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On Wax: Frank Ocean, 'Endless'

Perhaps you know a vinyl collector that really likes talking about their records. Sorry -- I'm one of those people. In this column, I'll pull out some albums and discuss why I think they're important, interesting or just plain fun. To start, I'll take Frank Ocean's visual album-turned-valuable-vinyl "Endless" for a spin.

The vinyl package for "Endless" feels fragile in my hands. The reflective material is flimsy, bending under pressure more than most record sleeves. It's not an ugly presentation by any means, nor does it seem cheaply made. For a sought-after, limited edition release, however, it seems delicate and small.

For a release from one of modern R&B's most head-turning figures, the packaging is almost anonymous. The lyrics sheet says nothing about the songwriters, producers, instrumentalists or features. The only signifying messaging is the album's slogan, written in a few locations: "46 minutes of 120 hours in the life of Frank Ocean." It's not trumpeted as a years-long work created with the help of dozens of people. It seems brief, casual, almost insignificant -- a small snippet of a minuscule segment of Ocean's life.

Before I've even played the record, "Endless" already presents itself as delicate and egoless. For anyone familiar with Ocean, this is hardly a surprise. For a modern music star, he's decidedly shy, rarely giving interviews and oftentimes dropping off of the face of the earth for months on end. His albums drop with little to no marketing, and he only performs a handful of concerts to support them. It seems strange for a guy who has written for Beyonce and Justin Bieber, been featured on Kanye West and Jay-Z songs and garnered millions of fans. He was a member of Odd Future, for Christ's sake -- you know, the anarchic hip-hop collective headed by Tyler, the Creator.

But Frank Ocean's main draw has always been that, even as he skirts superstardom, he remains an elusive figure who reveals himself in his music rather than the spotlight. Both of his official LPs, "Channel Orange" and "Blonde," are gorgeous works that tackle life's complexities with empathy and honesty. He writes with incredible intimacy, which is especially prevalent in "Blonde." The album is so instrumentally sparse -- often just a guitar or piano, and normally without any percussion at all -- that it could arguably be classified as singer-songwriter rather than contemporary R&B.

Another defining characteristic of Ocean is his perfectionism. His debut, "Channel Orange," is an R&B collection so fine-tuned that it sounds as if it were written by an industry veteran, and "Blonde," for all its vocal and production quirks, feels like each note is completely deliberate. It was, after all, the result of an infamous four-year wait full of false and pushed-back release dates. Perhaps it's a result of Frank's shyness; if you're going to put out music as vulnerable as this, it better be as good as physically possible.

That obsessive approach to music is what makes "Endless" such a fascinating record. Released at about the same time as "Blonde," it's essentially a collection of B-sides and demos, ideas that didn't make it onto the final product. But to call it an accompaniment to "Blonde" would be unfair. "Endless" stands out as a project of its own precisely because of its rough edges. While there are certain melodies and instrumental lines that sound similar to something you might find on "Blonde," this is much more occupied by cavernous synths and jittery trap beats. The influence of hip-hop and electronica coexist alongside the acoustic and minimalist approach highlighted by the other release. Songs are brief (sometimes only seconds long) and melodic lines feel half-finished or completely spontaneous.

The result feels more cutting-edge and unrefined than anything else Ocean has officially released, and yet the sentiment behind the music hasn't changed. The lyrics still deal with sexuality, youth and how to navigate our worlds, both interior and exterior. Yet "Endless" isn't a dip in quality for Ocean's discography at all.

In fact, it adds an important element to Ocean's legend. While it takes a lot to write something personal for the world to hear, it's even more revealing to show your fan base things that are imperfect. "Endless" is more than a few non-album cuts. It's exactly what that slogan adorning the liner notes promises: a new look into the life of Frank Ocean. It's not engineered to pop standards, nor is it the result of a four-year musical odyssey. It's a fleeting glance at the creative process of one of this decade's finest artists, and a stunning moment of insight from a man learning to step into the spotlight.

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