For NBNtertainment weekly, Madison Dong takes a dive into Frank Ocean’s mind through his most abstract album. Transcript below.
[“Lost” by Frank Ocean]
Madison Dong: Six years ago, Frank Ocean burst on the music scene with the R&B album Channel Orange, and, shortly after, plunged into four years of pretty much radio silence.
And then: in the summer of 2016, there surfaced a livestream on Frank Ocean’s website. Except it wasn’t what anyone expected. It was monochrome and stripped down, with Frank and a handful of helpers in a warehouse. Over the course of 46 minutes, they saw wood and weld things to build… a staircase, all while creating beautiful music.
Yeah, a little bit weird. But shortly after that, Frank released Blonde, his second album. But people tend to forget about the livestream, which has been officially released as a visual album called Endless.
Endless isn’t something to be forgotten. In fact, I think it contains some of Frank Ocean’s best work. It’s Frank in his purest form, demonstrating all the things he’s known for – heartfelt, emotional vocals, poetic lyrics and lots of interesting layers.
Here’s what some of Endless sounds like.
[“Comme des Garcons”]
Today I want to talk about the whole album and why it should be just as well known as the rest of his work. Let’s get down to it.
[“At Your Best (You Are Love)”]
The first track, called “At Your Best (You Are Love),” is…heaven. The opening synths sound like comets glittering over the horizon. Frank sings in a smooth falsetto that fits his lyrics so well. He says, “at your best, you are love / you’re a positive motivating force within my life / if you ever feel the need to wonder why / let me know, let me know.”
It’s simple and heartfelt, directed at a lover, but it can be applied to everyone. Despite everything, it’s gonna be okay, and you are wonderful – and if you ever need to be reminded of that, don’t be afraid to let him know.
[“At Your Best (You Are Love)”]
This gentle sound, with synths and swelling orchestra, is pretty consistent throughout the rest of the album. But this song specifically isn’t necessarily a tone-setter in terms of message. You’ll see that some of the other songs have varied subjects.
This opener does, however, make it clear: this album is nothing to be afraid of. It’s not something that you need to label or conceptualize. It’s the raw dreams, emotions and secondhand thoughts of this artist, so just sit back and enjoy.
[“At Your Best (You Are Love)”]
Throughout the rest of the album, Frank has some incredible songs. But in-between, he peppers in shorter tracks which feel like incomplete, wandering thoughts. Many are no more than 2 lines, and some less than 60 seconds. He also plays with unusual audio effects and messes with your head a little bit, like the song "Alabama."
And also the song "Mine."
They’re kind of haunting in how they sound, and also how they go from right to left ear. It feels like you really are inside of someone else’s head, seeing thoughts and pieces of words float on by. But even so, in these short, strange tracks, he manages to maintain some really powerful lyricism. In “Alabama,” he asks, “What can I do to know you better? / What can I do to show my love? / What can I do to know you better? / What can I do? What can I do?”
These questions don’t have answers, but Frank isn’t trying to offer any. He’s just as lost as the rest of us.
Just as you’re lured into thinking that this album is slow, though, Frank puts on a couple of trappier, harder songs. “U-N-I-T-Y,” or “UNITY,” is loud and enveloping, with a slow, slogging, industrial beat that fits along with the warehouse in the stream. Frank does some rap-singing with specific imagery that takes you through all sorts of scenes and details in his life: conflicts he’s had, past lovers, achieving inner peace, missing the past.
Some lyrics stand out, such as, “Now forever seems like no time / I mean, time flies when you have some.” And in the climax of the song, he later references “Chiraq,” a nickname for the South side, and talks about life growing up in a housing project.
You can feel pain in his voice. Although the album has some fragments as tracks, “Unity” is a very complete piece. Everything in it quite literally feels unified and comes together--including the title as a play on words with the letters spelling out, “You and I, ty,” perhaps saying that, hey, yes. We live in a crazy world, and there’s all this stuff happening. But we’re in this together, whether you want to be or not.
In the second half of the album, the songs feel more complete. They’re longer and more distinct. You have songs like “Rushes,”
And more, all of which are worth checking out.
If you have time, definitely give the whole album a listen, because each track is incredible. But for the sake of this podcast, let’s just focus on the song “Wither,” which I believe to be the best song. If you hear any one song off the album, it has to be this.
You’ve got some soft guitar strums, some slow, soothing bass that holds everything together so confidently yet gently. Frank paints us a very pretty picture when he sings, “Over where the trees burn down / the place where the fields went down in flames / we could put a hole in the ground / throw seeds and dance for rain,” which relates to starting something new and putting your faith in the stars that it will end well. Sometimes, that’s all you can really do, right?
But it doesn’t stop there. then, he follows this up with, “it takes a mind to worry / a conscience to feel ashamed.”
He gets philosophical here, with the reassuring tone that you would give to a stressed-out friend. It’s okay to worry, it’s okay to make mistakes.
“Wither” is a powerful song that talks about love, loss, growing up, hope and inner conflict. It manages to do so in a relatively short amount of time, too, clocking in at 2 minutes and 33 seconds. About halfway through, his voice bursts with emotion as he sings about hoping for what his children see of him. You can hear him pleading and begging.
It’s poetry. He’s sharing his vulnerable hopes and dreams, saying he wants to grow old, he wants to get to that end. To wither and grow old is a gift.
Frank Ocean is my favorite artist for many many reasons. He’s musically talented, but also manages to create melodies that are somehow both unpredictable and beautiful. And on top of all that, he’s a poet. His lyrics are concise, vivid, and poignant, tackling topics about love but also life and humanity in general.
“Wither” is where all of these trademark Frank Ocean elements come out.
There really is nobody like Frank Ocean. He’s such a unique artist. But Endless provides us with a brief glance into his mind and vulnerabilities, which are really more human and relatable than some might imagine.
The album later cruises through some great songs, as I mentioned earlier, and then ends with the song “Mitsubishi Sony,” with fast-moving beats that flutter like wings.
It definitely doesn’t feel like an ending in comparison to the slower, dreamy songs. But I think it’s Frank’s way of demonstrating that this album doesn’t really have a beginning or end. It’s just a continuous stream of thought.
In fact, what makes this album so amazing in its own right, apart from Channel Orange and Blonde, is that it doesn’t really try. It just is. Here, Frank is just making music to make music – that fact is demonstrated through the way the album was presented. He built a staircase, and oh yeah. He made this music. He hardly made an official release.
It’s not a concept album or anything super complicated. It’s a collection of loose thoughts, fears, confessions of love. It is, very simply and purely, Frank Ocean.
But anyway, I could talk about him for hours. Besides that, though, let me know if there’s anything you think I should look at in terms of music.
The songs used were, “Lost,” “Comme des Garcons,” “At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Alabama,” “Mine,” “U-N-I-T-Y,” “Wither” and “Mitsubishi Sony,” all by Frank.
I’m Madison Dong, I love Frank Ocean, and I’ll see you later. Thanks for listening.