In the early hours of December 13, 2013, Beyoncé released an unannounced self-titled album, causing pandemonium among fans, foiling year-end lists of critics and tumblr-geeks, and striking envy into the hearts of lady popstars everywhere.
To borrow a quote from “Drunk in Love,” the album’s fourth track, “woke up in the kitchen saying ‘how the hell did this shit happen'” – this very accurately describes my reaction upon learning about the album. I had been adrift in the world, pretending to care about some second-rate 90s alt band when just in time our benevolent Queen Bey swooped in with not only a sneak-attack new album, but, as she coined, a “visual” album with 17 accompanying videos (and a show at Barclays Center that I forced my way into!!).
The best news is: Beyoncé is an excellent album. It is definitely the best of Beyoncé’s career, and one of the strongest overall albums of 2013. I feel this is a fully objective assessment, regardless of my superfan tendencies.
What is immediately clear upon listening is that this is Beyoncé’s most confident, and most assertively sexual album ever. Beyoncé takes ownership of her feminine sexuality in songs like “Drunk in Love” and “Partition” that make up an awesomely catchy and winkingly suggestive sequence in the first half of the record. “Blow” is the outlier – this is a funny song in which she considers her favorite types of candy. No! You guys, this is the dirtiest song of them all. “Can you eat my skittles,” indeed. But “Blow” best exemplifies the success of the visual portion of the album: neon ‘80s roller-skating imagery and Beyoncé’s campy mugging at the camera amplifies the kitschy nature of the song.
The overt sexuality of Beyoncé is especially notable in contrast to 2011’s 4. That was a great album, of course, but it kept narrowly within the theme of romantic love and marital contentment. Even the most fun song on 4, “Countdown,” is about how Bey wants to have a baby and take Sunday drives with old Jay Z. But on Beyoncé, she maintains the Mrs. Carter moniker while developing a flirtatious, seductive side that also feels like the most personality Beyoncé has ever shown in her records.
Another artistic shift for Beyoncé manifests in the production of the new record. Past albums favored grandiose retro soul and huge vocal runs that can sometimes be too much (I’ve been told…?). Beyoncé stays modern, often just Bey’s vocals over minimal bass and drums, and she trades a lot of the high-octave vocal gymnastics of previous records for more controlled use of her lower registers (see “Heaven” and “Haunted”). I am excited by this development; Beyoncé has already proven her technical superiority at this point, thus she has more freedom to focus on control and delivery. This pays off by making her sound stronger and more commanding stylistically.
I am also a fan of what I am calling the “impressions” portion of the album. Beyoncé out-Drakes Drake on their excellent Nothing Was the Same-fitted collaboration “Mine,” and matches Frank Ocean on “Superpower.” Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek wrote “No Angel,” and her influence is evident in the synth-y production and distant melodies. “XO,” the anthemic first single, is Beyoncé channeling Coldplay. This song is kind of a grower and was wonderful when I saw it live, but I do have an issue with the emergence of “XO” as the single. It’s a very safe choice from such a confidently provocative album. “Blow” or “Partition” both have the energy to work as singles and would have been bolder choices.
The secondary theme on Beyoncé is a reflection of Beyoncé’s personal history and current fame. “Pretty Hurts,” “Jealous,” and “Mine” explore sacrifices she has made to become the carefully edited superstar she is today.
This theme emerges in the album’s centerpiece “***Flawless,” which first appeared as the intriguing but contentious teaser “Bow Down/I Been On” in early 2013. A sample of a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche addresses the kerfuffle surrounding the lyric “bow down bitches” and whether it casts Beyoncé as anti-feminist (it does not, but that is a topic for another time). The song, bookended by clips of an early Star Search appearance, provides the central thesis of Beyoncé: grandly claiming Bey’s current status as the Queen, while recognizing how long and how hard she’s been working to earn it.
Regarding the videos: there is really an overwhelming volume of content to discuss over the whole visual album, especially since I’m such a giant fan of the Lady Bey. Briefly, there are rollercoasters, roller-skates, multiple uses of drapery, a contemplative beach with Drake and a celebratory beach with Jay Z. Beyoncé’s strength is that she is ultimately a performer more than just a vocalist so the visual album concept was a great choice for her.
In summation, Beyoncé is a daring record in both content and methodology, with great rewards. Beyoncé has a history of producing excellent singles but somewhat inconsistent albums, but the new album ends that streak –every single song is listenable, if not great, and they are carefully sequenced to create a thematically cohesive work.
Beyoncé is a 9/10, but only because 1) the bonus video “Grown Woman” is amazing and should have been included as an album track, 2) Jay Z incessantly rapping about cake and his pedestrian art collection (not Beyonce’s fault, but she coulda edited him), and 3) I was worried that giving 10/10 on my first review would somehow soften my critical edge.
Hahaha, no, of course it’s a 10/10. ***Flawless! An undeniable success! Beyoncé is a champion of rule breaking and innovation!
Bow down bitches!