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Is “Pyramids” an affirmation of contemporary R&B or a complete refutation of it?
The first time I listened to Frank Ocean‘s nearly ten-minute suite–the first taste of his upcoming Channel Orange debut LP–I was intrigued; the second time, I was sold on its genius. Now, many listens later, it’s still difficult to pinpoint whether Ocean is celebrating slow-jam forerunners like R. Kelly or if he’s into something more insidious, exploding those conventions in an undercover operation. Each spin of “Pyramids” moves my thinking more toward the latter option but either way, one can’t help but feel that the sound here is the sound of the future. Remember the first time you heard “Bombs Over Baghdad” and thought, “Whoa–what is this?” That’s how “Pyramids” feels: the unmistakeable sound of boundaries being redefined, of genres being pushed around.
For a twenty-four year old, Frank Ocean already has a ridiculous resumé. He’s written songs for vocalists ranging from Justin Bieber to John Legend, is an associate of the trailblazing Odd Future collective, has thrown down a set at Coachella, and appeared on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album last year. While all of that is well and good, in the end it’s all beside the point because this track is its own star.
“Pyramids” has so much going on that it’s overwhelming for a short-form write-up like this: the Michael Jackson lilt in Ocean’s delivery during the early section, the structural metamorphosis from thumping single into a restrained dissolve, its toying with Top 40 lyrical conventions, the extended and evolving titular metaphor, the layers of instrumentation. Instead of trying to parse all of that (and more) in the space of a few paragraphs, it may be better to let the track speak for itself. Just set aside your generic allegiances and try to appreciate what Frank Ocean is achieving on this enigmatic, unpredictable song.