Two Versions: An Analysis of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” & “Endless”
Anticipation for the follow-up to Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE has been at an all-time high for quite some time now. The successor to his highly-praised debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA, the album had garnered widespread critical acclaim for its unique blending of genres (such as R&B, pop, soul, psychedelic rock, and funk) serving as the backdrop for unconventional lyricism regarding class, longing, unrequited love, and sexuality. Earning him four Grammy nominations, one of which he won, and ending up on countless Best of 2012 lists from multiple publications, Channel ORANGE was already being called one of the best albums of the decade. This is a very bold claim to make only two years into the decade, and even in 2016, only four years away from the next decade, there’s still plenty of time for more releases to earn that accolade. Despite this, the record undeniably deserved this kind of recognition, and many had wondered where Frank Ocean would go next. Up until a few weeks ago, that question had taken on a different kind of meaning.
Aside from a few guest appearances, Ocean had basically vanished from public eye. A promise of a new album in July 2015 with an accompanying magazine entitled Boys Don’t Cry appeared on his Tumblr account that April with the caption “I got two versions, I got twooo versions…”. Many had speculated that the end was in sight, only to be disappointed when August rolled around with no album or magazine. Some had assumed that Frank was taking his time perfecting his sophomore effort while others gave up on the notion of ever hearing a follow-up to Channel ORANGE. Fast forward one year later and hopes for new material were renewed. After countless delays, a mysterious Apple Music livestream showed up on Ocean’s website. Lasting several weeks, the black and white video feed showed Ocean constructing something in a warehouse, backed by snippets of new music. Once the finalized structure, a spiral staircase, was completed, an accompanying “visual album” showed up on Apple Music entitled Endless. Debunking the idea that this was a livestream, the 45 minute video featured 18 new songs set to prerecorded footage from the aforementioned feed, condensed from its nearly 140 hour original runtime. Multitudes of fans made their way to social media to praise the Second Coming of Frank Ocean, but not everyone shared in the excitement. The “album” was praised for its sonic diversity but was criticized for its length and structure, feeling more like b-sides to a record to come. Fans wanted more, and two days later, they got just that in the form of Frank’s second studio album proper, Blonde. The rollout was accompanied by physical copies of the Boys Don’t Cry publication, which included this new record, being given out for free in various locations around the world. The excitement was somewhat overwhelming. Fans had begged for over 4 years for a new release from Frank Ocean, and in the course of a weekend, they were treated to 2 brand new music projects and a print publication to go with it.
That being said, was the wait worth it? How well do Endless and Blonde hold up to Channel ORANGE and nostalgia, ULTRA? Beyond that, bigger questions were posed. Why was Frank’s return structured and executed like it was? What is the significance behind all of these projects? Given that Frank Ocean is no typical artist, and that this rollout was not orthodox in the slightest, these records don’t constitute a typical review. So yes, I will give my opinions on both records (while I have been able to view the Boys Don’t Cry publication in full, it’s not readily available at this time, so I will withhold reviewing it), but I also want to take some time to analyze the meaning behind the phrase “two versions”, because speculation regarding its connection to these releases has been quite interesting in itself.
Endless, the 45 minute “visual album”, is bookended by Wolfgang Tillmans’ “Device Control”, an electronic track that feels slightly out of place within the context of the collection, as it mentions the functions of different electronic devices from various companies, but finds its place on an Apple Music exclusive release. As an intro track, it works fine given that only several seconds of it are played before transitioning into Frank’s cover of Aaliyah’s rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, but it’s played in full at the end of the record, and it’s an odd way to close out such a body of work. Then again, the album itself is odd. Amidst uncredited contributions from Sampha, Jazmine Sullivan, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Arca, and James Blake, and samples of Daft Punk and Lauryn Hill, the average track length is around 90 seconds, save for the Aaliyah cover and the guitar-driven “Rushes”, each clocking in at a length of just over 5 minutes. Songs that stand out the most like “U-N-I-T-Y” and “Comme des Garçons” are cut short, leaving the listener wanting more. Likewise, other standouts like “Slide On Me” are longer in length, but don’t deliver the same amount of excitement that the shorter tracks do. At its best, Endless feels like an avant-garde sketchbook of unfinished ideas, teasing something greater to come with Blonde. At its worst, it can bore, especially given how monotonous the visual component is. Unless you’re entertained by 45 minutes of construction footage, it’s recommended that you experience Endless through earphones only.
Upon listening to Blonde for the first time, it instantly feels more structured than Endless with regards to track-length and effort. Standouts like the swelling “Nikes”, the guitar-driven “Ivy”, the simplistic yet radiant “Self Control”, and the vocal-heavy “Seigfried” chart familiar yet rarely-visited territory for Frank. The majority of the compositions allow for breathing room not found on his previous releases. Some almost feel psychedelic in nature, or at the very least, more avant-garde than Endless (the opening of “Pretty Sweet” is a good example of this). It should also be noted that while there are plenty of collaborators on Blonde, they don’t overshadow Frank, save for the André 3000-feature “Solo (Reprise)”. Listeners can hear Beyoncé contribute background vocals to the Channel ORANGE-esque “Pink + White” and occasional interjections from Kendrick Lamar on “Skyline To”. Sample credits include Elliott Smith, The Beatles, The Mohawks, and The Carpenters, and if you’re a fan of the random interludes on previous efforts by Ocean, there are several on Blonde. This record features many elements that Channel ORANGE didn’t possess, but what might surprise some listeners is what it doesn’t carry over from Channel ORANGE, particularly in the lyricism. Whereas Channel ORANGE was notable for mentions of social issues like class or sexuality, Blonde relegates these to a few passing mentions. A shoutout to Trayvon Martin on “Nikes” is the most obvious statement on racial issues, which is a stark contrast from other artists who have recently created entire efforts around these matters, and the only blatant lyric pertaining to Frank’s sexuality is the mention of a gay bar on “Good Guy”. Investing in lyricism is more of an effort here than it is on Ocean’s other projects, most likely due to the complexity of the musical content, which I found myself lost in several times.
Both Blonde and Endless are impressive bodies of work on Frank Ocean’s part, and while it’ll take some time to rank them against Channel ORANGE and nostalgia, ULTRA, their impact seems like it’ll be lasting, but there are questions that still have yet to be answered, particularly the significance of “two versions”. It’s a promise we think has been fulfilled, but aren’t 100% sure about. What does it mean in the context of these projects? Could it be referring to the fact that Blonde and Endless are two separate projects he wanted to release? It seems unlikely as rumors have circulated that Endless was released as a way for Frank to get out of his contract with Def Jam (Blonde was self-released). Could it be referring to the idea of a 3rd studio album and a print publication, in the form of Boys Don’t Cry? And what about the numerous spellings of the album title? While iTunes and the like have the album listed as Blonde, the cover (and several alternate covers) have the record listed as Blond, the masculine and general spelling of Blonde. Some have speculated that both titles apply to the record, thus creating some sort of overarching statement about sexuality and gender not explicitly present in the lyricism. Could it be referring to subtle differences in the digital and CD versions of the album, notably the addition of Japanese rapper KOHH at the end of the CD version of “Nikes”? In addition, while the CD’s tracklisting is the same as the digital tracklisting, the Boys Don’t Cry magazine presents a different arrangement entirely, with two additional tracks, “Mitsubishi Sony” (rumored to be Endless closer “Higgs”) and “Easy”, named in the publication, despite not being present on the CD itself. These questions are all valid and we many never have a concrete answer to any of them, but at the end of the day, the better aspect to focus on is the fact that Frank Ocean has returned in an unconventional but intriguing way. Hopefully he won’t disappear again anytime soon.