In the first moments of his new visual album, Endless, Frank Ocean croons, “If you ever feel the need to wonder why/Let me know, let me know.” The lyrics are intimate, airy, and tender, and the negatively lit, deeply saturated surrounding lends it an eerie romanticism.
Then, about four minutes in, everything begins to feel self-indulgent.
Uncut, Endless would have ran an astounding 140 hours. So maybe that’s to blame for why Ocean’s much-anticipated sophomore release, which he mercilessly teased on social media, took four years to complete.
“Ocean’s intonation here, which is unmistakably a nod to post-hip hop influences like Drake, make it apparent he’s going for a progressive and eccentric vibe. But for all the visual stimulation, this blur of watered-down indie electronica and encouraging splashes of soul feels almost blind.”
For fans, it wasn’t always this way.
After he and Los Angeles-based rap group Odd Future dropped a sparking mixtape in 2011, Ocean quickly followed up with debut studio album Channel Orange in 2012, and the reception was electric. Immediately, fans of the fast-evolving alternative R&B scene flocked to his ethereal voice and jazzy beats. Songs like “Sweet Life” and “Bad Religion” showcased his powerhouse pipes, while more contemporary cuts, like the experimental “Pyramids,” perfectly straddled jazztronica and pop-soul.
In comparison, each track on Endless just becomes stranger than the last.
Spoken word is introduced, vocals begin to overlap, and everything plunges forward at an anxious pace. Ocean’s intonation here, which unmistakably nods toward post-hip hop influences like Drake, makes it apparent he’s going for a progressive and eccentric vibe. But for all the visual stimulation, this blur of watered-down indie electronica and splashes of soul plods forward almost blindly.
Given the impossibly high expectations Blond was facing, releasing it in accompaniment with Endless seems like a stunt designed to temper them. Because in all honesty, after viewing the visual album, my expectations were fortunately stunted. Especially when played back-to-back, the two releases are like Sriracha sauce, memorable and distinct, but not something to put on all the time.
“Nikes,” where Ocean gets carried away with chipmunk vocals and spoken word, makes for a lackluster introduction, and while “Ivy’s” twangy synth guitar and poppy first verse recall Channel Orange’s breezy hooks and hypnotic riffs, the wild audio exit, with its metallic claps and bangs, makes it sound like something has literally gone off track.
Of course, there are highlights. Though the chirping birds at the end left my dog in a nervous fit, Beyoncé rocks a gospel-inspired “Pink and White,” a richly instrumented R&B ballad that’s best listened to your hands in someone’s hair and a free mind. Ocean still shines when he gets personal, as on “Skyline To,” where he vents his frustration with the monotony of everyday life, and relationships also prove fertile ground. “Facebook Life,” which relays a story of live-in lovers ultimately separated by an unaccepted friend request, proves an excellent reflection on the iGeneration, and the terrifying grip technology holds on us, while the watery synths and moving violin on “Siegfried” plead that while Ocean might “do anything for you (in the dark),” it might not be enough.
On album-closer “Futura Free” we’re transported into Ocean’s past, as Odd Future member Lucas Vercetti interviews people on the street, asking them questions about their lives and experiences, while a soft guitar strums. Then everything is over, leaving listeners just as lost in Ocean’s past as he is.