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.