There's just something about Frank Ocean. For all intents and purposes, it's been tough to be a fan of the reclusive R&B auteur over the past few years. Keeping tabs on him has been as difficult as trying to get a straight answer out of the Cheshire Cat, or a rise out of a Buddhist monk. He's ghosted, teased release dates and made fans watch him woodwork endlessly.
Most thought no album could possibly live up to the expectations Ocean has been building around it. They would be right.
Ocean's Endless — a 45-minute ethereal, meandering visual album, dropped Friday instead of the epic album most assumed would be called Boys Don't Cry — was the definition of an anticlimax. The productions are muted and echoey. The video's artistry and conclusion is underwhelming for its scale. But there's still something about it.
With every listen, the music has only continued to feel more rich, meaningful and whole. Indeed, for all its shortcomings, the project is remarkably self-aware and touching.
The very first thing Endless does is acknowledge the absurdity of its context. Its very first words — a set of computerized lyrics taken from Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans — lightly mocks its Apple home: "With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos," the voice explains. "Still motion pictures shot at high frequency/ Blurring, blurring the line between still and motion."
Later, this diatribe comes back over a bouncing Kraftwerk-esque beat that sounds so out of place when compared with the rest of the album's angelic trap and polyphonic interludes: "This stream of life, on this device," the voice says. "Is causing a streamed life/ A live stream of my life/ Is caused by this device."
Ocean knows how ludicrous this whole experiment was, and he knows we've been watching.
Watching Ocean poke fun at Apple — the exclusive host of this overwrought parable about the shortcomings of the information and surveillance age — is disarming. It shaves off some of the sharpest edges of this bitter pill. The very next track, "At Your Best (You Are Love)," brims with beautiful harmonies. It helps situate the album in its other contexts, both in Frank Ocean's career and in a lineage of R&B classics.
The song is a cover of Aaliyah's "At Your Best (You Are Love)," which is itself a cover of the Isley Brothers' original. Ocean nods to three generations of R&B greats, while seemingly trying to explain his delay: "When I feel what I feel," Ocean sings. "Sometimes it's hard to tell you so/ You may not be in the mood to learn."
It's a centering moment and feels like a reminder for fans to approach this project with an open mind. Trying to build an album, especially one that feels honest and new, in a silent recording studio is an agonizing task. Ocean has been trying. That much is clear.
The album has a meandering, listless quality a lot of the times. Beats — excellent beats paired with bouncing, endearing melodies — drop for what feel like split seconds. "Commes Des Garcons," which runs from around the 11:18 mark to 12:48 in the Endless stream, is one of the flyest one-and-a-half minutes of music this year. But it devolves back into contemplative wailing soon after.
"U-N-I-T-Y" has some of Ocean's finest straight raps that he's spit in years, but muddled by all the surrounding New Age ambiance, they never really take on the urgency they should.
There are a lot of choice moments to fawn over in Endless, but it takes patience to tease them out. The rewards hit hard, but in a somber, solitary kind of way. But again, this project may still just be a prelude. Apple Music insiders have let slip that Boys Don't Cry proper may drop this weekend. This may be the calm before the storm. It's still beautiful watching the clouds roll in.