Don’t Forget The Lyrics: Black History, Sexuality and Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids”

Pyramids might be the best song I’ve heard in a long time, not to speak of this year. It’s pop and R&B’s finest and most enthralling: 9 minutes of electro bounce goodness, subversive trance-style rhythm and black philosophy all rolled into one. It’s Frank’s “stairway to heaven” “bohemian rhapsody” or “only in dreams.”
But I’m sure you out there reading this know how good it sounds, so instead let’s talk about what this song is–which in a nutshell is a history of the sexual degradation and roles played in black history.

It’s kind of weird seeing girls tweet that they’re “working at the pyramid tonight” or some variation. Do they not realize what that implies or do they know but just think it sounds cool? If it’s the latter than I guess that’s fine; I mean I tweet gangsta rap lyrics all day long but it doesn’t mean I actually live that life. If it’s the former than it’s a little disheartening; a song with as good as lyrics as these shouldn’t be ignored.

Set the cheetahs on the loose
There’s a thief out on the move Underneath our legion’s view
They have taken Cleopatra, 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

Now as anyone who’s taken any sort of history class (or at the very least aware of RapGenius) can tell you, the Cleopatra being referred to here is the actual queen of the nile herself who ruled over Egypt and was known for her incredible beauty. (among other things we’ll get to shortly).

And we’ll run to the future
Shining like diamonds in a rocky world
A 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 pyramid
Tremble from the force
Cymbals crash inside the pyramid
Voices fill up the halls

Set the cheetahs on the loose There’s a thief out on the move

Underneath our legion’s view

They have taken Cleopatra, Cleopatra

The basic idea is that the quote “king of the throne” is looking for his queen who’s gone missing. Him and his queen were supposed to lead Africa to the future; make it stronger and uplift the people. Now if you know the history of Cleopatra then you know that she was a woman who loved and seeked power the only way she knew how: through her beauty and body. It’s known that she had used her sexuality in order to form alliances with greek kings to guarantee that her empire would be the strongest. Frank seems to have used this as a launching point on the history of prostitution as well as a look at what it feels like to love someone precious but not be able to have them.

The jewel of Africa
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
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, it has killed Cleopatra, Cleopatra

The Samson reference is an interesting one. Samson is one of the judges of the ancient Israelites said to have been granted supernatural strength by God in order to battle his enemies. Nothing is worse for your ego than knowing your Queen is in bed with a man like that, not even to speak on the racial implications of it. Cleopatra eventually fell to her death, by suicide, upon her lover Mark Antony’s loss in the Battle of Actium. The snake imagery isn’t lost either, as both a reference to the snake bite Cleopatra allegedly used to kill herself as well as a euphemism for temptation and lust. In the end she met her fall through her need for power and riches.

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
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight

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

From here we move to present day. The life of your typical pimp benefiting off selling lust and using a woman’s body to help him profit and establish his “kingdom” so to speak. Going from once being kings and queens to instead the seedy underbelly using the same tactics that they’ve always thought would get them ahead. It’s no grand observation to point out the fact that we, as black people, are part of a hypersexualized culture. Lust has always been found in us throughout all of history even before slavery and the objectification of our women by our men. Here in this song, Frank draws the parallels between ancient Egypt and today; showing a pattern between our thought processes between then and today.

She’s working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid
Working at the pyramid tonight
Working at the pyramid

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

And then we get to the end of the song where everything comes full circle. Just as the king who loved Cleopatra and felt betrayed by her personal power grabbing, we are presented with someone in love with a hooker. A woman who, despite this man’s strong feelings, treats him no different than another client; doing things to make him feel like a man but still expecting compensation for it.

It’s a testament to how good and multilayered this song is, that you can gather so many insightful thoughts from it. Like most of Channel Orange, it’s yet another song about unrequited love but also a song about history and sexuality– not to mention a fun, danceable track. It’s not often a song you can party to is so full of education.

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1 comment
  1. I’ve never heard this song before, but now I definitely want to listen! You did a great job breaking down the lyrics, and I appreciate your insights!

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