Endless and Empty: Frank Ocean & How We Connect To Music in 2016

Paley Martin steps away from Blonde and breaks down his Endless video release.
By    September 7, 2016

Art by Andy Holmes

In her high school woodworking class, Paley Martin made a key that opened doors.

It was 8:30 PM, and I was already in bed with the lights off. I was emotional. Plagued with a bad mix of PMS and lingering feelings of a light, rejection-induced heartache, I moped and whined and temporarily felt my feelings until they were interrupted by a friend’s text: “Did you watch it?”

It was one of those annoying cryptic texts that automatically makes you feel out of the loop, a mere four words acknowledging that you’re not as clued in as you should be. Naturally, I wanted to bite back. *Scoff* Did I watch WHAT!?

Before I got the chance, a picture came through. A Frank Ocean picture. A black-and-white, mysterious Frank Ocean picture that announced that he was live streaming new music. Something called Endless.

I bounced back. All prior wallowing slipped away and made space for what felt like an unnatural surge of excitement, an unexpected-but-simultaneously-so-expected surprise: Frank Ocean had returned.

The world—and of course, mostly I—had been hoping that Frank Ocean would return, and here he was, in my now lit room gracing my laptop screen, sawing and putzing around with a staircase in a big, sterile, white warehouse. I left my self-pitying behind. There was woodworking to be watched.

For the time being, Frank was no elusive artist. He was a well-dressed, musically-inclined carpenter. And I was just another uncool fan girl keeping my eye on every shred. It wasn’t long before my lights were on and I was drink-in-hand watching with my roommate for a viewing companion.

Endless was a sight to see, and yet, not really a sight at all. More than anything, it was an event. And we, the world watching, were all participants. For so long, we had waited for Frank’s door to swing open, and here we were, together, all stepping inside, inching our way closer and closer to the guest of honor who was…not really doing much of anything. And whether we were loathing or loving him in the long, long, long interim between Channel Orangeand now didn’t matter. We were just as pathetically involved as we’d ever been.

In a contradictory, 21st century sort of way, Endless brought us Frank fans together. Sure, we were watching in the comfort of our own spaces behind our own computer or phone screens, but we were a part of something that was bigger than our own isolation.

ocean 2

That being said, Endless wasn’t the heart-wrenching, life-changing sonic masterpiece that, after four years, we’d come to expect. For better or for worse, it couldn’t have been more of a divergence from it. Musically, the project was, uh, confusing. And while Frank’s voice did all the beautiful things it always does, the range of experimentation in both style and song strayed from the cohesive sound of Channel Orange. And gasp! What would a Frank Ocean project be if not another branch of Channel Orange!!?

It’s no secret that Frank has a way of pulling on our heartstrings, but as both Endless and my laptop screen came to a close, I had a feeling that that wasn’t quite the case this time. In other words, Endless left us high and dry without a clue as to why. Our expectations had not been met, but our demands had. And so the experience of Endless fed us what we’d been asking for all along: Frank and new music from Frank, but a Frank who scoffed at the narrowed scope we’d placed him in as an artist. Further, it forced us to ask ourselves what part of the product we were so enraptured by anyways.

It would later come out that Endless was less concerned with being a musical masterpiece than fulfilling Frank’s contract with Def Jam. But even so, as a project so completely different from its predecessor and one where the music seemed secondary (if not merely background noise), it epitomized how we as modern day music consumers do just that: consume music.

If music was secondary, if the project was more of a means to an end than a bold creative risk (which isn’t to say that it’s not both), then what about Endless were we so desperately gripped by? And why was all of this so telling?

Endless reflected how easy we are as music consumers. It was obscure, unexpected, cool. It brought back the person we’d been waiting for and unmasked his mystique. It made sure all of the missing pieces of what had been the Frank Ocean facade were reassembled, and no matter the product, we were immediately on board with hearts in our eyes. But really, Endless pressed play and coyly said here ya go before casually getting up and walking away.

And walking away was exactly what we did from Endless two days later when Blonde was released. Whatever significance Endless held before was short-lived, squashed in the emergence of its more sonically intact successor. We had no time to say goodbye nor did we desire to. Endless was old news, a wink at our need for immediate gratification before passing us on to the next product.

That night, Frank Ocean curbed our cries for something, anything(!) new and questioned not only our expectations but their existence to begin with. While Endless came and went in a flash, it taught us something about ourselves, our relationship to the artists we love and most of all, what it means to connect with music in the year 2016.

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