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23 August 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:29am

Frank Ocean’s stairways to heaven: how his new works explore faith and mental health

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In the Apple Music video stream for Endless, released to the world on Friday, Frank Ocean is building a stairway, step by step. As the album plays out through an enormous boombox, we watch the slow unfolding of a spiral staircase in real time. When it’s completed, it leads up out of shot, giving the impression that it could go on forever, that it, too, is endless. “When you see the video,” artist and collaborator Tom Sachs explains, “you see him building a stairway to heaven.”

It is slow, humble work – Sachs adds that the full art film of Ocean completing the staircase lasts over 140 hours – and it feels spiritual in its physicality: woodwork as a craft has been blessed with the whiff of holiness since the Bible told us Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family. Anupa Mistry writes in the FADER, “Ocean’s had a spiritually significant impact on our lives”, adding, “There are a lot of lessons that faith tries to impart – patience, justice, etc – and I think that, amidst the infinite scroll of our contemporary lives, Frank’s made a new virtue out of quiet.”

“I believe there’s heaven,” Ocean sang on his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape back in 2011 – and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself of its existence as much his audience. “You must believe in something, something, something.” Five years later, many of the songs on Endless and Blonde, the two albums Frank Ocean released this weekend, are reaching towards a distant, ethereal state, even when hope seems futile. “I’m just a guy I’m not a god,” Ocean sings on Blonde’s final track. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god / If I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.”

Blonde’s “Solo” sees Ocean describe the trajectory of a drug-fuelled night out in detail set against a sparse, organ backdrop – from triumphant Jagger-esque dancing, through a moment of warmth with someone outside, to an inevitable comedown, where Ocean is left alone and depressed, “solo” and “so low”. As the high fades, the horror of the world encroaches: the police arrive to shut down the party, and we hear the occasional screech of a siren over the organ keys. The line “Stay away from highways / My eyes feel like them red lights,” feels like a warning. The spectre of police brutality hovers just out of view in this song, only fully entering on the later track “Solo (Reprise)”, when Andre 3000 admits he is “So low that I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event / No more”.

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic. The chorus of “Solo” explores how the everyday ordeal of living in a violent, racist society can lead to a retreat into the mind, be it via drug use, dreams or isolation.

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It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven
There’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

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Here, conflict permeates even the heavens themselves: the constellations (Taurus and Orion) are locked in an eternal battle. The only sanctuary is in the mind. We see the mind as a microcosm reflected in the use of words inside words (“inhale” contains “in hell”). Ocean offers his own variation on Milton’s line “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”, one that also touches on the devastating cycles of racial trauma, its impact on mental health, and self-medication that, when coupled with a racist prison system, see so many young black men with mental health issues imprisoned for minor drugs offences.

On Blonde, dreams and highs become a kind of heaven on earth. “Ivy” begins with the line, “I thought that I was dreaming,” and ends with the refrain, “I could dream all night”. “Pink + White” ultimately looks not towards a blushing, cloud-patterned sky, but the pink of flesh and the white of cocaine, as “glory from above”. “Nights” quips, “Rolling marijuana – that’s a cheap vacation”. Sex, drugs, and driving offer a tempting escape. But every escape is transient, and involves an eventual crashing back down to earth. “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?” comes the refrain on Endless’s “Mine”. In the video for “Nikes”, we hear a deep, computer-manipulated voice insist over images of hedonism, “This is heaven on earth.” Later, we see a visual reference to the Heaven’s Gate cult, which saw 39 people commit suicide while wearing Nike Decades, shrouded in purple sheets. It’s not an overly optimistic moment.

But Blonde ultimately feels like a hopeful record. At a show in London in July 2013, Ocean projected pink and white clouds the length of the stage behind him, bearing the Jenny Holzer lyric, “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” (Holzer references are peppered throughout this recent wave of Ocean’s work: he wears a top emblazoned with her “Truisms” in the “Nikes” video, which also appears in his zine, Boys Don’t Cry.)

Survival is a miracle in itself on this record. A verse on “Pink + White” contains the lyrics

If you could die and come back to life
Up for air from the swimming pool
You kneel down to the dry land
Kiss the Earth that birthed you
Gave you tools just to stay alive
And make it out when the sun is ruined

If the tools required just to stay alive are miraculous, life itself becomes more important than questions of afterlife. If you can find the freedom and joy in simply keeping going, then perhaps we can worry less about the unending staircases unravelling before us. “This is joy, this is summer,” Ocean sings on “Skyline To”. “Keep alive, stay alive.”