Note: I intended to post my album review on Monday, but started out with a track by track analysis, which I gave up on fairly quickly – NOBODY actually wants to listen to me dissect seventeen music videos. So, I scrapped that in favor of more of an overview, so as to bore people less.
With just one move – a record-breaking, secretly released, visual and auditory spectacle of an album – Beyoncé is back on top, after a few years out of the game. Beyoncé, her fifth studio album, could be called a memoir of Queen Bey, although it’s not exactly chronological – maybe it’s more of a personal introspection. Whatever you want to call it, it is deeply personal, which is interesting from such a notoriously private woman. The album is self-assured, powerful, sexy, luxurious, and (here I go, dropping the F-bomb) feminist. The fourteen songs are a great album on their own, but with the accompanying, exquisitely shot videos that form a fascinating narrative, the whole package becomes epic.
The music itself is near-perfect (though, the videos do round out the experience, and the album now would feel totally incomplete without them), and as you move from beginning to end, you move through tonal shifts. We have deep, emotional tracks, like Pretty Hurts (“Mama said, you’re a pretty girl / What you wear, is all that matters / Fix your teeth, brush your hair / What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter”), an indictment of our culture from one of the most desirable women in it (bold move, especially because Bey doesn’t just look like that. It’s literally her job to look like that, and she works hard. But we’ll come back to that.) Haunted starts off practically mournful, but picks up the beat about halfway in, which drives us into… how do I put this? The middle of this album is DIRTY, in the most delightful, empowering way. We all know Beyoncé’s husband, and he’s here (guesting on the incredible, sultry Drunk in Love, which makes you feel almost wasted just listening to it), but she’s talking about her pleasure, not his – from Blow, her bouncy, filthy ode to Jay-Z’s time downtown (ammiright, ladies?!); No Angel, where Bey works her breathiest, sexiest falsetto; Rocket, which details her taking charge in the bedroom; Partition, about Bey and Jay getting down and dirty in the back of a limo (which opens with the intro “Yoncé,” with the refrain, “Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor”); and Jealous, where she whips her freakum dress out and gets hers, despite her cheating man (yeah, no, this one isn’t about Jay. AT LEAST I HOPE NOT). Then, shit gets real with some ballads, although Mine (feat. Drake) proves to be a perfect transition song, with Bey providing the ballad about her marriage to match Drake’s rap. Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean) and the standard club-banger XOkeeps that transition going, and we finish out the album with Heaven, believed to be about her pre-Blue Ivy miscarriage, followed by Blue (feat. Blue Ivy), Bey’s loving ode to motherhood (which samples the Royal Baby of the US at the end in what is undoubtedly the cutest sample of all time).
Oh, did I forget a song? I did and I didn’t. I just thought it deserved its own paragraph. The centerpiece of the album is ***Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which isn’t just classic Beyoncé – it’s classic Queen Bey. The song starts out with an actual clip from Star Search, wherein Beyonce’s group, Girl’s Tyme, loses to an all-male group, and then brilliantly uses a powerful sample from feminist author Adichie’s recent TED talk (“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much”) amidst Bey’s shouted, impassioned vocals, wherein she tells us, “I’m not just his little wife,” and “BOW DOWN, BITCHES” (yes, Queen!). Most importantly, this is her new anthem, her new “Single Ladies,” and this is where she says the thing nobody wants to hear about Beyoncé – it takes work to be Beyoncé. “I woke up like this, I woke up like this. Tell ’em, ladies, we flawless,” she chants, inviting women across America to do the same.
The videos are, in a word, masterful, directed by a handful of talented players (among them, Hype Williams, (in)famous for his hyper-stylized and hyper-sexual videos in the 90s) and featuring a whole bunch of familiar faces (Harvey Keitel, Solange, Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Chanel Iman, and obviously, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy). Every video has its own unique, expertly produced style: Pretty Hurts focuses on Bey struggling through a beauty pageant, complete with limp sashes and walls of trophies; Blow is dirty, disco, neon fun (with an ode to Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” thrown in for good measure); Haunted is Bey’s best American Horror Story, done so well that it almost seems Ryan Murphy helped with the set direction; Drunk in Love and ***Flawless are both black and white, the former with Bey writhing around in the tide, husband adjacent, and the latter showing Beyoncé twerking in a crumbling house with a full entourage; No Angel, filmed in the impoverished Third Ward in Beyoncé’s hometown of Houston with featured actual human beings as extras; Partition, which has Bey dancing at the famous Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris with her husband in the audience; Superpower, which suggests we all riot in the street, and Blue, shot in Brazil with plenty of shots of that gorgeous kid for good measure. We also get three videos that sample from the beginnings of other songs – respectively, Ghost (from the opening of “Haunted”) and Yoncé (from the opening of “Partition”). Ghost is a stark, minimalist piece where Beyoncé practically drones the rap about how her “record label [is] boring,” but Yoncé is the real standout here, with Bey and three supermodels (Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn, and Joan Smalls) decked out in their best ghetto-fab finery, twerking their way across Brooklyn. The video is sexy, visually stimulating, and lets Bey do what she does best- dance. Grown Woman lets her dance it out too (you may recognize the song from her recent Pepsi commercials), and the video, which follows “Blue,” juxtaposes Beyonce’s past with her present, showing clips of her as a little girl that, after a moment of fuzz, become her now.
I cannot, for my part, remember the last time that I heard a female solo artist release such a confident album. In her finest effort yet, Beyoncé uses her album to tell the world exactly who she is, while making no apologies for it. The album is explicit, honest, raw, and personal, and can certainly be considered an ode to female empowerment. Besides the obvious sampling from a feminist author, Bey makes it abundantly clear that this album is for the ladies. When’s the last time you heard a song that was about a woman’s sexual pleasure rather than the man’s, or a song celebrating the singer’s own ass? (Though, to be fair, Bey’s ass is absolutely something to celebrate.) By combining her sexual appetite, her concerns about women in society, and her newfound joy in motherhood, Beyoncé has created an epic, and perhaps her legacy. So go tell ’em, ladies. We woke up like this.