Why “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean is one of the best songs of the 21st Century

It is a truth universally acknowledged by music lovers all around the world that if you listen to a song enough times, you’ll hate it.

But if there’s a single song I can listen to forever without hating, and what’s more – discover something new with every listen – it’s “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean.

Channel Orange or Blonde? It’s the quintessential question for Frank Ocean fans. (if we’re excluding Endless for not being an audio-exclusive album.) My answer is Blonde because of its artistry as a complete work: its quiet yet unbridled emotion, the way it pushes boundaries of R&B and alternative hip-hop its utmost fringes, how it captures the essence of strained and beautiful masculinity, romance, and millennial spirit of abandon.

However, I dare say that no one song from Blonde can compare to “Pyramids.”

The aesthetic impact and challenge of “Pyramids” on the music scene of the early 2010s shook up the course of popular music, R&B, and alternative hip-hop forever. This 9 minutes and 53 seconds-long giant sitting squarely around the two-thirds mark through the album. It’s a daring, almost arrogant move that’s sure to draw groans from most impatient listeners.

And yet it will remain one of the best songs of the 21st Century.

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The nearly 10-minute track is divided into two parts, each narrating half of a centuries-long saga of the black woman. Please note that the following interpretations are generally accepted by the public; Frank is using his artistic license here, and we will never know if he truly believes in what he sings.

Beginning with warbling synths, the narrator – an Egyptian pharaoh – mourns over the disappearance of Cleopatra.

Set the cheetahs on the loose
There’s a thief out on the move
Underneath our legion’s view
They have taken Cleopatra

Run run run, come back for my glory
Bring her back to me
Run run run, the crown of our pharaoh
The throne of our queen is empty

Notice how Cleopatra was taken by people or forces “They” took her away from “glory” in Egypt, where she was hailed as the “crown” and prized possession of the pharaoh.

We’ll run to the future, shining like diamonds
In a rocky world, rocky-rocky world
Our skin like bronze and our hair like cashmere
As we march to the rhythm on the palace floor
Chandeliers inside the pyramids, tremble from the force
Cymbals crash inside the pyramids, voices fill up the halls

“Our skin like bronze and our hair like cashmere” indicates the song is an allegory of the black woman through the millennia – the pharaoh celebrates their Egyptian / black heritage. Ocean paints gorgeous imagery of the splendor of royal life with this verse.

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John Mayer with his guitar at the pyramids.

The jewel of Africa, jewel
What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?
How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?
You feel like God inside that gold
I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair
I found my black queen Cleopatra, bad dreams, Cleopatra

Now, this is where it gets interesting. The pharaoh says that Cleopatra lost her value by disappearing, and now pins the blame on her. He suggests that she is full of arrogance when she indulges in luxuries: “You feel like God inside that gold.” Ocean also makes a Biblical reference, writing, “I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair.” Samson was a hero of the Israeli military whose strength originated from his hair. His lover, Delilah, cut his hair, betraying him and depriving him of his power. While Cleopatra’s disappearance was certainly a personal betrayal, it also took a toll on their empire and people: “How could you run off on us?”

Remove her, send the cheetahs to the tomb
Our war is over, our queen has met her doom
No more, she lives no more, serpent in her room
No more, he has killed Cleopatra, Cleopatra

Cleopatra is believed to have committed suicide by leading a snake to bite her. But continuing Frank’s Bible metaphors, a serpent led Adam and Eve to commit the original sin by eating the forbidden fruit. Cleopatra has fallen into sin, and it killed her.

Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds
Wake up to your girl
For now, let’s call her Cleopatra, Cleopatra
I watch you fix your hair
Then put your panties on in the mirror, Cleopatra
Then your lipstick, Cleopatra
Then your six-inch heels, catch her
She’s headed to the pyramid

She’s working at the pyramid tonight

Now we’re at Part 2. In a shady motel, we’re introduced to a prostitute / stripper named Cleopatra. She is not the narrator’s “girl”; he says “wake up to your girl.” Nevertheless, the narrator calmly watches her as she prepares to go work at a strip club called “the pyramid.”

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Pimping in my convos
Bubbles in my champagne, let it be some jazz playing
Top floor motel suite twisting my cigars
Floor model TV with the VCR
Got rubies in my damn chain
Whip ain’t got no gas tank but it still got woodgrain
Got your girl working for me
Hit the strip and my bills paid
That keep my bills paid
Hit the strip and my bills paid
Keep a n—a bills paid

The narrator, who is pimping Cleopatra, enjoys an extravagant yet depraved life with champagne, cigars, and chain with rubies while living in a run-down motel. He has superficial riches, but his life lacks substance: “Whip ain’t got no gas tank but it still got woodgrain.”

You showed up after work I’m bathing your body
Touch you in places only I know
You’re wet and you’re warm just like our bathwater
Can we make love before you go
The way you say my name makes me feel like
I’m that n—a but I’m still unemployed
You say it’s big but you take it, ride cowgirl
But your love ain’t free no more, baby
But your love ain’t free no more

Frank Ocean switches the perspective again to Cleopatra’s lover. They make love, but it is void of emotion. The girl’s “love ain’t free no more” – though they loved each other in the past, now the girl only performs sexual acts for money.

The brilliance and great tragedy detailed in the song is how the narrator mourns over the woman’s downfall and is complicit in her downfall at the same time. As a pimp, the narrator reaped the benefits from her work, but he also regrets what their relationship used to be – a loving one that used to empower him as pharaoh. 

In the music video, Frank continues exploring this duality: he is mesmerized by the sights he sees at a strip club but wipes his eyes away with anxiety and a tinge of guilt – he knows it is wrong.

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Frank Ocean said, “I have actual pimps in my family in LA. It was fantasy built off that dynamic… but you can only write what you know to a point.” Take that to mean what you want.

If the lyrics weren’t enough, the music is simply dazzling. Frank’s vocals are far from flashy, but he emits endless emotion, especially in the second half. Mournful brass, hi-hats, and rising and falling electronic sounds create a melancholy tone. The last one-and-a-half minute outro, a John Mayer guitar solo, is ethereal at parts, visceral in others, regretful, nostalgic, and fantasy-like. 

“Pyramids” proved that Frank Ocean defies genres and all categorizations. Far from a safe R&B singer, Ocean plunges into an electro-house, EDM, psychedelic guitar, and Prince-influenced epic of the black woman. His uncanny ability to translate the grand into the familiar and intimate and to make an extraordinary sonic palette accessible and unforgettable is expertly spelled out in this track.

It’s still difficult for me to fully express how much I love this song and how I continue to be amazed by its sheer scale, beauty, and pain after countless listens. Listen to “Pyramids.” You will never regret it.

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Links talking about “Pyramids.”

The Guardian Interview with Frank Ocean at the time of Channel Orange‘s release

Pitchfork‘s Review of Channel Orange





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