Beyoncé pulled off a coup late last Thursday night when she released a terrific self-titled “visual album” – containing 14 songs, each with an accompanying video – straight to iTunes with zero advance warning or fanfare. The record is expected to easily top the weekly album chart despite being released midway through the stanza, and according to Apple, the album had already sold more than 800,000 digital copies by Monday morning. Not only does Beyoncé rank as the year’s most accomplished and engaging mainstream pop album by a rather laughable margin, but its calculatedly shrugged-off release strategy can’t help but read as an imperious kiss-off toward the singer’s competitors for the 2013 crown — Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and even her husband Jay Z — all of whom worked up gallons of sweat and employed every eyeball-grabbing trick in the book to move their product, only to be upstaged by Beyoncé’s abrupt digital data-dump.
“I’ve been climbing up the walls, ’cause all this shit I hear is boring,” she sings on the album’s second track, by way of explanation. “All these record labels, boring.”
Of course, like Radiohead’s “name-your-price” release of In Rainbows in 2007, this is the sort of trick that can only be pulled off by an artist who has already spent decades tirelessly feeding the publicity machine, and it’s unlikely Beyoncé’s December surprise will “change the music business” any more than Radiohead’s did. Competition is Beyoncé’s lifeblood, and coming off of the commercially disappointing 4, it’s easy to see this as a gauntlet thrown down. Far more personal, confessional, and flat-out filthy than anything the singer has released in the past, Beyoncé offers some striking windows into the star’s personal life, while audio archival snippets from her early years shuttling between beauty contests and kiddie singing competitions are sprinkled throughout, hinting at the lifetime of rigorously maintained perfection and pageantry to which much of this record is a reaction.
For all the power of her voice and otherworldliness of her physical beauty, Beyoncé has rarely come across like a flesh-and-blood figure on record. Her fifth solo album goes to great lengths to correct this shortcoming, swapping out her signature inspirational bromides for genuine personal insight; her coy teases for forthright carnality. This is an album full of drunken kitchen hook-ups, Instagram-instigated suspicions, bouts of postpartum depression and sex-stained blouses — worlds away from the high-concept dissembling of I Am…Sasha Fierce or the soft-focus, self-directed documentary treatment she gave herself on this year’s HBO curio Life Is But a Dream.
While Beyoncé contains no obvious singles of the “Crazy in Love” or “Single Ladies” caliber, it’s nonetheless the most consistent and thoughtful album of her career, recalling a spikier, harder-hitting variation on the type of tastefully modern adult R&B Maxwell patented on 2009’s BLACKsummer’snight. On a purely sonic level, Beyoncé is impeccably constructed and calibrated, suggesting whatever money her team may have saved on promotion was funneled straight back into production. Yet despite the murderers row of bold-name producers and co-songwriters who lent a hand – Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Tedder, The-Dream and Hit-Boy, to name but a few — the brunt of production here was handled by a mysterious, heretofore unknown songsmith dubbed Boots, and the album manages to drift off on numerous digressions without losing hold of its central mood.
Traditional song structures serve more as suggestions than strict demarcations here, emphasizing gradual acceleration over hook-driven payoffs, alternately rewarding and challenging short attention spans. The Pharrell-produced “Blow” uses Prince’s “Dirty Mind” as an obvious template, while D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” gets a 2013 makeover for the grinding seduction jam “Rocket,” though neither track takes the most obvious route to its climax. There’s a radio-ready pop single buried somewhere within the Jay Z feature “Drunk In Love,” yet Beyoncé and Boots embellish it with enough strange grace notes and recitatives to create a much stranger monster than one might expect.
All of the abovementioned tracks tackle sexuality with an arresting straightforwardness, yet none hold a candle to the absolutely scorching “Partition.” Anchored by a Timbaland beat that marries Champagne-room dancehall with Moroccan exotica, the song sees a snarling Beyonce toss off a few old-school battle rhymes (“I sneezed on the beat, and the beat got sicker” being a standout) before singing of unspeakable acts in the back of a limo and reciting a monologue from The Big Lebowski in French. “Halo” this is not.
The record is hardly all raunch, however, and for once Beyoncé seems to have spent just as much time on the record’s downtempo moments as she has on its bangers. Droopy, interchangeable torch songs have long been the singer’s albatross, and it’s refreshing to see her tackle these sorts of tracks from more interesting angles, whether the “Bedtime Stories”-like trance of “Haunted,” the electro-rock balladry of “XO” or the spare piano-pop of “Heaven,” which swagger-jacks Rihanna’s “Stay” while improving on it in every way.
At times the record bites off a bit more than it can chew. Beyoncé is weirdly relegated to support status on the Drake feature “Mine” and the Frank Ocean guest spot “Superpower,” for example, and the album-closing motherhood ode, “Blue,” is sweet yet swathed in the type of bloodless platitudes that the album otherwise avoids. As rare as it is to hear monogamous adult sex tackled so directly in pop, the vicissitudes of childrearing may still be a bridge too far.
Obviously, there are still limits to the type of oversharing one can expect from a star as image-conscious as Ms. Knowles. (This is, after all, a public figure who maintains a Nixonian personal archive of every interview, video, photo session or performance she’s ever granted.) But for the first time, she seems eager to reconcile the gap between her Olympian aura and the far less fierce, far more intriguing human beneath.
review by Andrew Barker via Variety.com