The audacity and enormity of Bey’s move can not be understated. Her anti-establishment approach to releasing an album took the rule book, ripped out a few pages and used them to roll a giant blunt. She not only forwent the tried-and-tested promo route of endless previews, pointless lyric videos and confusing buzz singles but also served up an entire era of content in fell swoop. Touted as a visual album (it boasts 17 breathtaking video clips), Beyonce is a multi-media project of exquisite quality and dizzying ambition.
Picking up when 4 left off, the 17-time Grammy winner (see that number skyrocket next year) stays true to her R&B roots on album number five — with one big difference. Her last opus had a one foot firmly in the past with its warm retro-soul sound, this time around, Third Ward Trill looks to the future with slick urban beats, sparse production and the occasional alt-R&B flourish. It’s a cohesive work of art, not a meaningless collection of singles. Explore Beyonce with my track by track review after the jump.
1. “Pretty Hurts”
“What is your aspiration in life?” is the question Harvey Keitel poses our heroine in album opener “Pretty Hurts”. Her answer? “To be happy.” Over the course Beyonce, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Carter’s key to happiness is navigating life on her terms — be it making the music she wants or being comfortable in her own skin.
The superstar has a long history of female empowerment anthems but this gorgeous plea for self-acceptance has to be her most incisive and effective. It’s also a radical return to form for Sia. After a string of disappointments, her lyrics find their old bite and Beyonce takes it to church with a flawless vocal. This has to be a single.
After a deceptively ‘pop’ introduction with “Pretty Hurts”, the 32-year-old triple threat unveils her new soundscape in earnest on “Ghost/Haunted”. Eerie minimal beats hover like fog while Bey addresses her critics. “All the shit I do is boring, all these record labels boring,” she spits. “I don’t trust these record labels, I’m tourin’.”
But it gets better. “Probably won’t make no money off this,” the diva declares. “Oh well!” The superstar is basically saying she will take artistic integrity over chart success. But here’s the catch. The album sold 80,000 copies in three hours, so she’ll probably get to have both. Also, props to newcomer Boots for his toothpick perfect production.
3. “Drunk In Love” (feat. Jay Z)
If “Crazy In Love” documented the heady, initial days of Beyonce’s love affair with Jay Z, “Drunk In Love” is proof that their union grew stronger with each passing year. A riot of warm, hazy synths and chunky trap beats, the exquisitely produced slow jam is custom designed for urban radio airplay. As for Hov’s verse? He knows better than to take the spotlight from his lady, simply singing her praises: “you’re the baddest bitch by far.” Amen.
What happens when you put Timbaland, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce in a room together? Apart from increase your insurance premiums, the answer seems to be record a breathtakingly catchy disco-tinged, retro-R&B jam called “Blow”. Not only does this boast the best video of 2013 (roller-disco Bey for the win!), it’s a late contender for the song of the year too.
“Keep me humming, keep me moaning,” purrs the sex kitten over heavy bass and chunky beats before asking her man to “turn that cherry out!” There’s even a French language interlude. Think of this as the female equivalent to the winning retro R&B sound JT and Timba perfected on The 20/20 Experience.
5. “No Angel”
After a breezy, relatively mainstream detour, Bey returns to her minimal R&B grind on “No Angel”. Penned and produced by Caroline Polachek (one half of synthpop duo Chairlift), this multi-layered sonic adventure experiments wildly with synths and beats — giving the pop legend a lush electronic canvas to dive into. This pretty gem needs a few listens to be properly consumed but its ultimately one of the album’s most fulfilling moments.
So here’s the deal. Yonce is the new Sasha Fierce — only way Fiercer. She pops up on the intro to “Partition”, spitting bars like a boss. Just wait for “Yonce all on his mouth like liquor!” to become an international meme. As for the song it introduces? “Partition” is possibly the most talked-about song on the LP.
“Driver roll up the partition please, I don’t need you to see Beyonce on her knees,” coos the Queen of R&B. That saucy lyric gives you some idea of the sexual onslaught that awaits you but none of us were ready for Bey to admit “he Monica Lewinsky‘d all on my gown!” over meaty Timbaland beats. The video needs to be watched in private, if you know what I mean.
After exposing her sexy backseat antics, Bey exposes her insecurities on “Jealous”. In many ways this is an update of “If I Were A Boy” for grown women. Alone in her penthouse (it is Beyonce), the 32-year-old berates herself for her emotional shortcomings. It’s frank, honest and vulnerable — characteristics that B doesn’t allow herself to show very often. This is a dark horse for a radio single down the line.
The prospect of a Miguel/Beyonce collaboration is such a tantalizing prospect on paper that it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations, right? Wrong. Fans of the B’Day era will find so much to love about “Rocket” — the album’s sexy, retro-soul moment. It’s a vocal tour de force with eye-popping, quotable lyrics.
“Let me sit this ass on you and show you how I feel,” she tells her man before giving him explicit instructions on how their evening is going to proceed. “If you like you can touch it babe, do you wanna touch it baby?” she asks rhetorically because the answer is obviously yes. Beyonce always playing.
9. “Mine” (feat. Drake)
Cut and paste what I just said about Miguel because King B pulls off the same magic trick with Drake. Produced by Noah Shebib (the man behind Drizzy’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”), the track drags Bey into the Canadian superstar’s late night confessional soundscape.
“I’m not feeling myself since the baby, are we even going to make it?” admits the game’s leading diva over piano and haunting beats on “Mine”. That’s where Drake comes in with an initially jarring refrain of “this is a song for the good girl” but there’s method to his madness. It makes the unashamedly romantic chorus palatable and adds another layer to a dauntingly brilliant collaboration.
According to Billboard, Beyonce is sending two songs to radio next week. There’s no shortage of R&B hits on the LP but the lead pop single has to be “Pretty Hurts” or “XO”. The Ryan Tedder-penned, Hit-Boy produced synth-drenched, mid-tempo jam is a fizzy pop delight.
As far as loved up radio-ready anthems go, “XO” is impossible to beat. “In the darkest night hour, I search through the crowd,” Bey swoons. “Your face is all that I see, I give you everything. Baby, love me lights out.” Happily the video is as gorgeous as the song with Terry Richardson simply filming Bey living it up at Coney Island. It’s almost too perfect.
11. “***Flawless” (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Here’s the good news. “Bow Down” made the album. Kind of. It serves as the introduction to musical mission statement “***Flawless”. It makes more sense in this context. No longer the brag track we initially mistook it for, the ode to H-Town sets up the album’s boldest feminist statement.
Nigerian wordsmith Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads a poem about the oppression of women over spooky beats before Bey declares “I woke up like this flawless!” and proceeds to give her female audience some impeccable advice. “Ladies, tell em’ I look so good tonight. Flawless!” The message is clear. Be proud and confident, even when you’re losing Starsearch in terrible Tina Knowles-designed outfits — the fate that befell Girl’s Tyme (the original incarnation of Destiny’s Child) in the early ’90s as documented in the video.
12. “Superpower” (feat. Frank Ocean)
Let’s get this out of the way first. Destiny’s Child reunites in the “Superpower” video, which basically recreates the riot scene in “Run The World (Girls)”. Beyonce really needs to get past the failure of that single but I guess we all have our cross to bear. Seeing the ladies together again is heartwarming — particularly when they’re hanging out with Les Twins, Pharrell and Luke James.
As for the song? “Superpower” is a mysterious, meandering alt-R&B experiment that wouldn’t sound out of place on Frank Ocean‘s own Channel Orange album. It’s the kind of multi-layered treat that unfolds with each listen, so be patient with this Pharrell-produced grower.
Perhaps the most slept on song by fans, “Heaven” is perhaps my favorite cut (although it changes every time I hear the album). If “Halo” had an edgy, indie sister it would sound a lot like “Heaven”. Produced by Boots, the fragile ballad is a heartbreaking letter to a lost loved one.
“I just can’t stand to see you leaving but heaven couldn’t wait for you,” laments the superstar. Given that the song precedes “Blue”, many are speculating it’s dedicated to the child Beyonce miscarriaged. We’ll probably never know but, if so, it couldn’t be a more beautiful tribute.
14. “Blue” (feat. Blue Ivy)
Eyes rolled across the internet when Blue Ivy‘s name appeared on the Beyonce tracklist but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she snags a Grammy for this adorable anthem. Not because her line of dialogue is particularly noteworthy but because you know Bey’s going to submit it and the song itself is utterly gorgeous. Again, Boots (whoever this mysterious genius is) knocks it out of the park production-wise.
15. “Grown Woman”
There’s not much to say about this afrobeat-infused tune. Bey has performed it every night of The Mrs. Carter Show world tour and fans respond to it like a number one hit. Only, “Grown Woman” is still officially unreleased given that the video makes the project but not the actual song — and for good reason. As good as it, the Timbaland-produced track sounds completely out of place. Having said all that, the video is life itself.
There’s not a dud track on Beyonce. In fact, it’s neck-and-neck with 4 as the diva’s most fully realized work of art. I’m fuming that we already published our best albums countdown because this blows the other contenders out of the water. Only Queen Bey could waltz in at the last second and snatch 2013′s wig so ruthlessly.
Idolator Score: 5/5
— Mike Wass