Music fears being confined into a space. To be labeled or categorized, is to be suffocated. That’s what makes Endless liberating and soothing. Its downtempo demeanor melts each track into a singular experience even as it traverses outside the conventions of R&B–dipping into soft rock and electronic. Even the unconventional release, a methodic rollout via video of Frank Ocean constructing a staircase points at its desire to live outside the lines of standard, packaged albums or directed video.
As the title asserts, there is a cyclical constant at work with the spiral staircase as a physical manifestation. Endless’ many ideas, some of which only last a minute or so, are not so much bookended by a beginning and end, but rather, through here’s and there’s. Take the brief “Deathwish”, where Ocean’s voice comes and goes. One of the few connected lines go:
And I be needing my sleep
Need to trust you
At the mercy of you
Presence has always been a temporal concept, but it’s always felt more concrete with music, where stage and voice equate to command and control. But with Endless as with his romance, he seems to take the passenger seat. Frank Ocean relinquishes the spotlight, as in “Alabama” where Ocean’s endless “what can I do” questions harmonize and become overtaken by Sampha’s vocals. “In Here Somewhere” and “Florida”–where shades of James Blake can be heard–as well as many of the instrumentals and transitions dispersed throughout are distant, faraway voices. Other times, he acts as a conduit. The most complete sound in the album is “At Your Best”, and it’s a cover of Aaliyah’s song of the same name (which in turn is a cover of The Isley Brothers song–also of the same name). Many other tracks echo this distance between listener and Ocean, whether it’s Jazmine Sullivan’s voice funneling in or instrumentals that act to truncate ideas.
While the robotic voice in “Device Control” might hint that we’re at the mercy of technology, Endless proves the opposite. Frank Ocean’s love stories are messy affairs, the emotions come and go, the voices waver. There’s an appealing imprecision–one that can only be classified as human–that can never be mimicked by a Samsung Galaxy phone.
Endless is reminiscent of Gambino’s Before The Internet, tackling technology and its exciting, but also terrifying, lack of boundary. Neither are pioneers in reaching beyond the conventional box of music and music-making, but they both pinpoint the uncomfortable, but essential coexistence technology shares with humans and human emotions.
Frank Ocean’s ability to relinquish control, to be swept up and feel love, conquers any obstacle that cold technology might present. It also opens up a transcendent experience, where an ocean of voices can exist, the stories feel universal and the sound is pleasant–but always challenging. Most importantly, it allows Endless to express love in a pure way, perhaps best captured in the one-two punch of “Rushes” and “Rushes To”. A state where love feel foreign, yet familiar and the experiences are new, but instinctual. You can blur the border between still and motion pictures, and Frank Ocean proves, so too with music.