Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Frank Ocean – Pyramids

Angling for Earth Wind & Fire cred…


Patrick St. Michel: “Pyramids” doubles as its own extravagant music video treatment. It begins in what we assume is ancient Egypt, and after some scene setting it segues into an electro-funk dance scene inside a palace of some sort centered around our protagonist trying to woo a certain “Cleopatra.”  After  nice choreography and presumably shots of cheetahs running wild, we jump ahead in time courtesy of a woozy time-machine interlude to modern times, of our protagonist now in a shabby “motel suite,” fretting about his “Cleopatra” as she prepares for work “at the Pyramid tonight.”  End with melancholic sex scene and maybe a shot of a lonely street.  It sounds preposterous – I can’t name any other ten-minute robo R&B jams that mention cheetahs three times – and in the wrong hands it would have been ridiculous.  The star here, though, is Frank Ocean, who makes every minute worthwhile, his voice shifting from smooth-pop mode to downtrodden everyman capable of making the word “VCR” sound rich to sensual lover. 

Iain Mew: It feels a little wrong to give a middling mark to a song that’s ten minutes long. That’s a serious time demand and one that would normally harden my opinion for or against something. In this case, though, “Pyramids” doesn’t seem like a ten minute long song. It just sounds like listening to two different thematically linked Frank Ocean album tracks plus a bit of instrumental wibble. He doesn’t even make a big deal of the transition between the two. They are definitely album tracks rather than singles, too. He shows a lot of the strengths vocally and in construction of mood as in “Novacane” and “Swim Good”, but both parts are less focussed and powerful.

Colin Small: This prog-R&B doesn’t prove that any genre can be progged, just that prog in general is an iffy idea. Frank should feel free to explore a concept as long as he likes, but an obtuse, multi-act strip club is still a strip club.

Anthony Easton: Diamond’s strip club in semi-industrial Mississauga is right next to the Rona distribution center (Rona is the Home Depot of Canada). It has a free lunch until 4 p.m. I imagine that it would be cheaper but more depressing to go for lunch there than bring one from home or go to one of the local restaurants. I imagine the eating and the stripping could function as a kind of workers’ solidarity in ways that are rarely represented in media about erotic dancers – media like this 10-minute soliloquy about ego and boredom. 

Will Adams: Sometimes you encounter something so perfect that you’re overwhelmed with where to start. The first half is a vivid history lesson that weaves in between spooky synth arpeggios over reversed beats and glorious synthfunk; the second half is a woozy trip through a pimp’s loss of a modern day Cleopatra, where the tension between the narrator’s ruby-encrusted chain and the motel suite with VCR builds to a devastating switch: “But I’m still unemployed… your love ain’t free no more.” As if that weren’t enough, it’s all held together by a seamless past-to-present cross dissolve that could fill the space of an entire desert. And THEN there’s the slow-burning finale with John Mayer’s guitarwork, in which Frank seems to say two things. First: “Yes, this sounds like the end of ‘Runaway’,” and second: “That doesn’t matter anyway because I did the ten-minute epic way better than Kanye.”

Brad Shoup: Within which pyramids Ocean gets all Charlie Wilson, popping bass strings and snapping off taut synth riffs and turning “serpent in her room” into a full homage. Extra vocal tracks cos it’s necessary: he’s not got classically sturdy pipes, but his imagination more than compensates, dropping a half-dozen arresting melodic flourishes over the course the song. Still, it’s practically bound to happen if you give yourself ten (!) minutes. I love the feverish connection between a bygone African reign and Ocean’s present-day empire of two. I’m not so nuts about the laggardly pace, even as it’s the point. More Gap Band, fewer gaps.

Katherine St Asaph: A ten-minute prog&B slab about time-traveling Egyptian prostitutes straddles the line between epic and dumb by default. It’s nudged toward the latter when you realize Ocean still hasn’t grown into his voice — I’m all for ambition exceeding grasp, but at this length you should probably be singing at least as well as the freaking Weeknd. Then it gets a running shove, past ludicrous and into sheer camp, when you realize it’s the same plot as Disney’s Aida. When he covers “Another Pyramid,” this score’ll become [20].

Edward Okulicz: So many individual sections of 20 seconds of “Pyramids” could conceivably have come from one of the year’s best songs. It’s not so much that stringing all these great bits together makes it too long, it’s just that it takes a special kind of godlike genius to write enough of those bits to fill a ten-minute track. Eventually, quality control will dip even for a talented mortal like Ocean. There are moments of magic like the grainy synth noise that comes in a minute in and the prowling-lion bass that make gauche production gimmicks like reversing parts of the track seem more frustrating than they need to be. Ocean’s voice suits the numbed second half better than the first, but it’s that first half that’s brimming with impressive sonic ideas.

Alfred Soto: In timbre and art Ocean is too light; he works best within song forms that restrain his dull confessions. I’m thinking only Maze + Frank Beverly and Gap Band (on its twelve-inches) could have made (and did make) triumphant longform R&B. Crooning instead of shouting dumb lines about jewels and Cleopatra over choirtron programs, he’s just not fucked up enough to fling darts in lovers’ eyes or allude to the Kabbalah, not when he’d rather tell you about the side effects of the cocaine.

7 Responses to “Frank Ocean – Pyramids”

  1. Damn, I seriously thought this would have scraped close to the top ten, or at least averaged above 7.

  2. would of w/o me

  3. I’m mostly surprised that besides Patrick’s and my [10]s, this didn’t get anything above a [7]. Pretty sure I love this too much to be impartial, though, so don’t mind me.

  4. A classic case of being impressed on first listen, bored on second and third.

  5. I would have given it a 8 or a 9 the first time I heard it, but i just got bored the second and annoyed the third.

  6. After listening to Channel Orange, “Novacane” is still the best song he’s ever done and might possibly be the best song he will ever do.

  7. The album is inconsistent but “Bad Religion” is astounding.