4 things we heard on Frank Oceans stunning visual album, Endless

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After four years of waiting for Channel Orange’s follow-up, Frank Ocean fans got some relief Friday at midnight, when the reclusive R&B singer debuted a visual album titled Endless via a live stream on his website, which is now available on Apple Music.

Once again, Ocean was playing carpenter in a black-and-white video. But unlike his previous streams, this time his staircase-building session was soundtracked by 45 minutes of new music.

Endless famously follows a period of silence from Frank, and it sounds like an album made by a recluse, in the best possible way: his emotions are more muted, his references are less obvious, and his influences are wide-ranging from years of research and practice and woodshedding. Whether you’re just diving into Endless or finally coming up for air, here are four takeaways to watch for.

Frank’s pal James Blake is a presence

The British producer/singer is a noted fan of Ocean, telling Rolling Stone in an interview early this summer how Ocean’s new music has inspired him. “His music was a huge influence on the way I was writing the record, the way I was writing melodies,” he said. Tellingly, he became a fan of Ocean not because of Channel Orange’s R&B, but “when I heard his newer music.”

Listening to Endless casts his comments in a new light. Blake’s fingerprints are all over the album — his spare production, layered harmonies and lovelorn lyrics buried under reverb — way before the singer’s vocals appear around the 24-minute mark. Given the years that Ocean’s spent in the studio, we don’t know which artist influenced the other one first. All we know is Blake’s May release, The Color in Anything, and Ocean’s Endless are spiritual siblings.

It’s not an album proper

To be sure, Endless is far from just an album of skittering beats and shadowy vocals. Just as Blake played around outside his full-length albums by releasing EPs experimenting with new sounds, Endless is a mood board of an album, cluing listeners in to Ocean’s musical inspirations as one song bleeds into the next.

Assuming that another Ocean release is following this weekend, Endless is a fascinating stream-of-consciousness of an artist building on the R&B foundation he laid with Channel Orange, where he summoned the spirits of Marvin Gaye to give the genre’s classic sounds a modern update. The album sees him broadening his definition of R&B by favoring electronic beats over classic instrumentation and handing over the lyrics so clearly articulated on Orange to different voices or different languages, its words tripping over each other or melting away into the background altogether. And in lieu of a soaring album closer or a quiet outro, Endless closes with the robotic voice of the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans over lockstep synths, talking about smartphones.

If Ocean’s flipping of Elton John’s Benny and the Jets on the Orange track Super Rich Kidsdefines his debut album’s nostalgic streak, the defining reference on Endless is his nod to Aaliyah’s Let Me Know (At Your Best) that opens the album, a clue that he’s looking towards more contemporary influences.
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