Frank Ocean Pulls Back The Curtain On 'Endless'

The video stream leading up to his latest album asked us to sit with music’s invisible labor

Good music hits you like love. It feels effortless, freely offered, a personal transmission between an artist and the listener. At its most intangible, music can feel as automatic as speech, as spontaneous as the comfort a friend offers or the reassurances a lover repeats.

But we forget that comfort is still work, especially when not supplied mutually. Feminist thinkers have coined the term “emotional labor” to describe the nonreciprocal work that people — mainly women — do to nourish the emotional states of their partners and families. Music is work, too, but when we wait four years for an album from someone we believe to have astonishing talent, it’s easy to forget the trials and errors and hard labor that making songs necessitates.

For weeks ahead of the release of his visual album Endless, Frank Ocean let us watch him work in the most literal sense. He pointed a camera at a wood shop and he built objects out of metal and wood. His movements were calm, never hurried, never anxious. Occasionally, snippets of music would play behind the sounds of his drilling. Over time, the clips grew more frequent. Last night, they started to sound like real songs.

Endless features imagery from those extended videos of Frank building things. They’re edited such that multiple Franks appear on-screen at once, working silently and in tandem, building a spiral staircase up to the warehouse’s fluorescent lights. The instrumentals that floated over the stream in early August play under his vocals. The pieces braid together into a calm, patient, and often beautiful whole.

The high-profile surprise album drop carries with it the demand of sudden attention. Beyoncé’s Lemonade asked viewers to drop everything and enter another reality for an hour, to immerse themselves fully in the music and film. And it was immersive: You could forget the banalities of your day-to-day living and focus on the red-hot marital drama on-screen, become tangled in the singer’s calls for justice. Lemonade arrived whole.

Frank Ocean works in more subtle mechanics. Instead of demanding all of our attention, all at once, he asked us to watch him while he built, slowly, over time. For days I kept the video stream open, watching Frank come and go, waiting for trickles of music. The boil of excitement over a new album quieted to a simmer, and I let myself sit with what he was showing me.

Fans often demand new music from artists as though it’s hiding there inside them, fully formed. When Grimes revealed that she had written and scrapped one version of her fourth album, Art Angels, last year, parts of her fanbase lashed out at her admission of labor. People worried that she’d overreacted to the ambivalent reaction to her stand-alone single “Go,” as though artists had no right to tweak or even trash their own music, as though the really good stuff should just bubble up naturally, untempered by thoughts of reception.

But music is not an effusion. It doesn’t pour out like sweat. It is careful, deliberate work, and it takes time and patience and frustration to finish. It does not fall fully formed from an artist’s mouth, no matter how much talent we believe them to have. Frank Ocean asked us to sit with his labor, literalizing the work into images of wood and screws and power tools, inviting us into the invisible tedium behind every great album you've ever heard. As we listen to his music in the days and weeks to come, he’s made sure we can’t hear it without thinking of its preparation.

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