From all star collaborators to one surprising cover, Ocean delivers on his first collection of new music since 2012's 'Channel Orange'

By Eric Renner Brown
August 19, 2016 at 03:38 PM EDT
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The album some suspected might never come arrived late Thursday: Frank Ocean dropped a visual album named Endless via Apple Music, the 28-year-old R&B star’s first substantive batch of new material since 2012’s epochal Channel Orange. Clocking in at 45 minutes, the project spans outré electronic (with contributions by Björk collaborator Arca), spare piano balladry, and the technicolor soul for which Ocean is most famous.

Juxtaposed with the same minimalist, black-and-white images that were livestreamed for the past two weeks, the visual aspect album of Endless depicts Ocean building a staircase — to nowhere in particular.

Endless will continue to reveal its secrets in the coming weeks and days — as will Ocean, who some reports suggest still plans to drop Boys Don’t Cry, albeit with a different title, this weekend — but read on for EW’s first-listen highlights from the visual album Endless.

Ocean may have “pulled a Beyoncé,” but Endless is no Lemonade.

If visual albums increase in prevalence — and Ocean’s decision to make one with Endless further suggests they will — Beyoncé’s Lemonade will serve as a reference point. But Endless and Lemonade are about as different as two projects sharing the designation can be. Lemonade was a vibrant amalgam of distinctive settings, eye-popping fashion, tactfully deployed special effects, and even guest appearances by the likes of Serena Williams. Endless, by contrast, is restricted to a plain, colorless warehouse, where Ocean works on a singular, simplistic goal: building his staircase from scratch.

His taste for collaborators remains diverse as ever.

Some of Channel Orange‘s most distinctive moments came from its guests: Pharrell, Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer, André 3000, and Tyler, the Creator all played crucial roles in the final product. Likewise, Endless sports an impressive roster. After adorning Radiohead’s latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, with a hearty helping of orchestral strings, the band’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood stops by to do the same on a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love).” (Ocean’s 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra featured an interlude with Radiohead’s 2000 song “Optimistic.”) The track additionally includes synthesizer work by electro-soul artist James Blake, whose May album The Colour In Anything included two Ocean credits.

Ocean also recruited Grammy-nominated R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan for vocal work on four songs; one of those, “Alabama,” also features singing from recent Drake and West collaborator Sampha. Arca — whose aesthetic shaped West’s Yeezus, FKA twigs’ LP1, and Björk’s Vulnicura — worked on “Mine.” And it seems Ocean has a handle on emerging indie-rock acts: Alex G, the 23-year-old guitarist who made a name for himself with a string of Bandcamp releases in the early ’10s, performed on four tracks.

The absence of Ocean’s regular guests lends credence to reports that more new music is imminent.

When Ocean began teasing Boys Don’t Cry in April 2015, he wrote on his website, “I got two versions. I got twoooo versions.” In the time since Channel Orange, Ocean has been rumored to be working with artists from rappers Nas and Lil B to indie acts King Krule and Tame Impala. None of those acts — nor high-profile ones such as Beyoncé and Kanye West who Ocean has teamed with in recent years — appear on Endless. Neither does Malay, the producer who worked on nearly every Channel Orange song and has since teamed with Zayn Malik. (“Art cannot be rushed,” Malay said in a Reddit AMA earlier this week.) Also absent are members of Odd Future, the rap collective where Ocean gained early notoriety. The guest list’s notable omissions suggest Ocean could have more material with his usual team on deck.

His Aaliyah love runs deep.

Ocean released “At Your Best (You Are Love)” as “You Are Luhh” early in 2015 on what would’ve been Aaliyah’s 36th birthday. The legendary R&B singer, who died in a 2001 plane crash, recorded the Isley Brothers song on her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. Here, Ocean retools his cover of the song for Endless‘ vivid, impassioned opener.

The dude’s fashion sense continues to impress.

“Got on my butter cream silk shirt and it’s Versace,” Ocean sang on Channel Orange‘s “Lost.” (Francisco Soriano, the director who helmed that song’s music video, coincidentally returns as director for Endless‘ visual element.) Since then, he’s made headlines with his wardrobe picks alone — earlier this summer, he was announced as part of Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 campaign, alongside Young Thug, Margot Robbie, and Kate Moss. While Endless is primarily about the music, Ocean also makes a statement with his attire, which includes a Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt and a sweater adorned with Playboy’s bunny logo.

Ocean remains in tune with digital age anxieties.

When Blake discussed “My Willing Heart,” a track off his latest album that Ocean worked on, he cited the lyric, “You’re still on my screen / There’s a glare from the sun and it’s heavenly,” as one Ocean had contributed. “People have commented on it as a kind of millennial lyric,” Blake explained.

Music critic Lindsay Zoladz once labeled Ocean an “internet folk hero,” and it follows that his new work contemplates the digital sphere that broadened his fame — and, recently, villainized him for the project’s numerous delays. Endless begins and ends with the same electro interlude and its lyrics, first heard exclusively on Apple Music, seem portentous: “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos / still motion pictures shot at high frequency / blurring, blurring the line.” The peculiar track also references “Sony Telephone 4K” and the Samsung Galaxy before noting, “Think of the possibilities / With this device, stream your life, it’s possible / Streaming life in this device is possible.”

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