The unexpected appearance Thursday night of the film Endless on Apple Music probably won’t satiate Frank Ocean‘s long-suffering fans. Shot in stark black-and-white by Francisco Soriano, the 45-minute art piece is hardly the kind of fun, splashy, topical adventure that Ocean mentor Beyoncé displayed with her lavishly appointed, conversation-starting visual album Lemonade. Instead, it finds Ocean – actually three Oceans, shadowy silhouettes of one another – wandering across a studio as he assembles some kind of project. The piece seems designed to give us insight into the process of attempting to craft a masterpiece, as well as reward us with new music in advance of his next proper album’s seemingly imminent arrival.
The piece opens in the same location where he presented a bizarre, sporadic live stream starting on August 1st. That cryptic video, hosted on his website, didn’t offer much except ambient effects and short stems of acoustic and electronic sounds. But on Endless, we hear the opening notes of “Device Control,” a track by acclaimed German visual artist Wolfgang Tillmans (and which will purportedly appear on Tillmans’ Device Control EP, out September 16th). We see first two Oceans, and then a third. Two of them cut wood – there’s a marvelous effect where one Ocean pushes a plank while another Ocean operates a power saw – while the third absentmindedly looks at his cell phone. The film frequently cuts to darkness, only to return with the Oceans continuing to grind away, except in different clothes. Amusingly, one scene finds the doppelgängers clad in Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirts. Another finds them wearing Eighties-style Playboy-bunny sweaters.
As the Oceans toil away, we hear slivers of music along with full songs. The viewing experience feels like a corporate-sponsored listening session, except without the open bar and the table spread. (It’s unclear whether any of this material will appear on the album proper.) Ocean fans will recognize his achingly emotional cover of Aaliyah’s classic 1994 interpretation of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love,” a track he released on his website last year. “U-N-I-T-Y” finds him rapping in a style akin to R&B/rap hybrids like Bryson Tiller and Tory Lanez, and unfurling a lyrical pop-culture jumble that includes the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” the Neptunes and El Chapo. “Alabama,” apparently written with British singer Sampha, seems overly reverential of the latter’s baroque soul. Much of the music seems more icy and electronic than the keyboard-driven introspection of his Channel Orange debut. However, there are a handful of cuts that replicate the honeyed warmth of that 2012 masterwork, including “Rushes,” where he sings emotively over an acoustic arrangement that features DIY indie-pop musician Alex G.
Near the end of the film, the objective of Ocean’s labor becomes clear: He builds several wooden boxes, and then stacks them onto one another. They’re stairs, and when he walks up them, the film briefly dissolves in a purplish flash of light. Then we’re back to square one, and the three Oceans wandering around the empty studio again, except this time we get to hear all of Tillmans’ demonically whimsical “Device Control.” “You can blur the order between still and motion pictures,” sings Tillmans over a banging techno track as the film cuts to credits. With the odd yet somewhat satisfying Endless now complete, we can imagine Ocean and his doppelgängers still in that strange studio, laboring to finally finish the album to come.