’s unorthodox cuts like these that make the record one worth sitting with. “[It’s] his best album,” says 15-year-old Damien who I get chatting to on online Frank Ocean mecca, Futura Forum. “I feel it’s his most creative; I love tracks like Device Control (Reprise) because they’re out of Frank’s comfort zone. No one expects something like Mitsubishi Sony; it’s not usual Frank.”
Fellow fan Matt believes it’s the inaccessibility of Endless that’s led to a lack of appreciation for it -- not the quality. It’s a wrong the 19-year-old has attempted to right by uploading the entire album to YouTube, in an effort to introduce more people to the songs.“The esoteric nature of Endless leads to it being overlooked,” he tells me. “Being available only on Apple Music as a 40-minute visual album is a major reason why so many people who loved Blonde or Channel Orange have yet to listen to it. Even when he released the Endless vinyl, CD and DVD there was a large amount of fans who either couldn't afford to buy it or missed it altogether.”
Individuals who did manage to track Endless down through... alternative means, say the record is one that needs time to reveal its depth. “I listen to at least three tracks on Endless every week,” reports 24-year-old Ayoade. “It’s ageing very well. Lyrics like ‘All this hotel living/ Might as well pay the mortgage what I'm spending’ standout to me because anytime I see how much I spend on my temporary living arrangement in London, I want to fucking scream.”
“I listen to the album on days where I can’t be bothered to move or think too much about my life,” she continues. “I prefer to just sink into Endless.” I know what she means. Endless is an oddity in a discography already defined by its creator’s desire to not conform. But when given space to breathe, it's one that furtively takes root and unfurls. It was about a year after I first sat half-heartedly watching Frank building a staircase (still a metaphor even I recoil at for being too overwrought) when I became aware of a refrain circling my brain.
‘What can I do?/ To know you better/ What can I do?/ To show my love?’
I couldn’t remember its origins, so I googled it. It was, the internet told me, the coda to Alabama, sung by Sampha and Jazmine Sullivan (who also lends her vocals to Wither, Hublots and Rushes). And through that lyric, I rediscovered Endless, although Alabama, with its driving piano and achingly familiar longing for intimacy where all you desire is to know a lover’s every emotional inch and for them to want the same in turn, became the touchstone I returned to time and time again.
Yet I came to appreciate the other delights Endless had to offer. Like the spiky Comme des Garcons (translation: ‘Like boys’), the thrilling, yet all-too-brief, Xenons, which rings out like a call to prayer. Or Rushes, which sweeps you up and swells with feeling until you think you’re going to burst with the sheer joy of being alive right now and suffused with all the horrible, wonderful, stupid emotions that entails.
Frank Ocean is a man who deals in breadcrumbs. His last solo single was his take on Moon River, released almost a year ago (although brace yourselves: a cover of SZA’s The Weekend, could be coming).
Given the level of hunger for anything Ocean, it seems surreal that he could ever drop a project and have it essentially ignored by the wider cultural conversation. But that’s what happened with Endless -- as pointed out by Futura Forum founder Mark Parsons, it doesn’t even show up as a result when you plug ‘Frank Ocean albums’ into Google.
Perhaps we were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of new Frank music to properly register what we’d been given in 2016. Or maybe that damn staircase was just too much for modern attention spans to endure. Either way, Endless was unfairly sidelined and offers something genuinely fresh for Frank Ocean fans to chew on whilst they wait for their next fix. Revisit it now.