Artist: Frank Ocean
Record Label(s): Def Jam Recordings
Recommended Tracks: Track 9*-Wither and Track 15*-Rushes
Frank Ocean emerged from the chaos of the odd future collective as one of the most prominent and individual voices within modern popular music. His reclusive persona, erratic releases, cult like following online, and of course the tragic, spacious beauty of his music have fomented a palpable mystique surrounding the man, his music, and everything he does. Frank’s debut solo mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA. Was self- released via the odd future website in 2011. The mixtape pieces together prominent samples and interpolations of music that was important to Frank in his youth. While it is easy to write off some of this project as derivative, undeveloped, and even immature at points, there are some absolutely gorgeous moments across the project that forecast the songwriting prowess, conceptual construction, and raw talent that would turn Frank into a global superstar. Frank’s debut album. Channel Orange was released to much fanfare by the Odd Future and existing Frank Ocean fans, however this album really shot him into the national consciousness (although “Novacane” off of nostalgia, ULTRA. was a favorite for critics in 2011, and having been a part of Odd Future Frank was already well known, especially amongst teens/young adults). Channel Orange is a reference to the color Frank most strongly associates with his first time falling in love, and the album certainly conjures the warmth, beauty, innocence, and potent sexuality that I’m sure many would associate with their first love. The album wins a Grammy, Frank comes out in a letter that he released with the album, and the path to R&B superstardom seemed all but fulfilled. However, Frank had become disenchanted with the glamour, the award shows, the fanfare, belonging to a record label, the constructs and pressure of fame, and for these and countless other potential reasons, Frank isn’t heard from much at all for 4 years. Most other artists would have their careers stunted by this kind of absence from both the limelight and from producing music, and Frank very well could’ve been had his silence been broken by a different project. However, tin the summer of 2016, a couple live streams of a warehouse with random positions of ambient noise, welding sounds, someone walking in front of the camera, and several other oddities sprang up on Frank’s personal website. The internet exploded with anticipation, wondering what these cryptic hints within the livestream could mean, writing words they thought they heard within the ambient noise, piecing together numbers within the background, and then all of a sudden on August 19, 2016, Frank dropped Endless, a video album featuring lo-fi production techniques, avant-garde aesthetics, spacious and sparse instrumentation, and the much refined rapping and singing of one Frank Ocean. The next day, Frank released Blonde, which was a much more straightforward album, with less lo-fi obscuring and with clearly more polish and deliberate songwriting. It was revealed that Frank had released Endless to fulfill his contract with Def Jam so he could release Blonde independently. The world raved at the genius move, and Endless was relegated being obsessed over by Frank Ocean fans on reddit, while Blonde debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. While I love Blonde tremendously and it was extremely important to my development as a person as well as a listener of music, I think Endless is too often overlooked as a clever workaround by Frank, and not as the masterpiece it is within itself. Overall, I’d give Endless a 5/5, however if you haven’t already guessed by this point, I’m extremely partial to anything with Frank’s fingerprints on it.
My first standout track is “Wither”, which I would almost say leans towards poetic vignette in its song structure. The bright strings (played by Alex G) and the faint female vocalizations in the background serve to add texture to the space in which Frank exists. Space is very important within the original mix of this album, as some things certainly seem closer, further, more or less obscured, and of course the whole album has the visual accompaniment of a warehouse, which means each track is atmospheric and spatially oriented in a very audible way. While the atmosphere on this track is gorgeous, as is Frank’s singing, for me it’s the lyrics that really separate this cut. I implore you to go and listen to the song or read them yourself, but generally the song is about the wish to have kids and allow them to see your warmth, as well as the space in which you created that warmth, and then for them to see you “wither”. The song title has a double-meaning embedded within it, in that wither can also be heard as “with-her”. This song is as avant-garde, poetic, and reserved as the rest of Endless, but my personal interpretation is Frank is meditating on the space created within love, and the ephemerality of that space, as well as the ephemerality and subjectivity of the human experience itself. In other words, Frank knows his time is limited, and he hopes his children get a chance to see his happiness and who he is and the things he loves before he wastes away, therefore in some way preserving him and the love he has felt.
My second standout track is Rushes, which again is so meditative, poetic, and shapeless that it’s hard to describe its beauty. However this track is very similar compositionally to Wither, as Alex G takes the lead instrumentation, and Jazmine Sullivan lends her vocals to the soundscape. This song is about so many things. Wanting to matter, wanting to cease existing, living in polar emotional extremes, emotional stagnation, and countless other possible meanings gleaned from lyrical interpretation. Frank’s songwriting is so emotional and intimate, and his singing is just as emotive, which allows these tracks to have a poetic relativism to the listener. These songs have meant so many different things to me at different times. In one moment, a lyric might hit you exactly where you need it, or connect to you with a haunting intimacy amplified by the spaciousness of the sound. On Endless, Frank masters allowing space in the mix for the listener, which is something he also employs on Blonde, but I’d say the sonic palette of Endless lends itself even better to this practice.Overall, if this album missed you or you’ve only sort of watched the stream, I would go find the CD Quality tracks online and give it a listen. As progressive as Blonde is within its sound, I think Endless takes risks and combines ideas that I haven’t seen replicated anywhere else. While avant garde is a term that has been repeated to the point of obliviating any pure sentiment or meaning, the challenges Frank makes towards the typical structures of music and what is important within a song creates such a unique potency within Endless. If you like Frank Ocean, specifically Endless, I would check out some of this album’s collaborators, such as Alex G, Vegyn, or Sampha. I definitely would revisit this album whenever you’re in the mood for solitary meditation, or need a new soundtrack for crying in the shower.