Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” Is a Lyrical Marvel

Eight years on, the ‘channel ORANGE’ song remains one of Ocean’s masterworks.
Author:
Publish date:

Attention spans are getting shorter. Songs, too, are getting shorter. But, back in 2012, Frank Ocean delivered one of his best songs of all-time—and it happened to be nearly 10 minutes long. The morphing “Pyramids,” found on debut full-length channel ORANGE, stands as one of Frank’s best displays of songwriting, ear for production, and understanding of arrangement. “Pyramids” is a journey through time and space, and squalor. “Pyramids” coils around us, tightening with every minute gone. We’re not lost in the song—we’re consumed by it. Short attention spans be damned, Frank says between the lines of “Pyramids.” This is art, he says. It demands our full presence.

Frank’s demands don’t feel like demands, though. The drama of the opening chords of “Pyramids” naturally hooks our attention. Frank’s blanketing vocal and his inflections, the funky bassline, they all coalesce nicely into this larger than life musical moment. “Pyramids” thumps forward. It stomps and hucks forward. It struts. We move our bodies in time with the pulsing rhythms. Just as we’re getting into the meatiest grooves, the song dissolves into a smattering of pixels. Pinpricks of sound elevate on a bed of programmed arpeggios as Frank ushers us into the second half of the song. Time melts away. We have no concept of how long we’ve been sitting pretty under Frank’s spell. And we don’t care.

The story of “Pyramids” is well-known and easily understood. The morphing Cleopatra was once a queen, and in modern times, is a sex worker. In all, our Cleopatra represents strength and desire, and the enduring interconnectedness of these two things. There are African jewels, and there are pimps. And throughout this endearing history of the way Black women embody and lord over desire, Frank Ocean slips between ballad-like singing and lilting raps. Impressive, too, is the way Frank keeps us on the edge of our seats. Just shy of 10 minutes, Frank runs the risk of losing us at any moment. He doesn’t. We’re waiting for his next written turn and Cleopatra’s character development, waiting for the next flip of Frank’s cadence, waiting for the next layer of production to unveil itself and stun us.

Of course, not all songs deserve to be as long as “Pyramids.” More often than not, a song of great length feels self-indulgent to a fault. We wait around, wondering when the song will come to its natural end. Or, worse yet, we skip the song entirely. Not “Pyramids,” though. We could never flick past Frank’s roving tales. While Frank follows the time-traveling Cleopatra, we realize “Pyramids” could have never been a three-minute outing. Frank has too much ground to cover, too much of the world to uncover. We go from Egypt to a ruddy motel. We go from tombs to the Vegas strip. Frank’s story necessitates its lengthy structure. He isn’t just huffing for the sake of hearing his voice: Frank’s layering images and timelines to incredible heights.

“Pyramids” could have been released as two complementary songs on channel ORANGE. Instead, Frank chose to sew two halves together to make one astounding whole. After the first half of the song, our Cleopatra dies as she does in myth, by the bite of a poisonous serpent. Frank could have concluded the song there, but he chose to continue the history of Cleopatra, of the Black woman. The supposition here is that Cleopatra can never really die, much like desire can never really die, much like Black women themselves are eternal. Frank attempts to note how desire and strength weave together to create something timeless and irreverent.

There is, of course, the complication of desire. We cannot escape the fact that Frank is a man looking at a woman. We cannot escape the male gaze, but we can applaud Frank for giving our Cleopatra agency as she moves from past to present. Frank does not levy pity on Cleopatra, does not weigh her choice of labor on any moral scales. He seems to say Cleopatra understands the pithy desires of man and knows how to bend them to her will—to her benefit. Frank’s aim with “Pyramids” is to, as much as a man can, return the power men siphon from women back to their rightful owners. Here, Cleopatra owns her body—she owns her history. Frank is merely the vessel, and he empties himself to the best of his abilities to allow the Cleopatra narrative to be fluid and pure.

Moreover, we understand Frank’s motives from the first half of “Pyramids,” where he sings: “We’ll run to the future, shining like diamonds.” From the beginning, Frank is alerting us to the majesty of “Pyramids,” how it expands upon a tragedy with real-world imagery and glimmers of hope. Too, pointing towards the future helps Frank validate the length of the song. How could “Pyramids” be anything other than 10 minutes when we have a whole history to explore? Most importantly, how could “Pyramids” be anything other than 10 minutes when our Cleopatra, as we learn across the song, is a vision of oblivion?

Yes, Cleopatra becomes endless by the end of the second half of “Pyramids.” Closing with a guitar solo and with Cleopatra “working at the pyramid,” gives us the impression she isn’t going anywhere. The use of the present progressive suggests a continuous action, an endless thing. As in, our Cleopatra is forever, whether she is working or simply being. She is always. Closing with instrumentation, then, only uplifts this fact. Why does this matter? Well, after investing 10 minutes into the track, we become wholly bonded to our Cleopatra. We care for her and her final moments. To see she is an ethereal and thriving being is to be rewarded by Frank Ocean for sitting through his fable.

“Pyramids” is an odyssey of a track. And Frank fucking pulls it off. He makes it work. There’s not a dull moment on “Pyramids,” every image leads us into the next image. Every breathy rap and howling note bleeds into its successor. “Pyramids” nurtures itself. A lyrical marvel, a producer’s wet dream, “Pyramids” is a feat simply because it exists so boldly. A young Frank Ocean uses “Pyramids” to claim each of our senses. He lords over our time and our ear as Cleopatra lords over desire and the body—and we can’t get mad. “Pyramids” cannot be denied as a masterpiece, for it is so assertive in its shape-shifting presence. We cannot afford to ignore the song. It demands our attention.

The power of the long song is such that it proves the writer to be more than capable—it proves them to be compelling. Much like a tome of a novel must be worth its length, a song clocking in at an EP’s runtime must have a significant payoff. What’s worse than closing a long book and feeling as if your time has been wasted? What’s worse than reaching the final moments of a song, only to feel like you just had an earful of hot air? Thankfully, Frank Ocean’s pen rarely falters. Eight years on, “Pyramids” remains one of Frank’s masterworks because he makes a substantial request of the listener: Trust me with your time. Thankfully, trusting Frank Ocean rarely results in a listener spurned. 

Related