There are only four more days to go in 2012, so I feel pretty secure in handing the Best Song of the Year trophy to a tune that still stands out as the most powerful artistic statement I heard all year: Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids”, from his channel ORANGE album, which is also my pick for the Best Album of 2012.
When I wrote about another song from channel ORANGE, “Crack Rock”, I mentioned how I had no idea who Frank Ocean was on that seemingly ordinary day in July when I first clicked “play” on his website and started streaming his new album before it came out in earnest. I remember working on something rather intensive during that first listen of channel ORANGE, so the first few songs went by seemingly unnoticed. However, I found myself bobbing my head to something in the middle of the album. I paused for a bit and smiled, happy with my musical selection of that day. A few minutes later, I found myself digging a very beautiful passage, and realized that the lyrics had some sort of relation to the earlier bit that had grabbed my attention in the first place. What do you know – I was still listening to the same song! And naturally, that song was “Pyramids,” in all it’s nine-minute-and-fifty-four-second glory.
Pyramids sneaks up on you, in a way. You could never guess we’ll be going back to Cleopatra’s time after songs like “Sierra Leone” or “Super Rich Kids”. And the mesmerizing and gritty “Crack Rock” surely doesn’t announce the arrival of such a sonic explosion – if anything, it drops you off into Pyramids without any sort of warning or consideration, since it ends so abruptly.
(As I write this, I’m listening to channel ORANGE and I caught myself bobbing my head to “Pyramids” once again. This after listening to this album – and this song – about 104948550 times this year. It never fails to make your body move)
“Pyramids” is a triptych. “Pyramids” is a play in three acts: the first “act” is ominous in its beginning: from the first seconds in you feel like something huge is coming. And something huge indeed arrives: mad synths and an ultra-groovy beat make you wish there was a club on Earth that would play this “act” over and over again. The second “act” flows like the most serene river, with its retro synths and vocal acrobatics. The third “act”… is just a trip into outer space. “Pyramids” can be seen as three different songs, loosely connected to each other. Pyramids can also be a voyage in time, where we find the famous Cleopatra first, and then a second, more humble and contemporary Cleopatra who works at a different kind of pyramid.
“Pyramids” is all of those things, really. But most of all, it’s just an incredible song, an amazing piece of music that takes all sorts of risks, and is completely uncompromising in its ambition.
In a way, “Pyramids” is the R&B sibling of “Paranoid Android,” Radiohead’s daring classic from OK Computer. They both take you on a sonic trip that’s difficult to predict. They both have an “act” that will inevitably lead to headbanging. They’re both unforgettable.
I always smile when I remember that Frank Ocean leaked “Pyramids” a few weeks before channel ORANGE came out. That’s just hilarious. This is the song you leak? Something that is almost 10 minutes long? Ocean knew he would confuse the heck out of people. But he also knew that there was no better way to set the tone for his debut album than to expose his audience to the most daring piece of music in channel ORANGE. This was like a tennis player starting a match by playing a drop shot on his first shot, knowing full well that it will go in, and that it will win him the point. There’s just so much confidence riding on a decision like that, and whoever is at the receiving end of that play will inevitably feel it. Sure, it’s risky. But if you believe in yourself, or in this case, believe in the music you’ve just created, it makes the decision so much easier.
– “Pyramids” is also in the middle of the best three-song run I heard on any album this year: the “Crack Rock” – “Pyramids” – “Lost” sequence is just as powerful as it gets. There are entire albums that don’t have a single song as strong as either of these three, while channel ORANGE also boasts pieces like “Thinking About You”, “Bad Religion” and “Pink Matter”. If Frank Ocean was a tennis player, his 2012 would be like him winning 3 Slams and 5 Masters 1000 in his first full year as a pro.
– The only bad thing about “Pyramids” is the way Frank Ocean has decided to play it live: he takes out the first “act” of the song, which is the most bombastic, and focuses entirely on “acts” 2 and 3. Also, he’s taken to inviting John Mayer to solo on the last bit (for my money, the guitar work André 3000 does on “Pink Matter” is better than anything John Mayer does on “White” and on any live version of “Pyramids”).
– I lied: there are two bad things about “Pyramids”: the second is this incomprehensible video for the song, which again cuts out the bombastic part out, throws in a few chunks of other songs from channel ORANGE for no real reason, and again features John Mayer in a scene that’s beyond puzzling. See for yourself: