A Year Of ‘Beyonce’: The Pioneering Visual Album’s Impact, Influence & Legacy
If you could actually break the internet without a global power outage, Beyonce would have done just that on December 13, 2013. The unannounced digital drop of her self-titled fifth LP — complete with 17 music videos — was an event. The Hive suffered a collective nervous breakdown (and severe RSI from excessive tweeting), critics rushed to lavish praise, music execs pondered the ramifications on the industry and Queen Bey hopped on Instagram to post a picture of cupcakes. Cupcakes!
A year later, and the dust is finally starting to settle on Bey’s stroke of creative (and marketing) genius. The visual album sold 617,213 digital copies on US iTunes in three days — more than enough to nab the diva her fifth-consecutive number one LP on the Billboard 200. (The sales tally now stands at 2,136,000 copies). Beyonce also spawned five charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — “XO”, “Drunk In Love”, “Partition”, “***Flawless” and “Mine” — and recently nabbed a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. A critical and commercial success by any measure, the project is even more impressive when you consider how high the stakes were.
Given the fanfare that surrounded the release, it’s easy to forget how exasperated the world was with Beyonce and her missing album in 2013. When the 33-year-old was announced as the year’s Super Bowl performer, fans and critics reasoned that new music couldn’t be far off. But February came and went without so much as a leaked demo. Bey then took trolling to unimagined heights by hitting the road with The Mrs. Carter Show — a belated tour for her previous LP, 4. It broke box office records (because it was incredible) but irritation started to mount. We knew she was working on new material — by that time “Grown Woman” and “Standing On The Sun” had already leaked — but there was still no release date in sight and the beyhydration was testing our faith.
Meanwhile, Third Ward Trill slowly completed her fifth album — both the music and visuals — on the road. It’s a testament to the 17-time Grammy winner’s superhuman self-belief that she quietly hatched her game-changing master plan while the media questioned her every move. It also speaks volumes about Beyonce’s standing in the industry that not a single producer, songwriter or director spilled the beans. The thing is — the secrecy, planning and innovative roll-out would have been for nothing if the music wasn’t up to scratch. For me, the most impressive achievement of Beyonce isn’t the visual aspect or the surprise element. It’s the fact that the pop icon delivered the most consistent, cohesive and resiliently non-commercial album of her career.
When 4 underperformed by Beyonce’s lofty standards, there must have been immense pressure to call Dr. Luke or RedOne, and churn out a couple of radio hits. Instead, Mrs. Carter discovered Boots on SoundCloud and chose to record her album with the then-unknown producer. It turned out to be an inspired move. His minimal beats and penchant for atmospheric, alt-R&B provided the perfect soundscape for a most intimate listening experience. Beyonce bared her soul, commenting on the music industry (“Haunted”), her marriage (“Mine”), childbirth (“Blue”) and feminism (“***Flawless”). She also served up a couple of raunchy club-bangers (“Partition” and “Drunk In Love”), but Beyonce is largely a stream of consciousness set to beats.
As for the album’s impact? Critics wondered if surprise drops would become a regular thing but that hasn’t really panned out. “Doing a Beyonce” is now part of the music industry vernacular, but execs soon realized it’s actually really hard to sell an album with no promotion unless you’re a Knowles-level superstar. Mariah Carey was vetoed from doing it with Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse because her label didn’t have the confidence, while U2 proved you can get a surprise release very, very wrong with their Songs of Innocence debacle. Visual EPs — nobody has managed to pull off an entire album yet — have flourished, however, and the surprise element has worked considerably better for singles. You literally never know what’s going to pop up on iTunes and that has injected some much-needed excitement into the music-buying process.
While Beyonce will go down in music history as a major creative and commercial coup, I’ve often wondered if the album would have left an even bigger mark if Beyonce had actively promoted it. That sounds a little unfair given her non-stop touring schedule, but a couple of non-awards show TV performances and interviews would have helped launch singles that were crippled by a lack of build-up. It’s hard to generate hype for a new cut with previews, snippets and lyric videos when the finished visual is already on iTunes. On the other hand, the diva’s disinterest in playing the game is why she’s still on top. She makes her own rules and let’s everyone else play catch-up.
Do you remember when you first heard about Bey’s visual album? Share your memories in the comments below.
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