Frank Ocean's 'Endless': A Critical Conversation About The Video Album : The Record As listeners everywhere process it in real time, two NPR Music critics trade notes on Ocean's confounding new release.
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A Critical Conversation About Frank Ocean's 'Endless' Video Album

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A Critical Conversation About Frank Ocean's 'Endless' Video Album

A Critical Conversation About Frank Ocean's 'Endless' Video Album

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's such a thing as waiting too long to drop a new album. Just ask Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys about "Smile" or Axl Rose about "Chinese Democracy." For a while, it seemed like Grammy winner Frank Ocean was headed down the same path, until last night, when this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT YOUR BEST - YOU ARE LOVE")

FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) When I feel what I feel, sometimes it's hard to tell you so.

CORNISH: Ocean released a visual album called "Endless." In the 45-minute video, instead of singing, he's a solitary figure in work gloves, carefully constructing a stairway in the middle of a warehouse room, where his music plays in the background. Frank Ocean broke into the mainstream in 2012 with the almost universally acclaimed album "Channel Orange." And for more, we're bringing back NPR's Jason King. Hey there, Jason.

JASON KING, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So this album was teased for ages, with a bunch of different dates - released, pushed back. What's with all the pressure? Was there a sense that he wouldn't be able to pull it off?

KING: Yeah, I mean, it was four years since his last release. There was a great anticipation for whatever he was going to do after "Channel Orange." But we kept waiting and waiting, and there were all these announcements of when it was going to come out. But every time there was an announced deadline, there was no record. Even as late as last week, there was an announced deadline, and the record didn't show up. And so, finally, today, here's "Endless." And people are really happy, but trying to also process and digest what it actually is.

CORNISH: I know there's an Isley Brothers cover here. Can you talk about Frank Ocean's sound? Is he in that lineage in terms of his approach modern day?

KING: Sure. So the cover that he does on "Endless" of "At Your Best (You Are Love)," which is an Isley Brothers classic, is something he had released a little while earlier. It's beautiful because it actually showcases Frank Ocean's falsetto, which is one of the best aspects of his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT YOUR BEST - YOU ARE LOVE")

OCEAN: (Singing) But at your best, you are love. You're a positive motivating force within my life. Should you ever feel the need to wonder why, let me know.

KING: Frank Ocean himself is a really interesting character. He came out of this hip-hop collective called Odd Future, but he instantly stood out as this more kind of solidly musical artist. And he would marry the sort of confessional, eccentric pop of somebody like Beck with the sensual, quiet storm of Maxwell. And you really hear that on this track.

CORNISH: And we should say that we don't know if this is the album, the awaited album. That could still come in the next few days, but we have this music for now. What are your impressions of it?

KING: It's a lot to process. There's a lot of different moods and ideas. The sonics are very complicated. There's a couple of songs that I think are interesting. "U-N-I-T-Y," or unity, is one of the most impressive moments on the record because it's Frank Ocean doing this sort of stream-of-consciousness rap. And it reminds you that not only can he sing really well, but he can also rap. And, you know, he's referencing all kinds of different things - Palestine and all these concepts that come through his mind. So that's one of the things that really got my attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U-N-I-T-Y")

OCEAN: (Rapping) It forever seem like time's up, or we swerved in a Honda. It forever seems like no time will mean time flies when you have some. Both [expletive] weigh two pounds, all on your [expletive] like futons. My crew saved your crew like [expletive] came through with the Groupons.

CORNISH: Now, this is being called a visual album. In doing the release in this way, it seems like there's a rejection of the big album release schedule, right? Like, the publicity and the kind of singles march and all this business and trying to innovate using streaming and the Internet.

KING: Yeah, that's absolutely what's going on. In the Internet era, the release of albums has become very haphazard. A lot of albums get leaked too early or bootlegged. There's so many ways to access an album as opposed to in the past, where you would sort of wait for the release date, and the album would come, and the single would come a month before the album. All of that has been upended. And so now, in order to get people's attention, the - one of the ways to do that is to release it as a visual album, where it's so compelling, and it seems like such an event that people have to stop what they're doing and listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMME DES GARCONS")

OCEAN: (Singing) He came up in Dallas, had no hazel in his eyes, had them sailors on his thighs when these ladies show them.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jason King. Jason, thanks for talking with us.

KING: Thanks so much, Audie. Appreciate it.

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