On Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids”


As part of my rundown of my favorite albums and tracks of 2012, I described at length what moved me about Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE. In particular, I reserved my highest praise for its epic ten-minute centerpiece “Pyramids,” which I posited is arguably one of the greatest achievements in the recent history of pop music. To avoid cluttering a list about whole albums, I decided to move to a separate space where I could parse out the thoughts I’ve been fumbling to articulate since first hearing it. Read said thoughts after the jump.

Both halves even make distinctly great songs in and of themselves; the former a dark, funky, danceable Prince-MJ hybrid, and the latter a lovelorn, Oxygene-meets-Hazel Champagne Room slow jam (again, the video’s use of the neon Tree of Life in the desert captures all that with remarkable economy). Narratively, the song is clever enough on the surface: the unfaithful Egyptian queen allegory of act one links thematically the too-real distant lover “working at the Pyramid tonight” in act two. But consider, both in word and sound, the two halves as dream and reality, respectively. The dream-state of the first hearkens all the passion of a deep, immediate, intimate connection. Our protagonist, enraptured by the “jewel of Africa,” experiences a trance-like ecstasy in the presence of his new queen Cleopatra (hence the throbbing, trance-like beat). As real and intense as his affections may be, however, he soon realizes her requite is but a “bad dream.” As the reality of his lover’s betrayal sinks in during the second verse (“How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?”), so must reality itself. The Tangerine Dream synth arpeggios glimmer toward the front of the mix as his tangerine dream fades (“What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?”). At intermission, the isolated arpeggio indicates the transition from sleep to wake. The “big sun comin’ strong through the motel blinds” burns off the last of the dream’s illusions. Our protagonist “wake[s] up to your girl,” who he quite pithily suggests we call Cleopatra “for now” – the girl of his dreams, with whom he is unwilling to part in spite of her inability to reciprocate. As he paints a picture of the young lady dressing at the foot of the bed (with whom he seems so familiar), we come to understand every inkling of the projections in his dream. As he refers to her as “your girl,” we see he has assumed Samson’s first act role. Her money goes to him, but not her heart; therefore, he is both Samson and the afflicted king. For a young man once so eager to love (presumedly, by the delicate framing of the female character), the weight of such a sad reality – meeting a stripper at a motel – is far too much to bear. He must retreat to elaborate fantasy to hold on to the feelings buried deep within him. The tone he takes in the second half’s second verse illustrates one last fleeting delusion, grasping at the pitiful elements around him (rubies, floor model TV, VCR, “top floor” motel suite, a ride with no gas in the tank – far cries from the diamonds, bronze, cashmere, palace, and chandeliers of the dream) and working desperately to flip them into boasts. By verse three, he has finally resigned to reality. As he bathes her after she returns from her shift, he finally coaxes her into a moment of intimacy, but it is also then he realizes her “love ain’t free no more.” A lonely guitar laments toward the heavens, and bass vibrations melt into the void (in his heart, in the hotel room, and in the cold world).

I don’t know Frank Ocean from Adam, but in a much different way, I know all too well what he felt. I have experienced the moment the glimmers of unrequited affection fade, leaving the heart at a slow, churning impasse. We lie there in the company of that person, in the shell of a moment that used to burst with sentiment, physically sick as we navigate feeling everything and nothing all at once. We struggle to come to terms with the inevitable, even more so as we smile weakly at the other person, desperate to recapture the magic of that Egyptian fantasy.

That death knell; the self-preserving delusional gaze at crossing stars (which, in reality, have already burnt out) giving way to the lament of love’s ugly underbelly is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever personally endured. Frank captures the vividity of moments unlike any artist I’ve ever known, articulating them with remarkable poignance. To recycle tired three-minute structures about how feelings are complicated and often fail to coexist with reality would have sold the their complexity (and Frank’s ability to convey them) way, way short. Instead, he paints us a mural of remarkable nuance and clarity (thus worthy of the depth of feelings themselves), leaving no detail unconsidered, and incorporating a historical context to further illuminate the interconnectedness of us all.

In light of such a remarkable piece of art, every music writer on the whole wide Internet scrambled, it seemed, to articulate the combination of elements to which the song owed its powers of resonation. More still manufactured a frankly irrelevant connection to “news” of Frank’s candid acknowledgement of unrequited love for a man as they mined for that one golden insight. Rap Genius and (surprisingly) Pitchfork, however, delivered two of the more poignant, unique interpretations, each revealing still further layers of the song and the young man’s genius. No matter how well-intentioned, however, both their words and mine will always fall short, and that is precisely how music helps us survive.

Listen to this song. Live in it. Let it take you buried worlds you have denied yourself entry. And over the course of this journey, admire and be thankful for the gift of music, as it succeeds where our words alone too often fail.

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