Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Electric Relaxation: Frank Ocean "Pyramids"

I waited a couple weeks to hear this song because I wasn’t sure what to expect. 10 minutes of R&B? How could Odd Future’s singer carry a song for that long and it be good?

One of the reasons I like Ocean is because he’s creative. He’s not the best singer live but he knows how to deliver a song. He has a mix of confidence/introspection/storytelling that separates him from shallow singers because it feels genuine. He’s also a great writer and aside from Ne-Yo and The-Dream, I can’t say that about too many R&B singers since they fall into clichés.

So I climbed the 10-minute epic twice. My first thoughts was the song was better served being split in two. The first 5 mins is a nice tale reminding you of Cleopatra, Africa and the way Ocean can take you to another place vividly (not vocally). The last half brings it back to earth and strip clubs. Since the beats were somewhat similar, it’d be better served to break it up since the change wasn’t so drastic.

The writing, however, grabbed me because how often do you hear somebody channel African imagery and the strip clubs and connect them. Usually it’s all straightforward but I loved how Ocean challenged me to follow him since I was confused what he was talking about. I wanted to hear the story play out.

Another of Ocean's gift is his ambition/sincerity. I respect him because he’s different and explores the psychology of relationships deeper than most. He’s honest and not every song is about sexing every chick around.  It’s the same maturity I see in Kendrick Lamar or Big K.R.I.T, who are both close in age to Ocean.

His ambition is a curse too because while it’s noble, it can look self-indulgent if not executed right. Self-indulgent isn’t bad but at some point, it looks like celebrating yourself instead of making a point effectively in the grandness. That’s why a lot of double albums aren’t great.

I think had Ocean chopped the song up, it’d be more effective as a Part One/Part Two. The beat change was too subtle and lulled me into sleep. Also he didn’t change his delivery or tone or add any harmony so it was like, why even change the beat if you only change the words?

That’s what got me the most. The whole song was presented the same way and there was nothing exciting about it besides the lyrics. No funk, no twist and a singer has to do that with their voice, not just their words. The music was hypnotizing but also could lull you to sleep because Ocean doesn’t rise above it.

If you’re going to do a long song over 5-6 minutes, I think you should add something extra to it. Think Justin Timberlake’s “Love Stoned”, Prince’s “Purple Rain”, LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, Stevie Wonder’s “Livin for the City” or Jimi Hendrix “Machine Gun.” It’s easier in rock or with a band that can add more to a song musically. When you sing, you have to do a whole lot more to compensate.

Frank knows music well enough to add to a song. His song “American Wedding” from the mixtape sampled “Hotel California” which was easy because he sang for 3-4 minutes and let the guitar outro do the rest. Then he added some words in the end while mixing it up with harmonies.

It’s surprising he kept Pyramids so bland vocally, considering he doesn’t always show a lot of personality on the mic (and live, as reported by his early shows). I know folks are tripping over this song but while I think it’s good, it’s only epic in name only. And I know enough epic works that were done to celebrate self’s gifts more than be a creative, enjoyable listen.

So I guess “Pyramids” didn’t catch me right away and I wish it were shorter or split up – which says a lot considering I write a lot that you probably wish I’d shorten. I have a feeling that just like Nostalgia, Ultra, I might feel different after a few more listens. He's still a creative singer who'll challenge you more than his peers and the fact he tried to create a 10-minute epic says that he's trying to stand out. Maybe it's cause he already does to me that I felt this was trying too hard to appeal to hipsters/his ego.

I’m still gonna buy Channel Orange, which drops July 17 (same day as Nas’ album). I’d say support both because good music deserves a chance to succeed.

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