On August 1, a video appeared on Frank Ocean's website. For a few hours, the video looped an image of two tables, a few lights, sheets of plywood, and assorted tools. The video was unannounced and hosted by Apple, following 16 months of near silence from Ocean, who had hinted strongly at the release of his second studio album with an Instagram post in April 2015.

Once the loop ended and cut to a shot of Ocean approaching the tables, it became clear that he was building something--slowly. The video progressed intermittently for four days, a few hours of work followed by the static loop. It was not difficult to connect the video's length and mysterious intentions to Ocean's creative process, which, since his previous album, 2012's Channel Orange, had been intensely private. Save for the short, original composition "Memrise" and a cover of the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)," Ocean had largely kept to himself, shying away from a fanbase whose devotion intensified in his absence. Through strategically interrupted silence, he acquired the weight of myth.

So this video, which we learned was titled 'Endless', appeared to be a meditation on time, on process. For a presumed album rollout, it moved at a glacial pace and maintained a high level of opacity. It played for under a week, paused for two, and finally returned on August 18. Near its end, an abridged, 45-minute version scored by new music became available on Apple Music. The music on the abridged version is brief and impressionistic, with songs beginning and ending at unpredictable intervals. If the longer version stretches time, the shorter version compresses it, abandoning traditional song structures in favor of sketches. Endless does not announce its significance so much as deconstruct it. The piece seems eager to disappear, to retreat from the immense pressures placed upon it.

On August 20, Ocean released a more conventional album, Blonde, which has since eclipsed Endless as the more accessible (it is available to purchase on iTunes and stream on Apple Music and Spotify, while Endless is only available to stream on Apple Music) and discussed (it has 33 reviews on the critic-aggregating website Metacritic, compared to Endless' 11) of the two, while Endless is subject to some anxiety among his fans and critics.

This anxiety has centered on the notion that the project feels incomplete--relative to Blonde--and is born from the assumptions we have for albums by popular and critically-lauded artists, particularly those who make us wait. From an extended absence, we demand clarity. From a disordered process, we expect order.

"That an album must arrive as a unified, linear product, is dangerously prescriptive."

Otherwise, there is the potential for confusion. We have seen this cycle play out earlier this year with Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Rihanna's Anti. The former's radically fluid rollout--subject to frantic tracklist revisions and post-release song edits--gave way to the notion that it was a shambles compared to the conceptual wholeness of West's previous work. The latter was accused of lacking vision entirely. ("The ultimate impression the album leaves isn't just that of an artist who failed to follow through on her vision, but who never bothered to conceive one in the first place," Slant Magazine's Sal Cinquemani accused.)

Granted, each album has a strong contingent of supporters, but the stink of perceived brokenness lingers over them no less. This notion, that an album must arrive as a unified, linear product, is dangerously prescriptive. Criticisms of this sort tend to deal in vague generalities, such as how "developed" an album is, rather than reckoning with how the music functions. These are the kinds of ideas that arise from undefined gut feelings and general impressions instead of conscious engagement.

At the core of these anxieties are rigid ideas about song structure, namely, that a proper song should have certain parts that proceed in a particular order: a verse followed by a chorus followed by a verse, a bridge, another chorus, and so on and so forth. There is room for interpretation within those boundaries, but the boundaries remain, and they turn music from a form of sonic expression into a set of rules and regulations.

One thing this strict, structuralist perspective does not make room for is the song fragment, which can be defined as a piece of music that contains elements of the traditional pop song structure, but which does not complete that structure. It may consist of a verse, interlude, or a succession of choruses, but it does not contain all three. In essence, it sounds like a part of a "proper" pop song removed from its home. It is a musical ellipsis.

"What the song fragment does, in essence, is shift emphasis from structure to sound. It makes the listener more attentive to any given moment, because that moment may evaporate."

The distinction between a song and song fragment has to do with both structure and duration. Many songs do not follow traditional structures, but the song fragment feels abrupt, as if the artist has trailed off mid-sentence. On the other end, we see songs that reach beyond the standard, three-to-four-minute length of the average pop song. Through extended repetition or variation, a plan announces itself; you understand the artist's intentions before the song ends. The singer and harpist Joanna Newsom, for example, tends to wind stanzas into elaborate, interlocking threads. Her songs rarely double back on themselves: they move outward, upward. They may not resolve, but the movement becomes a method. Inherent in the song fragment is abbreviation and concision. It ends before the pattern can be established, makes you think of paths not taken.

What the song fragment does, in essence, is shift emphasis from structure to sound. It makes the listener more attentive to any given moment, because that moment may evaporate. This perpetual uncertainty creates a mutual vulnerability between the listener and artist. The listener is put on guard, knowing the song may slip out of his grasp, while the artist admits to the indecision that plagues any creative work. While it may be the product of indecision, the recorded song promotes the notion that it has been released only after the decisions have been made and, presumably, arranged in their ideal form. By admitting to his indecision, the artist asserts that finality is an illusion, a compromise. The pieces can be rearranged, remixed, sampled.

For this generation, this impulse is most visible in the work of hip-hop producers and cut-and-paste DJs like J Dilla, Girl Talk, and The Avalanches. The latter two often construct their songs from parts of other artists' songs, which are transformed in a new context. Girl Talk, the stage name of Greg Gillis, animates his work by navigating the space between different genres and traditions. The result is more consonant than you might expect, calling into question the perceived distance between artists working for a mass audience. Is there a such a difference between J. Cole and Bruce Springsteen, who are both sampled on the 2010 track 'Steady Shock' and wear a certain blue collar affect? Gillis doesn't think so, and through his pop collages, he points out the absurdity of the hierarchies that deem one genre or music subculture to be superior to any other.

This is music as protest, as were the fast and furious songs of 1980s hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat and Minutemen, who used brevity as a counterpoint against the polish and formal rigor of major label pop songs. The latter used song fragments to deconstruct the pretension of the double album with their 1984 release, Double Nickels on the Dime, which consists of 43 songs, each running under three minutes. Where double albums by the likes of Pink Floyd and The Who aspired to thematic unity, Double Nickels frays at the edges, refusing to conflate scale with importance.

"It has been suggested that the future of art is fragmentation--smaller units to combat shrinking attention spans, the implication being that we will lose the nerve to immerse ourselves in music that requires patience."

Frank Ocean is up to something different on Endless. Musically, it is more counterpoint than commentary, resisting the grand postures that tempt any young artist with a large recording budget. It is an act of liberation: from linearity, from theme, from commerce. It's significant that Endless has not received a proper physical release; it's not the sort of thing meant to live in a plastic jewel case.

When the songs begin to settle into patterns, they fade. Even on a third or fourth listen, they seem to evolve in real time. This is a perceptual trick, of course, that comes from the expectations we have of songs when we listen to them repeatedly, namely, that we will become comfortable in their contours. But Endless embraces entropy: voices split, mumble, move from the realm of words to the realm of sound. Tones blend into secondary colors. The center doesn't hold because there is no center.

In the absence of order and prescribed meaning, you are drawn to details, like the guitar playing of Alex G, a lo-fi composer who appears on 4 of the album's 18 songs. There is nothing flashy about his style. There is, rather, a reverence for simplicity, a desire to linger in a phrase, to trust it. Like Ocean's vocals, Alex G plays with subtle textures. Sometimes, his guitar is miked so close you can hear his pick scraping against a string.

Ocean's voice, too, is an interesting case. It is a virtuosic instrument and the thing he is most known for, blessed with a wide expressive range and purity of tone. Here, he largely abandons virtuosity for something a little more ragged and subdued. If Endless is built from series of small subversions and negations, this is the ultimate negation, a denial of a prodigious gift in the face of massive expectations built around that gift.

It has been suggested that the future of art is fragmentation--smaller units to combat shrinking attention spans, the implication being that we will lose the nerve to immerse ourselves in music that requires patience. This is a pessimism that persists among traditionalists and aesthetic conservatives. As with most fears of cultural decay, this one is rooted in a fear of the new, of your values becoming outdated.


If the future of music lies in song fragments, that does not mean less music, but more: more ways to compose, arrange, and present sound. With Endless, Ocean pushes toward that future, taking everything in and letting the pieces fall where they may.