The story thus far: on December 13th, Beyoncé stealth drops her fifth studio album to iTunes, catching traditional and social media off-guard, sending Stans and haters alike into a dizzy, and forcing everyone to ponder what the heck is the meaning behind a "visual album." Are not all albums "visual," allowing listeners to emotionally experience and aurally absorb? Yet here we are, pondering Beyoncé's multimedia effort — 14 songs and 17 full-length videos — and kicking around the significance of this shrewdly calculated promotional move.
Beyoncé is pretty much the last pop diva standing, when you think about it — a holdover from a simpler time where artists largely didn't have to worry about having their album leaked in advance. So the fact that this self-titled project arrives fully formed and without being leaked is a marvel in and of itself: "I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies. And they're all connected to the music," she claims in a neatly packaged and processed press release quotable.
"Pretty Hurts" is a power pop anthem co-penned by Sia Furler and espouses female empowerment in pithy platitudes: It's admittedly catchy and the accompanying video allows Beyoncé to showcase her acting chops. The minimal sound of "Haunted" (co-produced by the formerly unknown Roc Nation producer Boots, whose name is plastered on the majority of the credits for this album) allows Beyoncé to ironically champion artistic integrity and proclaim her thoughts on the industry ("All the shit I do is boring/ All these record labels boring"). "Drunk in Love" is the natural extension of "Crazy In Love" but in trap form. "Blow" is a weird '80s Prince/Vanity 6 roller-skating throwback collabo with Timberland, Timberlake and Pharrell that lays on the sex kitten shtick a bit thick: "Keep Me Humming, Keep Me Moaning" to "Can You Lick My Skittles."
And so it goes: Tracks like "No Angel," Partition," Jealous" and "Rocket" display genre diversity, vocal range and a penchant of musical experimentation. Sincere and saccharine, all at once. "Flawless" leverages elements of "Bow Down" with a sure-to-be-talked-about segment by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "XO" is a straightforward pop ballad number, and the much anticipated Drake track "Mine" forces each artist to try and meet each other halfway without it quite working.
Speaking of not working, "Superpower" with Frank Ocean sounds like a leftover Channel Orange track with Beyoncé not quite owning it. And finally, "Heaven" and Blue" drive things home on an intensely personal vibe, respectively speaking death and life.
Beyoncé is pop and notes of forward-minded R&B and trap-era hip-hop throughout; it's recommended that you just listen to the tracks and then think about watching the music videos for the prime Beyoncé experience. The music videos that go along with the tracks range from artsy to forgettable but admittedly do say a lot about how much she really tried to create something special with this project.
The album is best described as experimental in a mainstream context. Beyoncé raps, curses, drops sexual innuendo — basically looking to appeal to anyone and everyone. So you get a bunch of musical flavours but it somehow manages to hang together. Although there was a host of big names — Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Drake, Timberland, Frank Ocean, hubby JayZ — one doesn't so much as collaborate but allowed to co-exist on Queen Bey's platform. Beyoncé is better than good, slickly packaged, created with the best of intentions yet still comes off as a postmodern mash of hubris, sincerity and gloss. It will be a hit regardless. (Sony)