The ability to sit down and attempt to decipher Beyonce apart from its rollout strategy speaks volumes for the album itself. There’s a lot of noise to get through in order to engage the content when one of the biggest American artists of the millennium drops an album with no promotion or public knowledge of its existence and still manages to sell over 600,000 copies in three days. It’s because the singer had something to say.
This is a bit of a departure from the pop effervescence of 4’s singles. Beyonce frankly sings, “I’m not feeling like myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it?” on “Mine”, fellates in the back of a limo on “Partition”, and throws in a Nigerian author’s passage in the middle of trap goddess fantasy-turned-feminist manifesto on “***Flawless”. There’s definitely enough here to inspire think pieces, with some praising her for her realized view of feminism and others denouncing her claim to the title with some cool-kids-at-the-lunch-room style shaming.
Beyonce said in a video accompanying the album release, “There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out.” Every think piece or critical essay (including the one you’re reading right now) still becomes noise for the most part. The thing with such pieces is they naturally impose a worldview on Beyonce. The album’s voice and focus—on self-love instead of the interpersonal sort found on 4—is self-assured enough to refute opinion by simply being, and as air-tight as it is, it’s never totally inclusive; Beyonce is musically immersive enough to keep the listener within its aura at all times.
Beyonce doesn’t only express herself; she re-contextualizes. “Pretty Hurts” and “***Flawless” probably wouldn’t work otherwise. It’s not hard to see the former as a shameless, faux-socially aware Billboard shoot in the hands of a less capable artist. “Pretty Hurts” is anything and everything but that, as it switches from Beyonce softly murmuring feminine issues to a pulsating hook that’s at once a cathartic cry, an exposition of insecurities, and a call-and-response admonition. “Bow Down/I Been On” left plenty of confusion about its intentions when it hit the Internet in spring. But its intentions here as Beyonce’s centerpiece are clear-sighted, giving author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sentiments a new life through an epic chant that’s destined to live on in Twitter statuses and self-gratifying Instagram captions for months.
Beyonce errs more toward self-love than feminism, however. The explicit sexuality of “Partition” and “Blow” isn’t for sale. “Blow” features the catchiest few minutes of cunnilingus advocacy in recent memory, and while “Partition” features the slightly clunky “He Monica Lewinsky’d all on my blouse” line, none of its sensuality is diminished. The French sample at the track’s end is crucial, too: “Are you not interested in sex?/ Men think that feminists hate sex but it’s an exciting and natural activity that women love.” Sex isn’t making her in these moments, but she’s a feminist who likes to be a pleasure-seeking human once in a while. The image isn’t for sale either. As Beyonce postures in the fantastic videos for the two, there’s little doubt that she’s the one who’s maintaining the control over her body. Damn it all if she’s not allowed to indulge in its pleasures. And oh yeah, the songs are also extremely well composed. Pharrell and Timbaland’s funk on “Blow” is sweet enough to induce aural diabetes, and you’re already envisioning hundreds of partygoers getting dolled up before midnight by the time the voodoo of that drum pattern kicks in on “Partition”’s hook (crafted by the team of Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Key Wane, Timbaland, and Jerome Harmon).
Another one of Beyonce’s key moments is “Rocket”. The song isn’t that far off from D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” in its composition as the low BPM and slow-burning guitars push it along. But look at the peaks. D’Angelo’s masterpiece suddenly ends as it reaches its orgasmic peak as if there’s a sense of embarrassment; like he’s suddenly just seen you walk in on him. But Beyonce gladly continues where he shies away, making demands, verbally patting herself on the back (“My shit’s so good it ain’t even right”), and moaning. Her performance is also amorphous, as she gradually switches from lyrical to raw descriptions as if she’s in the action. “Rocket”’s appeal becomes more about a form of love in action rather than just an impersonal representation of it.
The emotional connection comes after the themes of self and physical love are set, and it makes up one of the Beyonce’s best moments. The Drake-featuring “Mine” is a vulnerable cut in which a fantasy—a perfect relationship—is the source of pain. It’s also a source of comfort over minimal instrumentation. The extravagant “XO” feels like an earned highpoint afterwards, and even when it’s removed from the context of the album, it’s still a love song that carries the grandeur of a one made just before the end of the world—an event The-Dream, Hit-Boy, Ryan Tedder, and Beyonce happen to know how to soundtrack. Beyonce remains consistent with its thrills without losing track of its themes. “Jealous” and “Heaven” stray away from its ethos, but even they aren’t missteps. Jay Z’s “That D’Usse is the shit if I do say so myself” on “Drunk in Love”? That’s a misstep.
Beyonce’s latest career-defining moment comes to a close with a tribute to her daughter in “Blue”. It’s a trite and domestic note after what came before. She sounds satisfied over those violins, as someone with her level of beauty—both natural and discovered—should feel. The world is hers, and as Blue Ivy looks outward toward the beach while she’s in Beyonce’s arms in the accompanying music video, you get the feeling it will be hers as well.
4 out of 5
You can buy Beyonce on Amazon.