Listening vs. Hearing: Frank Ocean’s Pyramids

Hear ye Hear ye.

Let it be forever known and forever remembered that Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” is a vital contribution to music, society, philosophy and our culture.

As one of the founding members of the Left Side Poets, I humbly request that my fellow brothers and sisters embrace Frank Ocean after careful consideration of his latest song. As defenders of discourse, soldiers of self expression and fighters for free speech, the LSP understand the importance of releasing material that has a lasting impact. After listening to Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids”, I realized that he is more than just a good musician. He is a great artist, story teller and poet.

“Pyramids” is the modern day re-creation of Nas’ “Black Girl Lost”. Both songs  allow us to hear the artist’s view of the modern day Black woman with feelings of sorrow and disgust. While “BGL” will always be a classic, “Pyramids” is far superior in content, delivery, imagery and production. I will admit that I was blown away by subtle references that would only be understood by those who know their history and their biblical teachings. The jury (my brain) is still trying to figure out if Frank Ocean actually comprehends what he created with this song. Some of the historical references don’t match, but the story is amazing nonetheless. Let us examine the beauty of this song as well as my interpretation.

We begin in Africa; Egypt to be exact. Cleopatra is missing. Why? We are not sure…yet. The point is that she is missing; no, she was stolen. There is a battle cry to find her while trying to understand how she could leave or allow her self to be torn away from her rightful place as ruler especially after she worked SO HARD to gain the throne. Her place is with her people. We soon see that Cleopatra’s image is tainted and is no longer viewed as precious. Now, this is where the first half of the song gets interesting. At this point, Frank Ocean mentions Samson. According to my research (and I could be off by a hundred years or so) but there is no way that Samson and Cleopatra would have ever crossed paths. Therefore, in my mind, Samson is symbolic of lust and its power to destroy. We all know that Samson was destroyed at the hand of Delilah who betrayed him for money. If you don’t know the story, pick up a bible and check it out. I guess even back then, men didn’t realize that when you sleep with street cats you get fleas. Same tale, different time period. Blah.

Anyway, back to the song. Similarly, we can argue that Cleopatra was destroyed at the hands of her western lovers Julius Caesar and Mark Antony who pretty much did the same thing as Delilah. Leave it to “historians” to try to paint Cleopatra as the downfall of Caesar and Antony… ::rolls eyes:: They ruined her! Sure, Cleopatra had some funky family issues going on (such as plotting against her brother/husband to get him off the throne so she can rule alone; a child by Caesar that Rome would not acknowledge; twins by Antony etc.), but at the end of the day she controlled a lot of the grain that was vital to the success and survival of the Roman empire (and cause for the final battle with Caesar Augustus). Finally, Frank Ocean gives up and tells us to get the cheetahs and head back to the tombs because Cleopatra is dead. She killed herself by snake bite after Antony commits suicide himself because he lost to the aforementioned Caesar Agustus. (<- If that is not an example of Black women being “ride or die” for their man, then I don’t know what is.) The serpent is VERY important here. Not only was the serpent the cause of her physical death, it was the cause of her emotional and spiritual demise as well. Ladies, how many times has a serpent in your bedroom caused you to go over the deep end? Think about it. Caesar and Antony must have had amazing serpents… I’m just saying. This is not the first time we have seen a serpent contributing to the downfall of a woman. Let us not forget our good friend Eve.

What does all of this have to do with anything? Well, this is when the beat changes and we get to the second half of the song. Much like the transition in the beat, we have a transition in history from ancient Egypt to present day. Not much has changed. Yes, we have advanced in many ways but we (I’m looking at us Black folks) are still reaping what Cleopatra has symbolically sowed. We now meet a prostitute named Cleopatra. I thought this part of the song was extremely clever because looking back at the real Cleopatra, she prostituted herself for the profit of her nation. However, modern day Cleopatra is merely “working at the pyramid tonight”. She went from ruling an empire which was the home of some of the greatest pyramids to being just a cheap thrill at cheap hotel shaped like a pyramid only to ride a hard shaft which resembles a pyramid when under the sheets. OH, THE FREAKING IRONY. I love this song so much. I don’t think you all hear me though. Brothers and sisters, pay attention to the last few verses of the song because it is why I sincerely believe the song is a masterpiece.

Cleopatra is being pimped by a man that clearly still loves her. You can hear it in the last few verses of the song. However, he is utterly disgusted by her and who she has become. The kicker in this whole situation is that his situation is not much better since he is a pimp (and a bad one because his lady is working at a cheap hotel, they live in a cheap motel and he doesn’t even have gas!). YET, he is still madly in love with her. He desires her physically and spiritually. She is his backbone and feeds him what he needs. We know his employment situation sucks, but Cleopatra still makes him feel like a man(<- Full circle, again Black women being “ride or die”). We love to talk about how our brothers don’t want to be us anymore and how they have no love or respect for us. I believe that is all bullshit. The reality is that Black men have always and will continue to love Black women. The same goes for Black women. I just believe that we have become so disgusted in who we have become and we no longer know how to or have the desire to address the issue. Our men are weak. Our women are lost. We find ourselves on a road of trying to get back to where we belong, which is, together as a unit.

We have never gotten back to our rightful places as rulers who knew their worth and value. Ladies, we still allow serpents (physical and symbolic) to enter our chambers and destroy everything that we are destined to be. Brothers, you are not off the hook. You are still playing the role of Samson by allowing us (I’m looking at all of the women  who are just no good) to sell your strength for a few pennies in the form of bags, shoes, child support, REALITY TELEVISION, etc. Furthermore, brothers, you are continuing to play this broke pimp role at the expense of your Black queens.

The most interesting fact about this song is that it is filled with beautiful imagery and a phenomenal story however, it lacks resolution. In the beginning of this essay I mentioned that this song is a modern day version of “Black Girl Lost”. Both songs show us our downward spiral from grace, but neither mention to us any suggestion of what should be done to ascend. It is unfair to say that Nas or Frank Ocean have the correct answer to the question “So now what do we do?” but it is also unfair to not demand their response since it would be a vital contribution to the conversation.

One day I hope to write a full piece relating “Pyramids”, “Black Girl Lost” (the song by Nas and the book by Donald Goines) to African American education. I am going to do it. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it will get done. There is no doubt in my mind that this song will forever be a classic and talked about for years to come. I appreciate this song and I look forward to how it will affect our culture. Is it possible that I over analyzed the song? Maybe. Does it mean my argument is not valid? No. Either way, this song is amazing and I fully support Frank Ocean becoming a member of the Left Side Poets. 🙂

I would love to hear your thoughts. My ears are wide open.

Quote-Key

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About Buxxy

Just a student loan baby trying to make it in an cold cold world....
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40 Responses to Listening vs. Hearing: Frank Ocean’s Pyramids

  1. Jasmine says:

    I just want to say this is exactly my interpretation of the song. A lot of other blogs about this had it all wrong but then again they could be right we won’t know. Anyway this sounds pretty accurate of what he was trying to say here. This is one of the most thoughtful songs a man has ever wrote about us black queens. It’s refreshing to hear and gives me chills and makes me think every time I listen. IM officially a huge fan…

    • QuoteKey says:

      Thanks for reading! Appreciate it. I completely agree. We have no idea if my take on the song is the right take, but it sure does allow me to think that he loves us (black queens). 🙂

  2. Cortney says:

    Amazing review..I am in love with this song too and totally understood it!! Its like u read my mind:)

  3. JHenleyBrown says:

    Amazing interpretation. Maybe a tad bit over analyzed, but being a Frank Ocean fan, I’ve come to understand that he’s complex, so maybe I’ve failed to grasp the depth. Either way, this was a great read and an even better conversation piece. Salute.

  4. Brit says:

    Such an accurate and fantastic review/interpretation! Exactly what I was thinking and then some! Kudos!

  5. yceesay24 says:

    This is very similar to my interpretation only I believe there are two men in the second part of the song, one mirroring Samson and the other mirroring the man looking for his queen.

    • QuoteKey says:

      Thanks for reading! After your comment, I kept running the song back to see if I thought that there were two men. I just don’t see it. It could be me, but I just think it speaks to the duality of being a human being. We all have multiple forces of needs vs wants working within ourselves. I appreciate the feedback! 🙂

      • 2sm1th2 says:

        I think the original poster is right, perhaps even three men in the second section.
        There is the first one who wakes up in a hotel room, and for now calls her Cleopatra. Would someone who was in love with her wake up to a girl and just call her Cleopatra? Then the second man who is a pimp, “got your girl working for me”, would the pimp not know her name?
        Then the third man who is clearly in love with her, touches her in places only she knows and is upset that her love ain’t free no more. Would the pimp be upset that her love isn’t free, or even be charged given that he is her pimp?

  6. Jawanza says:

    Amazing!! I will now share this……thank you:)

    • Jawanza says:

      Question: What’s your view on the way the females in the video faces changed while he was looking at them?

      • QuoteKey says:

        Thanks for reading and sharing! I truly appreciate it. I can honestly say that I am not sure about the changing faces. At first glance it just seems like a way to show that everyone has a light and dark side to them. Kind of like a good and evil force within them. You’re attracted to the good side but it may not be good for you. I’m not sure. That’s just my first glance views. But I don’t want to try to make it seem like I know the director’s vision completely. I liked the video tho. lol 🙂

  7. Lizzz says:

    This is fantastic. I love when I come across people who analyze song meanings as much as I do.

    Quick addition.. I was thinking that the second part was two characters: Cleopatra’s unemployed lover AND the pimp. The pimp only loves that Cleopatra keeps the “rubies in his damn chain”, but the lover is trying to salvage what’s left of their love, until he comes to terms with the fact that her love “ain’t free no more”.

    But one never truly knows with artists and their pronoun placement… ha!

    • QuoteKey says:

      Thanks for reading! 🙂 I am always analyzing a song in my head. This is just one of the songs that I needed to get my thoughts on paper. lol

      Another reader left a comment similar about the ending having two people. Idk, I really don’t think that’s the case. I just think that it’s showing that every person has multiple forces working within in. I’m sure most pimps would argue that they love their ladies but at the end of the business is business and she needs to make their money. The whole line about the rubies just lead me to believe that he was a bad pimp because if he can only afford rubies, he isn’t doing too well. No one is really checking for rubies these days. lol

      But you are right, we never truly know an artist’s intent. lol I could be waaaayyyyyy off track lol

  8. Reblogged this on The Book Bum Blog and commented:
    Thought this was a wonderful, thought provoking interpretation of Frank Ocean’s Pyramids, and about the plight of both the black man and woman.

  9. Ashleah says:

    I love your interpretation of the song… it’s one of my faves from the channel orange album i would love to know your views on the music video

    • QuoteKey says:

      Thanks for reading! 🙂 I don’t have much to say on the video except that I enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to see a word for word translation. I would have liked to see more of the first half of the song but I knew that was probably not going to happen. I am trying to figure out if he was high or high on life while in that strip club. Idk. I probably need to watch it a few more times.

  10. S says:

    I thought You were going to give some explanations on the video not the meaning of the song that a lot of people understand.i don’t know why the video is not about one subject= cleopatra, we dont see them in a motel etc the video doesn’t match the lyrics but its beautiful nonetheless! Nabil is the best

    • QuoteKey says:

      This post was written before the video was created so I couldn’t explain something that didn’t exist. Idk the director’s take on the video, maybe they will explain it one day. Thanks for reading!

  11. kimmie says:

    I saw more white booty in the video than black. So visually, he’s expressing more disgust in the “modern day white women” more than black women. Let’s not ignore the TRUE modern day black women: single mothers providing for their SONS and daughters, educating themselves, getting master’s degrees, nurses, teachers, physicians, lawyers. That’s who I’m surrounded by. Not a bunch of strippers. Why do we ignore the success and strides of real modern day black women in an effort to degrade black women?

  12. KanYeezy says:

    I understand your interpretation, however, I think you might’ve take it back a little bit too far when you started talking about Caesar and Antony. I think it might be a little bit simpler than that. When I listen to the first part of the song, I imagine a girl who was good and did all the right things and worked hard, but lost her way. While gone, she becomes tainted and is no longer good in the eyes of those she used to know. When I listen to the second part of song, I hear THREE different men: the John, the Pimp and “Cleopatra’s” boyfriend. The first man (the john) wakes up with her and she’s his “girl for now”. He watches her get dressed and leave for The Pyramid where he met her the night before. Second man “got someones girl working for him”. That girl is easily Cleopatra who works at the strip club (“The Strip”) and keeps his bills paid. The third man is the man Cleopatra comes home to at night that loves her regardless of what she does and who she does it with/for.

  13. Kev-O says:

    Great interpretation. On par with what I thought it was, except you provided some of the historical context for me. I’ve had many debates with friends over the meaning of this song and we all had it a little different, but I def agree with yours. A part of me wishes Frank would explain it himself, but where’s the fun in that!

  14. Anita Jones says:

    It amazes me how anyone can take such a demonic video and try to make it an expression of something good and worthy (Satan’s way of tricking and confusing people seeking love and gratification in all the wrong places). Just the filming of this video is an exploitation of black (all) women and cannot speak for black women in general. May GOD have mercy on the women who belittled themselves to make this video. You couldn’t pay a God fearing, God loving woman to do such a thing. This man has his bibilical history all mixed up and his so called poetry is just as confusing as he is. Whores existed before Cleopatra and will exist until the end of times. This man, Frank Ocean has admitted he is a homosexual. Could he be the whore he is singing about? He could care less about women and in his video he is smiling, making a mockery of women and laughing all the way to the bank. Shame on you women who applaud such a video, I am praying for you.

    • GOOD4U says:

      great reply, anita. i’m sure that’s exactly what jesus would have said -or any other caring(self-righteous), god-fearing(hateful), compassionate(quick to judge), good christian(irrationally indignant person) would have said. that’s he exactly how jesus converted people. …a hateful attitude and disparaging remarks to people who have not said one negative thing to you. you’ve casted the proverbial “first stone,” so when you pray to jesus, BE SURE TO INCLUDE YOURSELF IN THAT PRAYER.

    • Grey de Grissom says:

      Anita the video does indeed exploit black women but this song is perhaps one of the most genuine real songs I’ve heard in a long time and to do justice to his message, the video needs to disgust and highlight exactly what he DOESN’T WANT. It’s paradoxical but ofen times paradoxes unearth many truths

  15. Yes, this was a very insightful interpretation. Also, Rapgenius breaks down the the meaning of the lyrics as well and you both seem to be on the same page. First, I HEARD it on the album and like the beat and sound of the song..then i went to rapgenius and was able to LISTEN to the song and now I can understand it with the video. He better win a grammy for this song!

  16. Sidenote: I know everyone’s entitled to their own opinion…but gosh reading some of these comments some people are soooo simple-minded!

  17. reitumetsetwala says:

    Reblogged this on reitumetsetwala.

  18. Grey de Grissom says:

    Love you for writing this….but I think the resolution you are looking for is actually in the song – the final repeated verses “she’s working at the pyramid” – and this depresses me a little – repeats and repeats until we have the guitar breakdown . I interpret this to be a dark realization that this will continue and continue and continue and degenerate even further into speechless amorphous death.

    I think this song is apocalyptic in the biblical sense. A lesson. To us to respect our black women and place her back in the leadership role (because I believe certain cultures benefit better from matriarchal societies ather than patriarchal and That is definitely the case in old African and modern African American life) or else she’ll be dancing at the pyramid shell be dancing at the pyramid…. Her man pimping her ….new sons born ….and the cycle continues

    I love us. And I love the strong black women in my life. They are OUR LEADERS.

  19. Nat says:

    I think this is a pretty good analysis, but I personally interpreted it differently

    Basically I assumed that the first half is about cleopatras husband trying to find her, and finds he in bed with someone else and executes her for it.

    1. I personally envisioned the song was sung from the point of view of cleopatras husband, whoever it may have been at the time (seeing as she dies in the next few stanzas I’m guessing it’s Antony) and he is searching for her because he needs to find her, because she belongs to him belongs to her role as queen; but more importantly, she is his property. Like the 3rd stanza uses “we” like “we’ll run to the future” and “our skin shining like diamonds”, which proves that this story is set in someone else’s point of view. In the first stanza all that’s established is that “someone” (presumably the husband) is practically moving hell and earth to find cleopatra, for she must have been taken or stolen and she would never leave of her own free will *yes, that was sarcasm*. I mean, the lyrics literally say “run run run come back for my glory… Bring her back to me” if that’s not domineering and possessive then I don’t know what is

    2. The third stanza kind of sets up the idea of this couple, cleopatra and her husband, as being superior and above everyone else, as their skin is golden and hair is like cashmere and they’re “shining like diamonds in a rocky world”. Simply put, they are top shit. They are obviously elite and the way her husband (the persona aka the voice/person who’s point of view the songs in) depicts her is kind of indifferent. He rarely includes anything of real worth, just talking about her physical appearance and their vast power as a couple. It’s no wonder this husband has no idea she’s cheating. Also, this stanza kind of reinforces the chaos of trying to find cleopatra

    3. This is where is gets interesting. Like okay he’s finding her he’s finding her and suddenly- “the jewel of Africa, what good is a jewel that ain’t still precious” he’s found her. In bed. With someone else. Every single thought of her being supreme and elite is gone. There’s a condescension and deprecation to the husbands view of cleopatra now, as she is flawed and not “precious”. He seems to lack an understanding of why she did it, not even why but HOW she did it “HOW could you give up on me, HOW could you give up on us” he seriously does not understand HOW she could have not loved him, how she could do something so seemingly vile. Not even why, it’s how. Which is pretty much shows how little he knew or cared about how she actually felt, because he must have thought she couldn’t think for herself, again showing this deprication he has to her. “You feel like god inside that gold” he dictates the way he believes she feels and can’t understand why she doesn’t ACTUALLY feel that way.

    4. Samson. Cleopatra herself probably never crossed paths with Samson in real life but, in oceans song, he’s symbolic. He’s how everyone perceives her, how her husband perceives her. She sold herself out. She was a whore. She whored around and was as disgusting as someone who sold their body for money. Like ocean even says “bad dreams cleopatra”- bad thoughts, bad actions, bad ways of dreaming of another life”. And this sets the stage for the next part of the song, but more importantly sets up the initial sin (that cleopatra has sinned and slept with another man, whoring herself out) that dictates the connotations for the rest of the song

    5. She doesn’t just “die”. She doesn’t kill herself. In really life, sure maybe, but not in pyramids. She is killed by her husband. Its pretty plain to see like its right there in the lyrics. “No more serpent in her room. Oh no more he has killed cleopatra”. The lyrics for this are a bit off, because some sites say “it’s has killed” but non the less the persona of the song, the husband, has killed cleopatra. Is it not a little coincidental that he finds her in bed with another man and he then tells everyone to go to her tomb? The repetition of that stanza, the “set the cheetahs on the loose, there’s a thief out on the move…” is completely broken at this point, and it shows how this person, the husband, has changed his view on her, and now he shows how supremely indifferent he can be. I mean the lyrics actually are “set the cheetahs to the tomb… Our queen has met her doom”. Like wow you just admitted to the murder. I mean he’s shown that he’s obviously behind her death, and he truly believes she deserves it. Regardless that only a few lines before that you were celebrating your love for her and the way you two would rule the world and all like yeah no worries just kill her off now. Although I must say I don’t believe the snake is a double entendre or double meaning for dick. I think it just simply refers to her sin of sleeping with Samson, just like Eve’s sin of being persuaded by the snake to eat the apple. In a way it’s poetic justice, as her husband kills her with a snake, which is an animal known for its connotations of treachery (ie. Adam and Eve. Even in Egyptian times it was still perceived as a somewhat bad omen or carrying bad vibes). I mean, the snake literally represents how her husband now feels about her; she’s a snake, a treacherous, cunning, disgusting snake. Mate he kills her, straight out he really kills her. And seems to be mourning and all but still maintains all the power and glory he had in the 3rd stanza.

    SECOND PART
    1. Cleopatra is now a prostitute. Like its pretty much clear as day that she has and is selling herself for money, just like it seems cleopatra had in the first part of the song (regardless that there was no apparent money exchange in the first half- it was all just the dirty connotations behind what she had done)

    2. I imagined this song to be in the point of view of two men, one who loves her (presumably her Samson) and her pimp (cleopatras husband) simply because it doesn’t make sense that she/”that” “keeps his bills paid” and therefore he practically owns her (as her husband did before her) yet “the way you say my name makes me feel like i’m that nigga but I’m still unemployed” and “but your love ain’t free”. If he’s her pimp, he shouldn’t have to pay and he isn’t unemployed, nor should he have the tone of someone sorrowful that he’s losing the love of his life to the pyramids (brothel/selling herself place). Like it must be in the point of view of two men, one which loves and cherishes cleopatra and one that uses her as means to get all the stuff he listed in that stanza. “Pimping in my condo, bubbles in my champagne, let there be some jazz playing”- this guy thinks he’s top shit and is pretty much indifferent to cleopatra except that “she keep my bills paid”. Also, the pimp actually states “got your girl working for me” so yeah he’s her pimp and she obviously is with someone else (ie Samson). Samson, on the other hand shows that he’s dedicated to her, regardless of her apparent flaws, but feels as though he’s losing her to the pyramids and her job “catch her, she’s headed to the pyramids tonight”. This has to extend to more than this guy loosing her to her job, but more he’s loosing her to the way she has become, the way she perceives herself as someone unworthy and dirty, the way cleopatras husband perceived her whe he found her cheating.

    This second half, though it doesn’t seem like it, is probably the most complex bit of the song and is actually hard to decipher. But basically I interpret that the new cleopatra is in a destructive cycle of not believing she’s good enough to be anything but a prostitute and whoring herself out, making her feel worse about herself. Of course that’s kind of implied, as the song isnt in her point of view and we’re only seeing it from the viewpoint of the men in her life, but I can only assume that the repetition of “she’s working up the pyramids tonight” means that her selling herself off is some sort of mental, self deprecating cycle that she cannot escape and that’s why the pyramids are stressed so much in the song

    Also, cleopatra was not the sole cause of the war between mark Antony and Augustus (who at that time was Octavian). It was actually that Octavian, Antony and some other guy named Lepidus had a lil bro pact going on called the second triumvirate, but Lepidus died and Octavian and Antony caught for power, bringing about the battle of actium. Cleopatra had joined forces with Antony at this point, and they went to battle together against Octavian (and his buddy Agrippa). Once Antony left his fleet DURING battle, he lost the war and all respect and killed himself, and in turn cleopatra did the same. The war was not BECAUSE of cleopatra, but she was instrumental in Octavian’s propaganda against Antony, which won him half the war because by that point everyone hated Antony.

  20. stephy says:

    I love this song so freaking much. I am in awe of F.O. and his genius with “pyramids”. My take on the pimp (wihout trying to sound too technical) is speaking of a “whip ain’t got no gas tank, but it still got wood grain ” is saying its actually maybe really a tankless car, like a Tesla. Hes got rubies and champagne, so maybe hes a very successful pimp, but one who cares for the environment as well. Lol. Just a stupid thought. Teslas are about 80k. Tankless and sick as fuck.

    • stephy says:

      We are really missing a huge part of the song when we fail to mention that sampson was a very physically strong man that had two weaknesses. Bad, dishonorable women and his hair. “Found you laying down with sampson, and his Full head of hair”….ohhh snap.

  21. Victor King says:

    That was wow ive been following frank for a while his music really speaks to you
    If there is anyway you can contact me id realy appreciate it i would love to speak with you
    Blissfulness Brother

  22. Victor King says:

    That was wow ive been following frank for a while his music really speaks to you
    If there is anyway you can contact me id realy appreciate it i would love to speak with you
    Blissfulness. Sister

  23. Laurens says:

    Dear Buxxy,

    I love your analysis. Your analysis deepened my understanding of the song’s meaning.

    Two other classics dealing with the theme (in my opinion) are:

    Talib Kweli – State of Grace
    Common – The Day Women Took Over

    Kind regards,

    Laurens

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