One Track Minded | On ‘Pyramids’, Frank Ocean unveils poignant frustration through cinematic fantasies

Welcome to One Track Minded, where we pick a select cut from a chosen act and delve beneath the surface. Frank Ocean may well never release that almost mythical second album of his so here’s Mark Conroy to wax lyrical on the 10-minute masterpiece that is ‘Pyramids’.

It has to be said, it’s become something of a cliché to reference that headline-grabbing Tumblr post when writing about Frank Ocean.

I suppose we should expect it, as the seismic tremors of that admission to an unrequited homosexual love are still being felt in the world of urban music all these years later. It was so much more than a matter of just “gay hype” though, because the sheer confessional power of the piece is what really disarmed people. Ocean may not be a rapper, but he’s certainly a part of that world, and his nakedly honest words weren’t an easy fit for the guarded and sometimes homophobic hip hop community. When he released the critically lauded Channel ORANGE just a few days later, critics fell over them trying to contextualise that revelation into Ocean’s picturesque and sincere storytelling.

The only minor gripe one could find in all this was that Ocean’s heart-rending admission dominated his narrative so much that people forget that Channel ORANGE is as much a work about black identity as it is a sexual one. Anyone who has listened to near 10-minute opus Pyramids’ should be fully aware that Frank Ocean is so much more than just an unapologetically sentimental cinephile. Audaciously ambitious, operatic and distinctly symmetrical, ‘Pyramids’ cements its creator as a monumental force of contemporary music whose aspirational tendencies make him vital and also one of the only living artists who might just earn the title of Prince’s spiritual successor.

Trying to ascribe a genre to this is like trying to nail the shore to the sand. ‘Pyramids’ transitions from Ocean’s trademark warped R&B to teeny bopper synths, to melodic electro house, to jam session sax until it’s all capped off by an unassumingly good John Mayer guitar solo. A modern day symphony; this is what Mozart would have written had he grew up in 1990’s Long Beach (what a movie that would be). Sure, it’s a bit of a structural and stylistic hotchpotch, but it’s also finely tuned into a soulful, multi-layered odyssey with some “how did he make that?” electronic segues. Ocean is working at his most confident and free-flowing here, forgoing cheap hooks and ‘dope’ genre tropes in favour of a more flexible, uncompromising and heterogeneous approach.

As undeniably good as the music is – and it is undeniable – Ocean appears just as determined to imbue his lyrics with that same sense of unparalleled conceptual creativity as he dumps a freighter-load of ideas in the time it takes to oven cook  a frozen pizza. ‘Pyramids” may not seem it at first listen, but it’s a provocative and politically-charged epic that elegantly deconstructs contemporary racial politics. Ocean previously stated that for him, “It’s about the stories … then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.” That ‘sonic goodness’ – an underselling if there ever was one – might be part of the reason Ocean isn’t as highly regarded of a social commentator of the black experience as some of his contemporaries.

When Channel ORANGE dropped in 2012, its main rival on end-of-year lists was Kendrick Lamar’s equally accomplished Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.  As a Compton ‘survivor’ who could weave engrossing tales of inner city life and realise the struggle of the young African American so earnestly, Lamar’s credentials would never come into question. Ocean, conversely, is a sentimentalist through and through, a hapless romantic who wears his heart on his headband. His ‘blackness’ may not be as upfront as the good kids, but it’s no less present. With ‘Pyramids’, he unveils his frustrations within his cinematic fantasies.

As mentioned there are two clearly defined halves, the former being a dreamlike sequence in ancient Egypt while the latter centres around the seedy existence of an apparent sex worker  in a sleazy 70s pastiche. These seemingly unrelated tales share a thematic connection, one which looks at the evolution (or devolution) of black womanhood throughout the ages.  The opening sees history’s most infamous female queen, Cleopatra, being unceremoniously taken “underneath our legion’s view”, a moment which Ocean sees at the ground zero event for the thievery of black identity.

Cleapatra’s symbolic inclusion is a clever jibe, considering her vey race is something that’s been disputed by historians for years. Here, however, she is black to the bone. It was her romantic and political dealings with white Europeans (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony) that contributed to the downfall of her empire but Ocean also sees this corruption as the defining moment in the ‘selling out’ of black culture. This literal theft of the African queen reduces this once proud and powerful people to suffer under the illusions of white supremacy, ensuring centuries of oppression and cultural piracy. With one question, Ocean gives us a mournful and succinct summation of the situation: “What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?” It’s something that Chuck Berry or Little Richard might still be pondering to this day with regards to certain ‘cover versions‘.

In the song’s latter section, the wonderfully weird mix of free jazz and syncopated riffs that  sound like they’re going backwards provide a suitable backdrop for the seedy setting were being lead into.  This time we follow a different kind of strong-willed black heroine who Ocean uses to illustrate the consequences of the first half’s exploitation. This Cleopatra also gets her power from her sexuality, but now, as a stripper in club called ‘The Pyramid’, she’s an ironic inversion of the regal figure previously seen.

Our narrator, now living in something close to the Boogie Nights set, has the material possessions to suggest success, “top floor motel suite”, “floor model TV” , “rubies in [his]  damn chain” but it’s purely superficial. His “Cleopatra” works the streets and her body seems readily available to him but the twist in tale comes in the last lines of the last verse: “but your love ain’t free no more baby, but your love ain’t free no more”. The speaker is forced to pay for sex from a former lover now owned by someone else. Ocean croons and elongates “free” with a hint of begrudging acceptance. Any sense of hope or black ascendency is dashed with that delivery.

One could easily get caught up in the lofty concepts a track like this offers and more power to them, but more importantly it’s an absolute banger. So even if Ocean has become a semi-sadist by dangling that golden carrot of  a second LP and traumatising his followers In the process , it doesn’t matter so much thanks to the enduring appeal of this masterful piece of Homeric proportions. The real pyramids in Egypt are grand monuments that have stood as ever-constant odes to human ingenuity and imagination for countless generations. I wouldn’t put it past this song from achieving something similar.

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