The following is Part 1 of a four-part series on visual albums. Next week, we take a look at Drake's "Please Forgive Me".
Before officially releasing his visual album Endless on August 19th, Frank Ocean teased fans worldwide with three painstaking weeks of carpentry, woodwork, and painting. Through seemingly mundane acts of crafting, Ocean reflected on the past four years of his career, a period that felt truly endless in the anticipation for the follow-up to his 2012 debut masterpiece Channel Orange. Perhaps most importantly, Ocean was challenging his audience to be patient, and watch each and every carefully curated step necessary in the construction of his new work of art. He left the audience in awe, wondering how this empty warehouse and project would turn out. At the conclusion of this ‘live-stream,’ which was actually filmed over the past year, Frank Ocean provided an edited, 45 minute version of the craft he had shown viewers for 3 weeks. Ocean's Endless functions as both a visual album that tells a story and as a testament to the artist's creative process.
The earliest visual albums can be traced back to the musical films made by groups such as The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (1964), Pink Floyd's The Wall (1972), and Prince's Purple Rain (1984). These albums have running times that are feature-film length and are wildly influential on the musical film genre as a whole. Over the past decade, however, visual albums have taken on a much more experimental and condensed shape, while seemingly ushering out the era of music videos.
Endless is avant-garde at its core, eschewing all conventions we've come to expect from music videos and visual albums. Unlike other similar works of art, Endless does not have a conventional plot. In fact, it lacks a cohesive narrative altogether. Whereas Beyonce's Lemonade (2016) and Kanye West's Runaway (2010) utilize both music and visuals to depict a story of infidelity and doomed love, Endless uses songs to paint mosaics of Frank Ocean's life, while the visuals act as a bridge across the past four years of Ocean's relationship with the public that consisted largely of teases, missed deadlines, and broken promises.
Endless begins with multiple versions of Frank entering the warehouse, each doing a unique job. One turns on the stereo, one cleans the scraps off the floor, and the other cuts wood. The first time we hear Ocean's voice, it's during a cover of Aaliyah's 'Let Me Know.' Beginning this experiment with an homage to Aaliyah makes sense–for someone who was 7 years old when the song was released, it likely played an influential role in the type of artist Ocean came to be. Several minutes later, during the stand-out track, 'U-N-I-T-Y,' through which Ocean proves his rap prowess to be on the same level as those of today's maestros, he reflects on his experiences growing up in a low-income project, comparing the gunshots he heard to that of 'Chiraq' or Palestine. After a short interlude, we then hear Ocean repeat the phrase 'Commes des Garcons,' a reference to a brand that also translates to 'Like Boys.' This acts as a subtle nod to Ocean's reveal in 2012 via Tumblr that his first love was another man, a big announcement in the field of hip-hop which for many years was, and in some parts still is, highly homophobic.
Near the half-way mark, we see the first and only change of setting in the film. Frank enters a separate room, where he spray-paints the boxes of wood. Dressed in a protective outfit that harkens back to Walter White's glory days, we're left to wonder about the purpose of this segment. If the entire film is black-and-white, then the act of spray painting the wood is pointless. Here, we realize that this scene serves as a stark contrast to our waiting for Frank's album. While we could not see what went on behind-the-scenes of the making of his sophomore album, here he lets us see each and every detail, whether it makes sense or not. Besides, is this not what we craved all these years?
In the final act, Ocean's creation begins to take shape. He is arranging the blocks of wood as steps in a spiral staircase. The complementary music is some of Ocean's most heartfelt work, as he exclaims longingly in 'Rushes To': "I'll be back before/the streetlights on, before the daylight's gone/." Much like kids having to return home from play once night takes over, and relationships rarely burning with light forever, Frank too must return to the only world he's ever been comfortable in–the world of music.
Endless concludes with Ocean walking to the top of his spiral staircase, but cuts before we see him reach the final step. Where was he going? Your guess is as good as mine–just as quickly as Ocean gifted the world with Endless, he went back into hiding. Perhaps he wanted to express a departure from his strained and chained relationship with Def Jam Records and the process to becoming an independent artist. Perhaps he was ascending to new musical heights, heights that he reached again with the release of his masterpiece of an album, Blonde. However, knowing the Frank Ocean who relishes in nostalgia of the past, my guess is that he was not concerned with the final step, but rather reliving each step before it. Having gone through a troubled childhood, seeing the devastation of his hometown after Hurricane Katrina, living as an artist in the shadows who ghostwrote for superstars, having his heart broken by his first love, and becoming a global sensation, Frank Ocean is a product of each of these phases. Ocean is not an artist to lose sight of his past, a part of his life that shaped the man and artist he is today.
In his exclusive magazine Boys Don't Cry, which was released on August 20th, Frank Ocean writes an emotional note discussing the last few years of his life and his work, often one and the same. He discusses his past, admits that boys do cry, and reflects on his teenage years, the part of his life where he actually seemed to cry the least. He concludes by writing:
"It's surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it's getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though... It's still all good."- Frank Ocean, Boys Don't Cry
For Ocean, achieving a state of 'all good' is endless. In his eyes, if that staircase is all good, it's because the first block of wood was all good. If his album is all good, it's because the first note, the first beat, the first words were all good. If this very moment is all good, it's because the moments before were all good. In an imperfect world, that is an all good way of looking at life.
Endless is available to stream on Apple Music and on http://boysdontcry.co.