Endless and Blonde is Ocean peaking in generosity, laying bare his truth as a collector of stories and poetries on self and society.
Both his breakout mixtape and studio debut—2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, and 2012’s Channel Orange respectively—bore Frank Ocean’s inimitable mix of queer black boy quirk, misty-eyed melancholic phone calls from loved ones and twilight meditations on life under the dangerous conditions of Negritude. Four years later, amidst numerous delays, Ocean’s visual album, Endless, and his second studio release, Blonde, aren’t the records we asked for but the ones we deserved. We wanted Ocean, his imaginative eccentricities and gravid honesty, to tell us something of his present, how he understands the now. In sheer volume, we got even more than we asked for.
Ocean’s hermetic pop blues wizardry doesn’t preclude him from popping off at the mouth on the tricks 4K imaging is pulling on the masses, nor wax poetic on the abiding wounds of love insufficient. Ocean wanders between lovers and lands, raunchy fleeting fornication and first-time romances, documenting thoughts and circumstance with imagery at once graspable and formless. That dichotomy has never been clearer than on his latest work. Visually, Endless is an unassuming black-and-white performance art installation. The 40-minute meandering downer—depicting three silent and shadowy Frank Oceans simultaneously building a staircase—is more akin to a neorealist film than Beyoncé’s overtly cinematic personal masterpiece, Lemonade. Fastidious and with far-reaching musical inspirations, Ocean’s chops as a composer rescue the film from being a complete drag, though not by much.
Blonde hits similar thematic beats as the film. But as a result of richly impassioned songwriting coupled with more contained instrumentation, Blonde hits them more emphatically. These albums, taken together, primarily hinge upon Ocean’s ability as a conductor to guide us through his introspection, which can be as pensive as Brian Eno’s Textures or match his creative partner Tyler the Creator in wanton dissonance.
Endless opens in a careful homage to the Isleys’ “At Your Best (You Are Love).” Ocean’s liquid falsetto reassures his audiences right off the bat that his vocals have improved since “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pink Matter.” Splintering off to his typical tenor on the third verse before climbing once again into the upper registers, Ocean effortlessly boasts his legit soul chops. But beautifully expressive moments like these are few and far between on the album. In construction, Endless has much more in common with Ocean’s 64-track jumble of unreleased songs. It’s exciting only insofar as it’s a raw, near-candid studio sesh shedding some light on how all these portraits get painted. Loose pen strokes abound. The subdued rap diatribe “U-N-I-T-Y” for example, reads like an odd, gasping love-letter with weird abstractions on Egyptian gods and Apple Jacks. We can hear how themes like the infinite loop that he’s determined to eventually break from (perhaps symbolizing the end of his contract with Universal Music Group with the release of Endless) on Blonde’s final track, “Futura Free,” come about. But listening to spare verses and budding structure is engaging only to a point. Endless is Tumblr-ready in its minimalism and niche presentation. But its novelty is undermined by its ambiguity—justifying a single play-through but nothing more.
Blonde’s tempered instrumentation is open and airy, quite often sounding like all Ocean has is flesh, bone and voice. But with the sparseness, Ocean’s vocals become immersive. Most tracks lack cohesive backbeats, instead opting to focus its complexities in the narratives rather than the accompaniments. Ocean sings praises to solitude alongside a kinetic gospel organ on the Todd Rundgren-sampled “Solo.” Doubling and tripling meanings with ease, Ocean sings, “Now your baby momma ain’t so vicious, all she want is her picket fence/ And you protest you picket sign, but them courts won’t side with you/ Won’t let you fly solo.” “Self Control” hints at Ocean’s deeply human desire to be loved (“Keep a place for me“), blinding himself to the clear flaws of being romantically involved with someone he cannot have (“I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing/ It’s nothing, it’s nothing/ Keep a place for me, for me”). Features from the whispers of Kendrick Lamar on the frenetic “Skyline To,” Beyoncé’s ad-libs on “Pink + White” and André 3000’s flamethrower verse on “Solo (Reprise), echo Ocean’s musical efficiency—imbibing their small moments on Blonde with noticeable purpose.
Endless represents Ocean coming to an understanding of Blonde’s conceptual framework. It showcases, in dreary form, why two albums had to be made. Perhaps feeling disillusioned from the cyclical (arguably unfair) power dynamic between beloved artist and fanbase, between a record label and transcendent artist, Endless does enough to prime his fans towards his destination. Ocean is markedly disparate at the midpoint of Blonde—a product of the lucid love dream he’s allowed himself to believe is his reality, the cycle of falling in love with someone who cannot love him and the internal tumult isolation brings to bear. The second half sees Ocean attempting to break the loop. Taking one last look at the last half decade of his life, he finally presses forward and says goodbye. “Godspeed” represents an emotional evolution from, say, “Bad Religion” on Channel Orange, where Ocean longs to be loved by someone who he knows will never love him. By 2016, Ocean can sincerely sing, “I let go of my claim to you, it’s a free world/ …You’ll have this place to call home, always.”
Though Blonde continues threads from Endless, the motifs are abstract yet accounted for. Blonde can be jarringly personal. The specificity of the images—”Your speckled face/ Flawed crystals hang from your ears/ I couldn’t gauge your fears“—require a willing mind’s eye for projecting Ocean’s moving pictures. This makes for a very peculiar commitment to the album that Channel Orange and Nostalgia, Ultra certainly lack. Because there aren’t many productive bells and whistles here, Ocean forces us to depend on him to carry us to the darkest recesses of his conscience, where all his contradictions lie.
Though, I think, mistaken for gratuity, Endless and Blonde is Ocean peaking in generosity, laying bare his truth as a collector of stories and poetries on self and society. The multiplicity of spins and perspectives Ocean draws out of love stories, social commentary and self-reflection is payoff enough to return to the album again and again.