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Revisiting Frank Ocean’s Pyramids + Egypt’s curious cancelling of Cleopatra from the history books

On the tenth anniversary of its digital release as a trailer for his debut studio album, Channel Orange, I’m recounting Frank Ocean’s 2012 buzz cut Pyramids. While not, to my knowledge, a physical 45, the track is of multiple movements and at almost ten minutes in length to boot. What makes it stand out is the eclectic first half transitioning into a methodical, profound groove that is purely infectious. There’s barely a dull moment in this sprawling epic that’s more than twice as long as most, and as ambitious as anything out there.

Featuring a plethora of imagery, parallels, plot twists, literary and historical references, the story cuts across time and locations as a pimp’s fascination with one of his sex workers is detailed and dissected. Boasting some of the shiniest music production of modern times, Pyramids is arguably one of the most elegantly crafted songs of the past decade. 

Obviously these types of discussions are highly subjective and fabulously futile in many ways, and I don’t expect too many regular readers of to agree with me. Revered rock acts like Bowie and The Beatles may have produced countless classics that you might plump for over Pyramids but I will make my case nonetheless. 

Starting off with ringing keys and a grooving bass line, Frank Ocean’s voice sets the tone of the song before it explodes into a powerful synth progression that becomes a theme throughout the first half of the track. The true artistry derives from the deep themes Frank conveys: nailing down thematics from Egyptian times and introducing them to a modern set-piece is the song’s niche, because this Pyramids is split into two parts. 

It begins with the story of two pharaohs of Egypt — Cleopatra VII and her partner, which is implied to be Ptolemy XIV — and segues the torrid tale of a modern-day hooker and stripper named Cleopatra (who works at the pyramid-styled Luxor Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, where prostitution is legal) and her lover, a pimp. In doing so the song laments the uneasy evolution of the African people, from rulers and icons to being enslaved and racially degraded.

The first three minutes contain pop and funk elements as Frank focuses on the song’s centrepiece Cleopatra VII, the titular queen whose name comes from the Greek ‘Kleos’ and ‘Patra’ which means ‘glory to the father’. For more than 2,000 years Cleopatra, the last pharaoh and final ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, has been portrayed as a manipulative but tragic beauty. Yet such simplistic portrayals obscure her true legacy as a strong, politically astute monarch.

Ocean initially describes her beguiling beauty (by all accounts a historical makeover: it was her power that made her attractive) and her exploits, but then sings of her downfall from Ptolemy’s death and subsequent absconsion from Egypt to be with her new lover, the Roman general Mark Antony, to her apparent suicide at the hands of an asp. It does have to be noted that historically, Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, as was Egyptian tradition, though indications suggest she didn’t do a great deal with him in the bedroom. 

Of course, in the western world Cleopatra is a famous figure — Elizabeth Taylor played her, Adam And The Ants sang about her — an eternally “gorgeous thing” who just happened to be an important world leader renowned for numerous qualities: not just the “wide-mouthed girl” who had romantic rendezvous with Julius Caesar and, later on, Antony. 

You’d think that may serve as a source for local pride and identity marker, though having visited the country in 1997 (just Luxor with my mother, and not a pyramid in sight), I can safely say that the diva is something of a deliberately forgotten queen who’s been virtually wiped out of Egyptian historical representations and its wider culture. 

The answer, my friend, lies in the view of most Egyptian/African people that, far from being a jewel of the Nile, Cleopatra is regarded as a traitor because she ‘sold out’ for wealth and the promise of superficial glory. By the time of her death, Egypt was massively in debt to the Roman empire, and its eventual fate as a mere vassal state was sealed. What a carry on.

Anyway, let’s have some lovely photos.

Instagram will load in the frontend.

“Our war is over, our queen has met her doom,” Ocean sings in an allusion to the Battle of Alexandria. The musical notes set a tragic tone while the singer sets the scene — the woman has been taken, and the balancing act of the subject being both a lost love and a lost possession is thrown to the fore immediately. As the percussion’s pace accelerates after the first dance hook plays, the narrator becomes indignant, incredulous, at his lack of control – and the song’s first half closes with the tragic death of Cleopatra, the identity of her ‘killer’ left to the imagination. 

In the next verse, Frank alternates between rapping and singing with impressive flow as the music shifts to a hypnotically calming beat to match the new storyline. In it he describes the modern couple with beautiful little vignettes of their life, whose fate mirrors that of their predecessors. With a melody that, like Cleo herself, never gets old, the second act plays and the sequence morphs. The scene is now of 21st century sexy workers: Cleopatra is reborn and “she’s working at the pyramids”, switching the regality of Ancient Egyptian motifs for the sordid reality of modern Cleo’s carry ons in slightly seedy motel rooms. 

A warm and fuzzy synthesizer accompanies a seductive trap beat as the procurer takes a bath with Cleopatra – objectifying her, idolising her, prizing her, before she returns to the pyramids. The smooth synth work is met with a neat arrangement of trumpets as Ocean’s verse continues, while John Mayer’s jazzy guitar croons as the souteneur wrestles with his, and her, lot. Then comes the outro, where the guitarist erupts into a two-minute axe solo that on paper sounds appallingly self-indulgent on but isn’t. 

Moreover, each stage of the tale is backed by wildly varied tones and composition, driving through ideas while the pace is dictated by the story. It’s really something, and despite its length it never overstays its welcome. And though the story carries a sad disposition, it ultimately feels empowering.

Needless to say, Pyramids is a modern masterpiece. Its combination of such a tight lyrical and sonic production is what compels me to regard the track as one of the most profound musical statements of the past decade.

Before any of you comment that I’m simply “overthinking” it, I’ll add that while R&B is never going to be my favourite genre of music, I find Frank Ocean’s voice endearing and his lyrics compelling. He is also something of a polymath: an obviously intelligent human with superlative gifts as an artist, writer, producer, composer, photographer and even interior designer, should you want to give your pad a makeover, like.

And no, he’s not acclaimed because he happens to be an LGBTQ black man. I don’t do “woke”, and Frank Ocean isn’t a product of fashionable trends either. It’s the opposite. He creates trends, and although his melodic sensibilities echo those of Motown heavyweights Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Ocean may well be the closest living working artist to the purple regnant they called Prince right now. 

The imagery in Pyramid’s wordage conjures up an epic tale that is while not idiosyncratic in Frank’s discography, is significantly more grandiose in scope than anything else on the widely revered Channel Orange or his discography as a whole. So much so that it follows a rather cinematic approach to songwriting — something hardly unique but Ocean has pulled off astonishingly. While the majority of songs have deep themes on the album, Pyramids’ never cumbersome comparison of ancient beauty to modern beauty is striking and thought-provoking. In the final lines of the verse, the singer unleashes a stunning twist, singing “But your love ain’t free no more.” 

Granted, there are lots of interpretations to this twist, but I’d hazard a guess that it reveals that even the ponce eventually has to pay her for sex, signifying that he has sunk to the level of paying his former lover for her love. But he could also just be saying that he has to pay the price of giving her up to other men to earn money for both of them. Either way, the verse completes the thematic circle: Once powerful people have been reduced through time to (in this case) sad pimps and sullied prostitutes.

I’m certain many will still be trying to figure out the song’s intricacies for years to come. I know I will. For me, you could sum it up as a serene but coruscating commentary on the pursuit and perception of beauty and its impact on society.

Prescient much?

It’s certainly no coincidence that every narcissists’ favourite social media channel, the photo-sharing app that is Instagram, was then just two years into making face more attractive than Facebook. Still, ten years ago it was easy to find people on the internet who were interested in reading words rather than judging everyone in a picture popularity contest. 


Oh, my visage.

Steve Pafford

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