Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
The multi-part song can feel like a puzzle. Listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” one wonders how the artist joined these discrete parts to create something more mysterious and powerful. When did it occur to them? Did one song birth the other, and in what order?
These songs beguile and confound listeners, immediately standing out for their ambition and scale, and the 2010s gave us plenty of examples to marvel at, from the aforementioned Kendrick track to the Weeknd’s “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” to Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids.”
When Frank released the time-traveling two-part “Pyramids” on June 8, 2012, it was his second announcement of the day; earlier that Friday, he revealed that his debut album Channel Orange would be out July 17. He tweeted, “Pyramids is a ten minute long single. I trolled the music industry.” The song is a neon-lit blockbuster epic that manages to nail the complex interplay of fantasy and reality in a sexual relationship.
“The way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that n—a, but I’m still unemployed,” he sings, revealing how we’re all vulnerable to imagination and performance, whether it’s in the bedroom or the champagne room, with a lover or a stripper. The songwriting is high-wire act, but he makes it look easy. Behind the scenes, though, the song posed a greater challenge than Ocean’s typically dead-pan Twitter commentary let on.
For Frank Ocean and producer-songwriter Malay, the two parts of “Pyramids” emerged quickly and it was clear that they wanted to fuse them — that’s when it became a problem. Speaking with Billboard, Malay explained that for the song’s first half — the ancient-history portion, with Cleopatra and the loosed cheetahs — Ocean was intensely meticulous, recording vocal takes for 30 days at a home he had rented in Los Angeles.
“It seemed like he was looking for a certain character, vocally, that he hadn’t captured before,” Malay said. “It was a journey for him to find that. Later, in Blonde, we did some pitched vocals, almost chasing that same progression, searching for a different character or perspective within his own voice.”
Once Frank found the right voice, Malay saw their predicament: The first half was now in a different key than the second. “I remember that being a crazy challenge to make that transition from one key to the next,” Malay said, sounding like Beatles’ producer George Martin tackling John Lennon’s challenge to fuse two songs to create the final version of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” At the 4:26 marker, you can hear the song begin to transform; listen closely and it sounds like a descent — to transition from one key to the next, Malay pitched the second half down. Compared to the initial draft of “Pyramids,” the transition now sounded “even trippier.”
In fact, it reinforces the temporal shift in the song’s lyrics, which jump from fabulous historical fiction to present-day strip club. It’s representative of what makes Channel Orange such a brilliant, influential album, exemplifying Ocean’s concept-heavy, character-driven, emotionally intelligent songwriting that has influenced artists from SZA to Brockhampton to Rex Orange County. Compared to “Thinking ‘Bout You,” the first single from Channel Orange and still the universally acclaimed artist’s lone Top 40 hit on the Hot 100 as a lead artist, “Pyramids” better foreshadows the elliptical strangeness of his 2016 opus Blonde, with its bold structural choices and unusual pacing.
For good, genre-agnostic measure, the song rides out on an old-fashioned guitar solo — though not from John Mayer, as is often reported. Malay clarifies, “The overall final guitar solo, that’s not John. That’s Taylor Johnson. If you watch the music video version, that solo is John.” The Nabil-directed music video is no longer widely available, but if you can find it you’ll hear that he’s right. Turns out there’s always more mystery in the world.