Frank Ocean returned last night with Endless, a new “visual album” available exclusively through Apple Music. The 45-minute piece isn’t the only new material the crooner has coming — apparently another album, presumably a more traditional follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGE, will be out this weekend. For the time being, SPIN staffers and contributors try to make sense of Frank’s latest project.
Andrew Unterberger: What Frank Ocean is really building a staircase to: a treehouse with six corners in it. Endless feels like Frank is hiding in almost-plain sight; releasing a dream journal of an album that raises more questions about what Frank’s been up to during Obama’s second administration than it answers. The visual is unhelpful, the guest list is unverifiable, even the track list feels misleading — should’ve just called it Endless, Nameless. A four-year buildup means fans will do what they have to in order to draw meaning from it, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that its beauty may be largely pointillistic. It’s not surprising he’s released an album that’s more “Pilot Jones” than “Pyramids,” but it’s not tremendously satisfying, either. At the very least, it’s gratifying (if still perplexing) to hear him snap to consciousness at the end with the best synth-pop song of 1984 — or is it the best electroclash song of 2002? — proving he really is Mr. Peabody after all.
Early Score: 6/10
Kathy Iandoli: There are moments where Endless truly lives up to its title — where watching Frank construct a large wooden stairwell to the sky induces more anxiety than overwhelming calm. Where the adverts for Apple, Sony, and the Samsung Galaxy make you question why you waited so long for this project and then, all genders aside, you’re the boy who’s crying. While this visual album is a valiant attempt to touch the market now cornered by Beyoncé’s Lemonade stand, it seemingly falls short of organization. Check the waffling between parts like “Ambience 001” and “Ambience 002” for proof there. Rumor has it another album is coming, so let’s call Endless the Ziploc bag full of Cheerios your mother gave you as a kid to get you through church, so when it was over you could have your pancake breakfast.
Early Score: 6/10
Sheldon Pearce: Frank Ocean’s Endless brings added meaning to the phrase “work-in-progress,” dubbing actual work footage with some rough mixes of an eclectic batch of songs. But is it greater than the sum of its parts — Arca’s programming, soulful ad-libs from Jazmine Sullivan and Sampha’s vox, Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestration, Alex G’s guitars, James Blake synths, and B-roll audio from the Boys Don’t Cry script? Not really. And that can be especially frustrating when the work is 45 minutes and unsegmented, designed to be consumed as a whole. It would be fine if its additional component, the visual element of this “visual album,” was compelling. But Beyoncé set the standard for visual albums and this isn’t that. Outside of the initial excitement of finally hearing new Frank Ocean songs, Endless doesn’t deliver as an album or a visual spectacle. But as an art project or a companion to another album that’s allegedly on the way, it is fascinating.
Early Score: 6/10
Renato Pagnani: On “Unity,” Frank Ocean asks, “Is you Roger or Novak?” He’s referring, of course, to the greatest tennis player of all time (Roger Federer) and the greatest tennis player right now (Novak Djokovic, the world’s current No. 1). Here, Federer represents the old guard, a formidable force still to be reckoned with, but one that is slowly and surely fading. This passing of time, this transition from one generation to the next, occupies Frank’s thoughts on Endless, an album whose elegiac stride is buoyed by an optimism he spends the album articulating. “Hope our children walk by spring and flowers bloom,” he sings on “Wither.” “Start a family tonight,” he proposes (or perhaps implores us?) on “Higgs.” It’s an album the considers big questions with a measured patience, content to unfurl at its own pace knowing that we’re along for the ride.
Early Score: 8/10
Brian Josephs: What sets Endless apart from Frank Ocean’s previous two records — besides it being a “visual album” — is how there aren’t really any immediate knockouts like “Novacane” and “Thinkin Bout You.” The best number is a cover: Ocean’s crystalline rendition of Aaliyah’s “At Your Best (You Are Luhh)” is even more sublime with Johnny Greenwood’s orchestration elevating it. Elsewhere, beauty does blossom at the center of what’s been a tortuous rollout. The acoustic “Slide on Me” glistens with its emotionally bare hook, and late entry “Rushes to” features one of Ocean’s most wrenching performances. But as a whole, Endless feels formless — like pretty, curlicue-flaunting cursive with no adherence to notebook margins. It could work as a B-side collection to the capital-a Album; but if Endless is supposed to be the Album… well, ouch.
Early Score: 7/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 6.6/10