The Cinematic Narrative of Frank Ocean’s Pyramids

There’s a lot to say about Pyramids, one of the single and narrative axis of Frank Ocean’s 2012 widely-revered album Channel Orange. In truth, there’s a lot to say about any of Frank Ocean’s songs with their dynamic production and lyrical tours de force. But there is just something distinctively more ambitious with what Frank Ocean managed to accomplish in Pyramids. The imagery in the lyrics conjures up an epic tale that is while not idiosyncratic in Frank’s discography, is significantly more grandiose in scope than any track off Channel Orange, or anything else from his discography. So much so that it follows a rather cinematic approach to songwriting—something hardly unique but Frank has pulled off astonishingly.

It does have to be noted that I am a bit out of my depth regarding constructing a comprehensive essay about music and this is only my second attempt in doing so after my article about the Indonesian folk song Bengawan Solo. And during my research for this article, I have found incredible discourse about the song from the likes of the Dissect podcast and Headstuff, crafted by actual music journalists and experts which I recommend you read if you are looking for a more authoritative perspective on the song. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to offer my angle which shall focus on Frank’s auteurist storytelling rather than the song’s actual production (which is incredible in its own right). I am also going to provide some cinematic comparisons to other films that are similar to the song’s theme and provide my takeaway from the song at the end.

The cover art for Pyramids

Pyramids‘ narrative follows a hallucinatory, possibly drug-induced hyperreality phenomenon that spans thousands of years, from multiple distinctive perspectives. The timeline follows the twilight of Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic Egpyt and her downfall to the present day, where one of the narrators seems to wake up from the past life he just experienced, only for us the listener of the song to find out that what happened in the dream version of the past is very much an allegory for the current events.

I say ‘cinematic’ in the title because I do believe this to be Frank’s most narratively-driven track yet. Frank’s penchant for storytelling in his songs can be characterized by his emphasis to detach himself from the song while at the same time having it being an autobiographical representation of himself and his human condition. It’s the same manner in which film directors and screenwriters can craft a narrative and fill it with characters that may not be representing themselves but carry parts of their soul and experience with them. He stated as much in a New York Times interview where he said “The work is not me. I like the anonymity that directors can have about their films. Even though it’s my voice, I’m a storyteller.”

Act 1: The Throne of Our Queen is Empty

‘Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners’ by Alexandre Cabanel, 1887.

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

The song begins in our distant Egyptian past through the perspective of an imagined Egyptian lover to Cleopatra. It does have to be noted that historically, Cleopatra traditionally married her younger brother Ptolemy XIII and did not do much with him in regards to romance. Cleopatra is more well-known for her romance with the western world (through the powerful men and the society as a whole) from her romantic rendezvouz with Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony. Rather, it could be said that this imagined lover to Cleopatra represents Egpyt as a whole, or even the entire African continent and the concept of black culture that the song reverberates.

This imagined lover comes to a shocking realization that Cleopatra has been kidnapped in some manner by an unknown thief. He asks for his guards to retrieve her back “for my glory”, possibly referencing Cleopatra’s name which comes from the Greek ‘Kleos’ and ‘Patra’ which means ‘glory to the father’. “My glory”, in this case, can both be used to address the imagined lover’s status as a dignified ruler (which will have his reputation shattered by having his Queen stolen from him) or the Egyptian people (and consequently the African people), as Cleopatra is a figure renowned for her incredible qualities that may serve as a source for local pride and identity marker.

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

In this first verse of the song, the perspective shifts to the alleged ‘thief’ who has stolen Cleopatra. Through the promise of wealth and glory, he has seduced Cleopatra into running away with him. He refers to the pyramids, the location he proposes them to have sexual intercourse at (“tremble from the force” and “voices fill up the halls”) as if it will be in his grasp as well—something he will steal in the future. This could point us to the identity of the thief to be either Caesar or Anthony or an amalgamation of the two with the Roman/western world as the construct. After all, Egpyt was extremely in debt to the Roman empire at the time and its eventual fate as a Roman empire’s vassal state was sealed.

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

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

After a repeat of the hook, this second verse returns the perspective to the imagined, now ex-lover to Cleopatra, coming to terms with Cleopatra’s betrayal to him and his kingdom. Frank emphasizes again Cleopatra’s status as a symbol of Africa’s glory, referring to her like a jewel. Cleopatra has been ‘tainted’ by western civilization and she was no longer the pride of Africa. The ‘Samson’ referred to here could be a reference to the biblical figure of the same name, who was betrayed by Delilah as she cut his hair that was the source of his power; sleeping with Samson could mean that she was both unfaithful to him as a lover and to the Egyptian/African people for ‘selling out’ for wealth and the promise of superficial glory.

Act 2: She’s Working at the Pyramid Tonight

The music video to Frank Ocean – Pyramids

Act 2 of the song is marked with a beat switch, or a narrative intermission similar to a play or films with a lengthy runtime that has a small break in the midway point to transition into the next act. The music video above is not exactly a direct representation of what is being depicted through the lyrics but rather a visual accompaniment to the song created by Frank. Nevertheless, the video also shows what the ‘pyramid’ mentioned throughout the song could be; an establishment that financially exploits the objectification of women. The usage of ‘pyramid’ may also imply a ‘fall from grace’ of black women in America from their status as royalty or precious jewels of Africa to the degrading and derogatory treatment they currently are subjected to by the larger American society.

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, working at the pyramid 5x

We begin the present-day section from the perspective of someone who seems to be a pimp. The ancient Egyptian past seemed to have been visualized through his dream or drug-induced stupor as he wakes up next to a girl he monikers ‘Cleopatra’. This pimp is heavily implied to be the ‘thief’ mentioned in the first act, referring to “your girl” that could both point towards Cleopatra who he had stolen from her former Egyptian lover or a generalization of pimps’ exploitation of women who have been ‘taken’ from their previous lovers. The ‘pyramid’ here seems to be a portrayal of a brothel, strip club, or a particularly shady establishment where women provide sexual service.

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 nigga bills paid

We continue the pimp’s perspective in the motel he wakes up in previously, seemingly after Cleopatra has left for the brothel to work another day servicing men. There are interesting juxtapositions here in the way he describes his current condition through a gaudy flaunting of his own wealth with contradictions to the current setting. He drinks champagne with jazz playing in the background, has chains with rubies on them, and owns a luxury car with a woodgrain interior. The extravagant imagery here is in conflict with the cheap motel he is staying in and the fact that his car has an empty gas tank. This alludes to the fact that while he is using the money he obtains from his prostitutes for his own whims and fancies, the cash does not really trickle down fully to his sex workers who are subservient to him.

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 nigga 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

For one last time, we shift perspective to a person who seems to be the former (or still is) lover of this modern representation of Cleopatra. This person may also be the reincarnation of the Egyptian lover to Cleopatra present in ancient Egypt from the pimp’s dream. Here, Frank delivers the final twist to the overarching narrative; in a sick twist of fate, this former royalty has been reduced to paying his ‘lover’ Cleopatra for sexual intercourse. Cleopatra has seemingly been irreparably corrupted by her pimp, or it could also be inferred that their relationship has been degraded into a transactional one and that it is only through his delusions that he keeps convincing himself that there are still romantic attachments left between them.

Cinematic Comparisons and Discussion

Left: Vivre Sa Vie (1962) Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Right: The Life of Oharu (1952) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi.

As I mentioned before, there is a certain auteurist-like sensibility in which Frank chose to deliver the narrative of Pyramids. With that said, I would like to draw comparisons to some prominent works by renowned directors about prostitution. Particularly Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952). Although in the interest of this article’s length I wouldn’t discuss this section too deeply (maybe for a follow-up article one day).

Vivre Sa Vie follows a Parisian woman Nana who dreams for the stars—she aspires to be an actress but through the hardships of life and poverty, she is forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Similar to the themes regarding the pimp-prostitute dynamic explored in Pyramids, Nana suffers under the oppressive exploitation of her pimp but there is also a certain level of agency she has in deciding her fate. Although hardly ideal, she makes the best use of her situation and express a degree of instrumentality to her situation. The prostitutes employed by the pimp seems to also share a sisterhood-like relationship with one another where they support each other emotionally. In the music video for Pyramids above, the women are also portrayed to have particular assurance with each other as well.

It could be said, therefore, that it is not the sex work or prostitution itself that is degrading to these women—some of them have some degrees of autonomy in choosing this line of work and share kinship with fellow sex workers. What is problematic is their exploitation by a higher power, typically men, who act as their pimp and financially capitalize on their hard work. In real life, some states such as Western Australia has proven it to be ideal to legalize prostitution but ban pimping to improve the rights and status of sex workers in society.

A scene in The Life of Oharu where a gentleman throws money on the floor and the brothel workers all scurry themselves to pick them up.

I would say thematically, The Life of Oharu might be even more similar to what was presented in Pyramids. The main character Oharu devolves from someone who works for the Imperial Court to a courtesan all because she was found to be in love with a retainer of a lower status. Mizoguchi, being outspoken for women’s rights himself, presented the film to highlight the morbid objectification of women as they had no agency and are seen to be buyable commodities. In the film, all societal institutions including the government and religion fail to protect the rights of women and they even assist in the process in which society can demean them.

In the context of the topic of the degradation of black women implied by Frank, The Life of Oharu helps us understand the objectification of women in Japan and also the astonishingly unrealistic standards they must meet to survive in society at the time (and to some extent now as well). When a lord was picking a concubine in the film, his criteria include specific lengths for feet, facial shape, and other implausible minutiae details.

Similarly in America, there may be a certain level of beauty standard that much prefers women of lighter skins or have features characteristic of other ethnicities. Frank could be commentating on the fact that to achieve this beauty standard, black women may perform harmful measures like skin bleaching in an act he equates to Cleopatra betraying her ancestral land to seize power in the western civilization. Greek civilizations at the time also have restrictive norms for acceptable skin color in what Harry Hoetink calls “somatic norm image” in which he defines it as “the complex of physical (somatic) characteristics which are accepted by a group as its ideal,”. And since African Americans are of the minority group in the United States, the somatic norm image is not truly in their favor.