The Ocean is "Endless": Frank Ocean’s new visual album is a heroic read on digital culture

All this time, while we were waiting for Frank Ocean to drop his new album, Frank Ocean was waiting on us

Published August 19, 2016 7:58PM (EDT)

In Foucault’s “Panopticon,” the philosopher describes an 18th century precursor to today’s modern prison system — a tower manned by a watchman, surrounded by a circular corridor of cells. Although it is impossible for a single figure to watch all the cells at once, the idea that a prisoner is being watched by the all-seeing eye of the building’s core psychologically dictates prisoners modify their behavior in response to the tower’s watchful presence. But the uncomfortable brilliance of this structure, the portion often ignored in Foucault’s text, is that the prisoners need no watchman in order perform as if there is one. So powerful is the mind’s ability to project consequence, that a person will modify behavior to fit the context of contained space.

Social media is Panoptes — the hundred-eyed giant from which Foucault’s panoptic essay gained its name. In order to survive the reign of the giant, it is nearly impossible for a person to go through a moment without response to the hundred eyes  — to snap, to tweet, to flutter off our existence in image and meme  — as if our very lives depend upon it.

In this world of the giant and the giant tower, Frank Ocean was almost a casualty. Since first mention of “Boys Don’t Cry” and its expected July 2015 release date, the internet has buzzed with news about Frank Ocean’s next move. In the year that followed, Frank Ocean, heightened anticipation with posts on his Tumblr page — a shot of “Boy Don’t Cry” magazine, poignant condolences during the loss of Prince, responses to tragedies in Ferguson and Orlando, and, most recently, a library due date card that referenced the album’s speculative release dates with ironic playfulness.

As the month of July 2016 progressed, the internet salivated an ocean of expectation for the impending album’s release, but July passed. August (almost) passed. A year past due and there was still no new album from Frank Ocean.

The danger of existing in the body of a multi-eyed giant is how little we see when we expect we are looking at everything. With one hundred eyes, it assumes what happens in its periphery does not exist. The internet did not anticipate the release of a Frank Ocean album on Thursday, August 18. The all-seeing internet did not anticipate Frank Ocean’s next release would be the visual album “Endless.”

“Endless” begins in near silence, Frank Ocean sitting down on a workbench, removing a pair of gloves. A second Ocean emerges, an unnerving echo of the caption at the bottom of Frank Ocean’s 2015 “Boys Don’t Cry” Tumblr post (“I got two versions. I got twoooo versions.”). The footage cuts to reveal the many-eyed boombox Frank Ocean tunes in the corner while the other Frank Ocean fiddles with his hands.

The silence is broken by a voice installation, “Device Control.” It is followed by “At Your Best (You Are Love),” Frank Ocean’s cover of the famous Isley Brothers song. “At Your Best” was originally released by Frank Ocean on the internet, as a tribute to Aaliyah on what would have been singer’s 36th birthday. The specter of Aaliyah’s fallen star haunts the music of other contemporary male voices, from Drake to J. Cole, but Frank Ocean’s tribute reads as a response to the pressure young artists encounter to produce too much, too quickly, to treat themselves as commodity for the sake of maintaining a place within our fleeting gaze. When paired with the lyrics to “Device Control,” “At Your Best” offers an arresting portrait of the artistic challenges Frank Ocean faced in the wake of releasing new music:

With this Apple appliance
you can capture live video,
still-motion picture
at high-frequency,
blurring, blurring the lines…

“Device Control” reports with cold, calculated automation. Credited to German visual artist Wolfgang Tillman, “Device Control” calls us to task for our reliance on smart devices, the concept of ‘capturing live video’ providing a direct parallel to the adaptation of the Panopticon in contemporary prison systems — in which cameras have replaced the eyes of a single watchman—our reliance on appliances “blurring the lines” between being watched and being real. With “At Your Best” Frank Ocean both literally and figuratively restores the voice of reason, parsing out the lyrics with prodigious timing.

His voice is serene. Frank Ocean pursues the lyrics to the Isley cover like a love letter to both critics and fans, asking us to examine the years spent in anticipation of this moment; our belief that Frank Ocean’s new album was imaginary:

When you feel what you feel,
how hard for me to understand,
so many things have taken place
before this love affair began

Frank Ocean has always been a character, not just in the imaginations of his fans but also in its projection as the stage name for Christopher “Lonny” Breaux. In the time since “Channel ORANGE,” Frank Ocean took the time to materialize—legally changing his birth name to his pseudonym.

But if you feel like I feel
confusion can give way to doubt
for there are times when I fall short
of what I say, what I say I’m all about…

Yeah, Frank Ocean croons in his adaptation of the song’s third verse, I know you’ve been expecting an album. But in the midst of giving you one I thought I’d give you more—learn carpentry, clone myself… is that alright (#sorrynotsorry)?

In the first five minutes of “Endless,” Frank Ocean offers a response to years of speculation and ridicule. Frank Ocean, apparently, has been watching us. But unlike the digital panopticon, he recognizes our defiance to his cause as well-intentioned:

At your best, you are love.
You’re a positive motivating force
within my life.
If you ever feel the need
to wonder why, let me know.

While the song plays, Frank Ocean gracefully drives plywood through a table saw. Another Frank Ocean checks his phone. In a moment of art imitating life, Frank Ocean’s “Endless” calls technology to task for the pressures put upon his album’s release while subtly acknowledging Ocean’s reliance on digital communication as a source of connection between himself and his fans. “Look beyond your world, try to find a place for me,” Frank Ocean pleads in the closing verses of the song. A third Frank Ocean appears in the workshop. He rubs his hands together before donning a pair of safety goggles. Sparks fly into the face of the camera as Frank Ocean cuts steel bars, the core of his work of art.

To witness “Endless,” one must be as patient as Frank Ocean has been with his music. The songs that follow the video album’s inaugural homage pieces are challenging and autobiographical—all the things we came to expect from Frank Ocean after the release of his two EPs (“The Lonny Breaux Collection” and “Nostalgia, ULTRA”) and were a promise paid-in-full with the confessional lyrics and liner notes of his full-length album, “Channel ORANGE.” However this kind of truth-telling is a phenomenal turn when compared to most digital era music-making. Most of Ocean’s contemporaries have built lucrative careers off grandly autobiographical early albums that taper into sophomoric collections of radio-ready pop hits with mere glimpses of personhood. With “Alabama,” Frank Ocean punches the internet’s hundred-eyed giant in the gut. Not only was “Endless” never expected, it will also not play into the trope of the expected album. Frank Ocean opens his chest and fights the many-eyed giant for our undivided attention: “What could I do to love you / more than I do now?” he asks.

The panoptic giant of the digital web may be mythic, but it is also myopic. In our haste to say something about Frank Ocean, we ignored how little we have to say about Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean is the boy we fell in love with in pieces. He wooed us with the intimacy of his music but gracefully curated our glimpses into his personal life. We felt a kinship with the singularity of his story, his unparalleled ability to weave a narrative frame around his love (for his family, for his lovers, for himself) that was clear enough for us to believe we knew him, but mostly taught us about ourselves. The media frenzy surrounding “Boys Don’t Cry”’s impending release was mostly stirred by our belief that we needed more. We needed Frank to follow house rules, to feed the many-eyed giant with more images, more tweets, more news. However, in the quest for Frank Ocean, the knowledge we truly sought was a better understanding of ourselves. Why do we want Frank Ocean, an artist whose career has been both subtle and brief, to put out new album? What are we expecting to gain from the album’s release?

“Endless” climaxes as two Frank Oceans converge to stack the wooden building blocks of his earlier tasks. “Hublots” plays in the foreground. Ocean scrutinizes the insatiable hunger of digital culture. Over sparse instrumentals he sings of a world “pacified” by panoptic devices; he describes their recreation as “versions of madness.” All the while, on screen, two Oceans stack the blocks he built into a two-story spiral towards the sky. The structure complete, Frank Ocean stands back, one Ocean left to admire his handiwork. The jubilant “Slide on Me” plays as Frank Ocean steps upward, revealing the spiral of blocks to be staircase. The camera closes in: as he ascends his masterpiece, we can only see his feet.

What if, instead of late, Frank Ocean’s current album is early  — exceptionally self-aware, an extension of his strategic use of social media  — a performance both meta and macroscopic?

The high-contrast studio space is staged like a wood-worker’s version of heaven. Through track after track, Frank Ocean toils away, fabricating portions of a structure we do not see until the film is two-thirds done. In its final moments, when the audio returns to Tillman’s “Device Control” (and a scene of two Oceans from the beginning of the time-lapse footage) we are left with the prescient eyes of the Ocean replacing one hundred panoptic eyes, narrowly focused.

Perhaps Frank Ocean was waiting for a time in which we could be reflective, the kind of audience he knew this work would need. The 45-minute film’s quiet release gives us more Frank Ocean than we have ever witnessed before. With his thoughtful lyrics and the artist in three forms, Frank Ocean presents a person who is generous and unselfconscious. Ocean asks us to think not of the music but the legacy. In the midst of all we can record, what do we actually see?

All this time, while we were waiting for Frank Ocean, Frank Ocean was waiting on us. The era of the digital panopticon has desensitized us to life outside the camera. “Endless” asks us to question our imprisonment to a constant stream, a dizzying array of device footage blending everything from the foods we eat to the death of citizens into one innocuous film reel. In a world in which all can be streamed, our hunger for the next moment prevents us from digesting the last one. Our desire for a new Frank Ocean album almost prevented us from our ability to hear it.

By Shayla Lawson

Shayla Lawson has written for ESPN, Guernica, and The Offing. She is the author of the forthcoming book "I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean" (Saturnalia Books, 2018).

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Boys Don't Cry Endless Frank Ocean Music Visual Album