When Frank Ocean performed “Pyramids” this weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” he finished things off hunched over an arcade game, a wry “How you like me now?” smile cracked across his face as he turned toward the cameras. It was a side of the mercurial singer we haven’t seen all that often — carefree, confident, comfortable — and hopefully, you caught a screen grab. Because based on the brand-new “Pyramids” video, it may be a while before we see Happy Frank again.
The clip, directed by frequent collaborator Nabil, is a defiantly dark, definitively druggy thing, a near eight-minute nightmare of excess, hallucinations and violence. Ocean shoots up a bar (after taking four shots of absinthe), stumbles through a strip club staffed exclusively with succubi, rides a motorcycle while clearly under the influence, wanders through a desert and inadvertently embarks on a vision quest with John Mayer. Like the song itself, the “Pyramids” video is a series of stream-of-consciousness scenery, each shot with a severe sense of sadness. In a lot of ways, it seems like a nightmare from which Ocean cannot wake.
And sure, folks will focus on the supremely NSFW aspects of the clip — this is one video that certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to the strip-club scenes — but in a lot of ways, that seems like a disservice to the piece as a whole. Because, like Drake’s “Take Care,” Ocean’s latest is really a work of art, a willfully dense thing that stands out from the field by its mere existence. The cinematography and subtle use of special effects (demonically morphing faces, drug-induced chemtrails) imbue it with both an unsettling edge and a bleakness that few of his contemporaries would dare focus on. There’s no shortage of genuinely striking scenes — Ocean sitting atop his BMW motorcycle in the pouring rain, his wide-screen treks across the desert, the surreal, psychological strip-club sequences — and it does not duck the larger question: What’s the true cost of a life of excess?
And in that regard, “Pyramids” may be Ocean’s grandest statement to date. For an artist whose personal life has become the subject of such intense scrutiny, a video this open-ended, this obtuse is a bold move, one that is sure to only lead to more questions. Does Ocean live the life he sings about? Is his existence really this dark and troubled? Should we be worried about him? It’s up to the viewers to provide the answers (since Frank himself isn’t talking), and really, that’s what good art is supposed to do; it’s not supposed to be easy, or comfortable. So don’t let the recent appearance of Happy Frank fool you: He’s still got plenty of depths to explore. Masterfully, mercurially so.
Watch Frank Ocean’s iconic 2012 VMA performance below!