The Gorgeous Mysteries of Frank Ocean's Endless

The singer’s album is not the one that’s been promised, but there’s plenty to dig into nonetheless.

Frank Ocean looks up at his spiral staircase

Experiencing Endless, the Frank Ocean album released by surprise last night, is not the simplest matter. You have to be a subscriber to the Apple Music streaming service. You have to go to Apple Music’s home screen and click on a promo there because Apple Music’s page for Frank Ocean’s discography doesn’t have the album right now. You have to leave open a 45-minute video of Frank Ocean building a spiral staircase, the same footage seen on his much-publicized live-stream this month. The music plays as one continuous track, which means no easy shuffling between songs and no playlisting. To find the song names, you’ll have to Google around or wait for the end credits.

And Endless is not the record that has been hyped for a few years now, most recently with The New York Times reporting it would be out August 5. That album was Boys Don’t Cry, and Rolling Stone now says it also will be released this weekend but it won’t be called Boys Don’t Cry anymore. (The words “Boys Don’t Cry” appear in a logo at the end of the Endless credits, as do a bunch of typography experiments for the word “Endless.”)

The most charitable snap judgement about this situation would be to say that it’s another example of how the Internet has enabled innovation around the notion of the album and the album release. The less charitable thought would be that this roll-out seems designed to maintain Ocean’s mysterious image and monumental buzz him while distracting a bit from the music itself (plus, of course, making money for him and Apple).

But in the hours and days to come, the music will seep to the fore of the conversation. Regardless of whether another Ocean album appears in anytime soon, Endless is too original, strange, and gorgeous not to inspire obsession.

That fact becomes clear early on with “At Your Best (You Are Luhh),” the first appearance of Ocean’s voice on the album. Featuring strings arranged by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and synthesizer from James Blake, the Isley Brothers cover/interpolation immediately reminds listeners of how powerfully frail Ocean’s falsetto can be and of how precisely he can render a lyric. Like many of Endless’s tracks to come, it just floats, declining to build momentum after establishing its delicate and lovely mood. Midway through the song, Ocean goes from soul crooner to hip-hop ad libber, a reminder that another of his essential traits is in his bridging of worlds—classic and current, worship and irreverence.

From there, the album almost takes liquid form, sloshing over skittering beat instrumentals and sung/rapped verses that could have been germs for larger songs. The lyrics often seem to be talking about the comedown from a hookup or a high—“How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?” he repeats for “Mine.” It’s unfailingly pretty stuff, but many of the most intriguing moments are over before they’ve fully registered. In the video, you see multiple Frank Oceans traipsing around a warehouse, and in the music, you often hear his voice in multiple channels, overlapping at the beginnings and ends of phrases.

A few very promising, full-fledged songs do emerge on first and second listen. One comes around the 19 minute mark with “Slide on Me,” where an acoustic guitar and a laid-back but insistent beat support a sly come-on of a chorus. It sounds like a lonely beach party, though the hook could have worked for a club hit. Another showstopper is “Rushes,” where snatches of gospel wailing add drama as the song heaves and swells with Frank Ocean at his most yearning. “I love the way you make me feel,” he mutters in its final moments.

After a couple of spins, the album feels like a highly stylized, remarkably self-assured collection of odds and ends from someone of immense talent. But no doubt there’s a lot more meaning to be mined with future listens. The album opens and closes with what’s either a key to the whole thing or Ocean’s biggest troll yet: The German artist Wolfgang Tillmans reciting product pitches for Apple and Samsung devices over a hard synthpop backing. So maybe this entire thing is just a high-concept phone ad. But more likely it’s a typically ambitious work for Ocean, meant to accomplish sonically that which Tillman keeps saying a good smartphone does: “Blur the border between still and motion pictures.”