At the end of July, and following years of “What’s he doing?” chatter, the enigmatic singer-songwriter Frank Ocean made a statement—by starting a livestream. An Ocean-related site, boysdontcry.co, showed high-contrast black-and-white footage of someone involved in serious woodworking, accompanied by the occasional loop of music. Speculators seized on the site, as well as a few other supposed clues scattered throughout Ocean’s sporadic social-media posts, and came up with a conclusion speculatively backed by none other than the New York Times: Frank Ocean’s second album, Boys Don’t Cry, would be out on August 5 via Apple Music.
The frenzied days leading up to the album’s alleged release date were filled with excitable social-media posts, thoughts on how deep Ocean’s woodworking knowledge actually went and the launch of a Frank Ocean-tracking app. When the date came and went, and no new album came out, it was an anticlimax of sorts, although it ensured one thing: Picking apart the possibility of what Frank Ocean’s next album might sound like, and when it would materialize, could continue at will.
Ocean is a 28-year-old New Orleans native who worked in the pop-tunesmith salt mines. He gained his first flashes of notoriety when he was affiliated with the gleefully profane hip-hop collective Odd Future, and attracted a massive cult following after releasing the 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. His smooth voice, delicate falsetto and plainspoken lyrics led to his debut Channel Orange garnering Grammy nominations. Ocean’s songwriting for other artists can be gut-punching enough to make Beyoncé cry, something she admitted to doing after hearing the Ocean-penned track “I Miss You,” which appeared on her album 4.
But what’s made Ocean more of a fascination over these past four years isn’t necessarily his music, although tracks like the winding “Pyramids” and the prowling yet numb “Novacane” show a lot of bravado and potential. It’s his elusiveness—his only saying something when he feels like he absolutely must. In the age of constant chatter from all sides, staying apart from the fray—though not necessarily above it—says something in its own right. Doing so allows listeners to remember what it’s like to miss an artist. Those same people can fill in speculative gaps with high expectations and hopes that the first listen to something new will work as a time machine; that perhaps it will bring back those feelings associated with an earlier, less burdened time. (Nostalgia, ultra indeed.)
Late on August 18, Ocean broke his silence and released the “visual album” Endless via Apple Music. In contrast to the widescreen splendor of this year’s other blockbuster audio-visual package, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the motif of Endless is singular, continuing the “man at work” motif of its teaser, although Ocean changes clothes during the course of his workday. The album is presented as a seamless whole, with notes on song titles and big-name guests (including the R&B powerhouse Jazmine Sullivan and the electro experimentalist Arca) left for the end.
Endless is a curious album, especially when the listener takes the men-at-work nature of its visual component into its aural context. It opens with a ghostly hymn about the possibilities afforded by an “Apple appliance.” Snatches of music bubble up and then recede just as quickly. Fully realized songs like “Wither” sound skeletal, cloaked in an echo that recalls bedroom (or, in this specific case, hotel room) demos. The work-in-progress feel seems to answer, if not explicitly then at least in a “here’s my sketchbook” sort of way, a lot of the curiosity about what exactly Ocean has been up to since the 2012 release of his studio debut Channel Orange.
A spectral cover of The Isley Brothers’ 1976 track “At Your Best (You Are Love),” which Ocean covered in 2015 as a tribute to the silver-voiced R&B singer Aaliyah, is the album’s first proper song. It’s also Endless’ introduction to its boldface names; Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood arranged the strings, and mopey Brit James Blake and Channel Orange producer Om’Mas Keith add synthesizer and piano. Ocean shows off his obvious talent for doing it all; he has sole writing credit on most of the tracks, and on the slippery boast “U-N-I-T-Y,” he demonstrates how capable he is as a rapper too.
Still, some of the tracks beg for more fleshing out. The blissed-out “Comme Des Garcons” does manage to fit a bridge into its brief length, but its wistful story feels half-told. Alex G, whose slacker-cool pop has endeared him to the indie-kid circuit, provides soft-focused guitars that add to the drowsy feel. Sullivan’s voice, which appears on a few songs including the Daft Punk-sampling fever dream “Hublots,” is a great foil for Ocean; her raspiness provides a balance to his smoothness. Still, it’s easy for someone who knows her songwriting strengths to wish she’d offered a bit of the focused, hard-hitting honesty that made her 2015 album Reality Show one of that year’s best albums. (Boys may not cry, but they sure do mope a lot.)
Near the end of Endless, Ocean decides to climb the staircase he’s been building. When he reaches the top, the whirling “Higgs” cuts out, and the scene shifts abruptly back to his pre-workspace blankness. The song that eventually arrives isn’t an Ocean track, but instead a return to the opening meditation on technology courtesy of the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans and his previously unreleased composition “Device Control”. (That Apple line in full: “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos/ Still motion pictures shot at high frequency/ Blurring, blurring the line between still and motion.”)
The decision to bookend a digital-only release that feels explicitly “to be continued” with corporate directives on how one should appreciate digital technology is rife for analysis—particularly in the wake of Ocean collaborator Kanye West’s ever-evolving The Life of Pablo, which has undergone multiple tweaks since coming out in February. In the past few years and across all media, technological innovations have opened up the guts of creative production. Consider the way the hit podcast Serial allowed itself to expand and contract in length depending on how much raw reportage Sarah Koenig wanted to share, or the livestreaming of post-game press conferences that were once cherry-picked for use in the next morning’s early edition, or Taylor Swift’s inclusion of voice memo demos on the deluxe edition of her blockbuster album 1989. Previously, these might have been perceived as nothing more than notes. Now the work-in-progress can exist as a product in its own right.
But too often, that “can” shape-shifts into “must.” Pressure to produce comes from fans as well as those on the business side. That’s why Frank Ocean naming his second album Endless seems tongue in cheek, at least slightly. His officially sanctioned output might be relatively scant, but he’s working. The idea that fully realized, listenable songs just don’t appear out of nowhere—that they need time and thought and capital in a way that’s akin to the creation of a spiral staircase to nowhere—has only seeped into more rhetoric across the listener board, from defiant file-sharers who think paying for recorded music is a sucker’s game to fans who confuse the desire for endless consumption with love of an artist’s work.
As West has often tweeted, “it’s a process.” Endless, while not the world-changing thunderbolt that some speculators expected, is a testament to that. And its work-in-progress status is very much alive. A statement from Apple Music via Pitchfork advised listeners to “keep an eye out this weekend for more from Frank.” The cycle of anticipation, speculation, and hope lives on. One could even say, at this point, that it’s endless.