Two weeks before Christmas, Beyoncé did something unheard of for a high profile pop star. She released an album to iTunes with no advance warning or press. While this could be considered career suicide for some, it worked. The buzz made its way around news channels that morning. Not only was it a new album, simply titled Beyoncé, but it was accompanied by music videos for all of the tracks. Not just slapped together videos, but fully produced artistic music videos for each separate idea. People rushed to buy it simply to hear what the fuss was about. Some retailers like Target even refused to stock the physical album when it was released on December 20th, complaining that iTunes unfairly made all the first week revenue.
But this isn’t just another Beyoncé album. I was skeptical at first as I was not very impressed with her last offering, “4”. This isn’t an album full of radio-ready tracks like “Single Ladies” or “If I Were A Boy”. This is Beyoncé really peeling back the layers and writing and being artistically involved. She is at her most sexual on this album and doesn’t censor herself or hold back as she has in the past. Many of these songs aren’t tracks the radio would be quick to play on the radio as they aren’t the usual club-pop fare that rules the roost right now. For me, it’s the first time I’ve found a Beyoncé album interesting enough to make it start to finish more than once without skipping tracks. It’s a major turning point in how I see her as an artist.
The album starts with “Pretty Hurts”, a rather sore but heartfelt ballad about the pain of trying to live an empty life getting by on only looks. The video shows this bleak side of pageantry and what girls will do to “succeed” when they grow up being told that being pretty is the thing they do best. It is a strong and bold way to kick off this album. Next is “Ghost”, a stark minimal track with Beyoncé mostly speaking poetically about her boredom with current music, herself, and the record industry. You almost have to laugh when she says “Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well”. But the reality is that this type of album was a gamble.
“Haunted” lives up to its name. The video is a highly glamorized affair with a hotel full of ghostly sexual secrets and strange fetishes in each room as she passes by. Something like the child of a Marilyn Manson video and Madonna’s “Justify My Love”. Musically it shoots for the latter, but is a much more detailed track. “Drunk In Love” is a simple track about wild crazy sex with her husband Jay-Z. The jury’s still out on the exact meaning of Jay-Z’s line “now eat the cake Anna Mae!”, but the song leaves little to the imagination about what goes down in their bedroom. Continuing in that vein but with some mellow post-disco funk, “Blow” is just as overtly in your face. It is an ode to eating Beyoncé’s skittles. Line after line after line of double entendres that insure this song will most likely never make it to the radio. Shame though because it has an irresistible groove backing it.
Things strip down and slow down for “No Angel”. While the song is about letting go of sexual inhibitions and not being ashamed, the video is about Beyoncé’s Houston roots and the seedy underbelly life that many live every day where she came from, emphasizing that while you may not believe it, she’s got her bad side too.”Yoncé” takes it more to the hip-hop side with a short track almost bragging about her nastiness. It’s almost an interlude and on the CD version, it is part of the next track “Partition”. This one actually details a wild evening in the back of a chauffeured car with Beyoncé on her knees, lipstick smudged, etc. Again leaving very little to the imagination but never sounding like she’s deliberately trying to shock. Instead she’s just detailing a hot intimate happening like you are reading the dirtiest part of her diary.
The string of emotions become insular with “Jealous”. I think this is one of the strongest tracks, as it is a ballad that avoids cliches, where Beyoncé worries about what her man is out doing, hoping she can trust him. then she turns the tables talking about what she could be doing, but chooses not to. The video offers better reassurance of the ending of the scenario. Following this is “Rocket”. This is probably my favorite, an old school Prince-styled slow jam, complete with horns and guitar. Justin Timberlake also helped produce this and guests in the background. This is again is very sexual, many double entendres, but very seductive. I’ve noticed several artists are learning lately how to mimic Prince’s classic sound and that’s nice to hear in pop again.
“Mine” is one of the most revealing tracks Beyoncé has written thus far, addressing postnatal depression she experienced. this is something that’s still not talked about much in general. To hear that Beyoncé, who always seems happy, went through this is an eye opener. The mood then lifts to extreme highs with the love song “XO”. this was chosen as the first “single” from the album, which is hard to do when all of the videos are released at once. But I do hope the song makes it to the charts as it is such a joyous and unforced love song. Following this Beyoncé demands respect of all of her younger contemporaries with “***Flawless”. Especially in the video, she demands the loyalty with “bow down bitches!”, before dropping feminist lyrics. There’s a weird duality here but it works. “Superpower” follows with a different turn musically, featuring Frank Ocean, along with Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child. However the guest appearance adds that something extra to the vocals without making the appearance a spectacle.
The last two tracks are somber but gorgeous. “Heaven” is about the passing of a dear friend, though I’m not sure to whom, and is from the heart. Rounding out the whole experience is “Blue”, written as a tribute to her daughter Blue Ivy, and featuring Blue Ivy’s voice echoing off into the distance as the album ends. The video part of the album adds one more song, “Grown Woman”, in which all kinds of video trickery is used to make it look as though at various stages of her childhood Beyoncé and whoever she was singing with at whatever stage (Solange, Girl’s Tyme, or early Destiny’s Child). This one is really a lot of fun and a nice bonus.
In summary, this album really caught my attention. Not because of the hype of its unexpected release, but because this is the album where Beyoncé chose being an artist over worrying how many albums or tracks she would sell. In addition, this is an album, and not just a collection of downloads. In a music scene where some people are actually championing the death of the album format, it’s nice to see some people are rallying against this and doing a bit more. She took her time on this album and the extra effort shows.
Check out the videos released to YouTube so far as well as the documentary series about the album:
“Drunk In Love”:
“Part 1: The Visual Album”:
“Part 2: Imperfection”:
“Part 3: Run ‘N Gun”:
“Part 4: Liberation”:
“Part 5: Honesty”: