It dropped. On August 19th, ahead of the sophomore album everyone had been waiting for, Frank Ocean released a surprise visual album, Endless. His second album Boys Don’t Cry, which, incidentally, transformed into Blond – or is it Blonde? – came just a day later.
So, why did Frank Ocean release two whole albums in as many days? Seeing as Blond pretty much eclipses Endless, what’s the significance of his visual album?
For starters, Endless isn’t a really an album – at least not in the traditional sense. It follows in the footsteps of Beyoncé’s visual piece Lemonade, which messed with expectations of what an album is and can be. Ocean, however, moves even further away from the form of the conventional album. Where Beyoncé stayed true to an orthodox track-by-track format, Ocean, in the evocatively named Endless, shuns verse-bridge-chorus progressions entirely, effectively merging tracks into one. Although it’s true that track listings have been released, it’s hard to know when one ends and the next begins. Instead, the album becomes a series of shapeless, ambient and atmospheric cut-ups.
Without individual tracks, it's not so easy to play Endless in the background as a backdrop to the mundane – cooking, eating, scrolling through your Instagram feed. Endless makes itself inaccessible to most modern listeners. The structure forces a listener to consume the album from beginning to end without jumping around: no skipping songs and no losing focus. As listeners, we are asked to dive in and trust Ocean to bear us through. If we accept, we put ourselves at the mercy of its wave-like compilation, its tempestuous, rip-tidal rhythms, becoming stranded, for 45 minutes, in what begins to feel like an endless sea.
In this sense, experiencing Endless is much like experiencing a vinyl record. A vinyl listener is an active listener – you have to put on the record, move the needle, flip the record, in order to listen to an album in its entirety without skipping tracks. With a vinyl, you are given the work as a sequential whole and experience it as a material object. And yet, contrary to this, Endless is also an innately digital experience. For one it’s only available through Apple Music. And for another, by incorporating video, it becomes impossible to consume as a mere record or CD. Endless is digital in its essence.
This apparent contradiction between physical and digital creativity reaches a climax during the closing track of the video, when Wolfgang Tillmans’ Device Control plays eerily as Ocean, engrossed in manual labour, builds a staircase. And, as he does so, the heavily modulated lyrics repeat variations on an advert-style spiel:
“Life sharing, live posting, streaming off your videos
The new Samsung Galaxy allows you to livestream your life
Livestream your life, livestream your life”
As Ocean physically assembles the staircase, culminating a long, laborious, and ultimately inconclusive 35 or so minutes of sawing and spray-painting, the accompanying track celebrates the instant nature of digital media and its simplicity: “Livestream your life, livestream your life”.
In so doing, Ocean articulates a frustration with the artistic process in a digitised world. Art is not always consumed as the artist wants it to be, as a material whole and enjoyed with great attention from start to finish. By bringing the drawn-out and interminable process of production to the fore and contrasting it with the incessant digital voice, Ocean emphasises the disconnect between a finished album and its creation. Endless boldly confronts this disconnect by forcing its audience to watch the creative process from beginning to end. It demands that we listen to the album as a work that Ocean built from scratch, to experience it as a whole. And to experience it, crucially, as an analogue record in a digital world.