Singer-songwriter Frank Ocean’s legend only grew as he dragged his feet on a follow-up to Channel Orange, his Grammy-winning 2012 collection of stretched-out bummers and tender love songs. But in the late hours of Aug. 18, Ocean released Endless, a “visual album,” via Apple Music. The 45-minute black-and-white film depicts Ocean sawing, painting and ultimately building a spiral staircase, set to gauzy soul that has a deliberately sketchlike feel. Endless serves as a rebuke to those who had criticized Ocean’s scant output: making music is work, even if the labor behind it isn’t as visible as carpentry.
Two days later, newsstands in four cities were taken over by copies of Boys Don’t Cry, a 360-page magazine of his assemblage. The oversize publication, which was given away gratis, contains highly stylized photography, poetry and essays written by Ocean, a fable-slash-poem about the menu at McDonald’s by hip-hop provocateur Kanye West and, perhaps most important, a CD containing a new album, titled Blonde.
Blonde, which was also released (with a different track list) through Apple on Aug. 20, is the full-color realization of Endless’s monochrome sketching. Ocean’s silk-smooth voice commands tracks like the sumptuous ballad “Pink + White” and the tender “Self Control.” Moody strings and pillowy keyboards swell while smaller sonic details receive meticulous attention; it’s a fussiness that contrasts with his abstract lyrics. Andre 3000’s lightning-fast, pathos-heavy verse on “Solo (Reprise)” gives the album a bracing jolt right at its midpoint, but for the most part, the mood is hazily contemplative. He may be perceived as a confident auteur, but even Ocean can get lost in his lofty aspirations.
Whether an increasingly distracted listening public will keep Blonde in rotation once the novelty of its release wears off remains to be seen. Still, there aren’t many artists who could pull off a stunt like Ocean’s. The vigils kept before Endless’s arrival suggest that he might be the rare artist to outlast 2016’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release cycle.
This appears in the September 05, 2016 issue of TIME.
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