June 12, 2012

Jonah Bromwich’s favorite Pharaoh was Monch.

Frank Ocean seems to have taken advantage of his Kanye/Jay affiliation to hype his upcoming album with the single “Pyramids,” which I’m sure has resulted in the spontaneous combustion of several Illuminati conspiracy theorist brains. “Pyramids” is more Shakespearean than it is Bavarian, a kind of mash-up of Othello and Antony and Cleopatra , which uses the history of the Egyptian queen’s death by snakebite as an allegory for the betrayal of a lover. It’s a highly intelligent song, subtle and so excellent that you could listen for years without ever needing to decipher the lyrics, which upon first listen sound like a slice of fantastical Egyptian life combined with and compared to the life of modern Rap&B stars.

Of course, as we might expect from someone as ambitious as Ocean, there’s too much going on here to nail down with that first listen. By my count, there are at least five separate sections to the track, including an embedded pop song which borrows the best of David Guetta and Clams Casino, using the fuzz of the latter to narcotize the bombast of the former; merging the most popular respective sounds in pop and indie rap to create something undeniable. A simmering psychedelic midsection forms an extended bridge to a second song, in which Ocean explores contemporary high life, linking it thematically to his ancient subject matter. Finally, autotuned strings play the song out, in a section reminiscent of that three minute vocoder solo from Kanye’s “Runaway,” the themes of that song linking in nicely with the ones Ocean is playing with here

Those themes are elucidated more fully in the lyrics,  in both their allusions and poetic comparisons between the opulence of the pharaohs and today’s climate of fame. Ocean manages to weave a snake in as both a phallic representation and an avatar of evil, which also becomes a synecdoche as Ocean claims that the snake kills Cleopatra while actually giving the orders himself a few lines earlier, singing “remove her, send the cheetahs” (a nice homophone for cheaters) “to the tomb.”

Then there’s the use of “working on the pyramids” as a euphemism for cheating, which forms a contrast with the luxury of Ocean’s life; though he seems to have everything, his lover’s fraternizing is compared to the work of slaves, which suggests that she’s sleeping with someone less wealthy than Ocean. All his riches can’t win him a woman who is interested in someone else. Drake, Abel, and even Kanye should take note. This is how you make/disguise a song about the limits and hardships of fame.


channel orange-TV from christopher francis ocean on Vimeo.

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