Will Beyonce continue her reign as queen of pop with her self titled new album?
Conor Behan reviews Beyonce's latest album
“MY sister said I should speak my mind, my man made me feel so damn fine” Beyoncé asserts at one point on her new self-titled fifth album. And given how this deeply personal project veers between a surprising honesty and plenty of frank sexually charged imagery it serves as a neat summation of the whole project.
Arriving at 5am Irish time on Friday morning last week ‘Beyoncé’ wasn’t just a visual album comprised of 14 songs and 17 videos. It was also a huge surprise. Sure in 2013 Miss Knowles performed at the Superbowl, racked up numerous high-profile magazine covers, toured the world and released a documentary but this much hyped fifth album seemed like it may never happen.
Thankfully, just before the year was out Beyoncé managed to prove doubters wrong with a project that was both ambitious and artistic and finally saw her put together a body of work that sits beside the ever-growing adulation she routinely receives from both the general public and the traditionally pop-snobby music press.
You could have expected ten enourmous hit singles from the world’s best songwriters (especially given how her last album underperformed) but instead it’s a dense, layered and undeniably impressive work that takes the best cues from the current cutting edge side of R&B and splashes Beyoncé’s mass-appeal starpower all over it.
Opening track ‘Pretty Hurts’ is a rousing takedown of beauty standards and women being made to think they’re only worth their looks. It’s a big chorus (with Sia, pop’s current songwriter darling, on board) that manages a message without feeling heavy handed. It’s a stirring mix of radio-friendly pop with maturity that also works on songs like ‘XO’ and ‘Jealous’ which are reminiscent of ‘Halo’ and ‘If I Were A Boy’ respectively, if those songs were a bit more world-weary.
‘Drunk On Love’ ropes in Jay-Z for a guest verse and plays off of their superstar chemistry but it’s also got a weird, off-beat swing to it, only heightened by Beyoncé’s unusual vocal delivery.
Several top-flight producers appear on this album but Beyoncé’s work with previously unknown producer Boots lets this unusual side out with thrilling results. ‘Haunted’ is both a jab at the politics of the music industry and a breathy Madonna-esque ballad.
There’s a sense of introspection too, one that Beyoncé has frequently airbrushed out of her usually bland public image. ‘Mine’ sees her ruminate on troubles in her relationship before Drake appears for a hook that plays off the kind of moody R&B he’s known for. ‘Heaven’ looks at death and is rippling with emotion while ‘Blue’ is a sweet ode to her baby daughter.
Of course besides all the honesty and production trickery there is plenty of sex. And not the kind of blank robotic sexuality that seems de-rigeur in pop but joyous exploration of the kind of fun a couple can get up too. It’s there on the 70s funk bubblegum of ‘Blow’ whose hook swirls around several innuendos to the brittle electro-R&B of ‘Partition’ which is perfectly judged filth.
‘Rocket’ takes the sex metaphor idea to breaking point but sees Beyoncé in fine voice while ‘No Angel’ and ‘Superpower’ are introspective and solid baby-making ballads.
The brittle stomp of ‘***Flawless’ is a highlight, both a solid tongue in cheek nod to her would-be rivals but also a feminist battle cry with a surprise sample of a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s giving the song a political glint that is inspired.
As a collection of songs ‘Beyoncé’ is taking both Beyoncé and pop music into a deeper space that doesn’t rely on the usual promo cycle and radio bait. But the visual side of things adds another layer to proceedings that is absolutely worth taking in.
‘Pretty Hurts’ and ‘Jealous’ take on even more weight thanks to Beyoncé’s acting,
‘Blow’ is a visual feast of roller-skating and pitch-perfect choreography. ‘Yoncé’ is like a street-wise update of George Michael’s Freedom 90 while ‘Partition’ is effortlessly sexy.
There are also visual risks to match the musical bravery displayed in the songs. ‘Ghost’ and ‘Haunted’ which are equal parts eerie and disturbing and ‘Mine’ which has an artistic flair she carries off with ease.
Several cameos from Jay-Z abound from adoring paramour on ‘Drunk in Love’ to admiring suitor on ‘Partition’ to doting dad in Blue, which also features the couple’s daughter.
There’s even a turn from her Destiny’s Child bandmates Kelly and Michelle in Superpower. Album standout ‘***Flawless’ works well as a video too, placing a grungier Beyoncé into a punk-rock setting with aplomb. It also lets the clips of a young Beyoncé shine as we see just how young she was when she first appeared on US TV.
And althought it’s not included on the audio side, fan favourite ‘Grown Woman’ appears as a bonus video. It’s a more straightforward typically Beyoncé moment but with a clip that places current day Beyoncé into her old home videos using some impressive CGI trickery. It’s a welcome pure-pop moment after the dense and emotional feel of the other songs.
As a body of work ‘Beyoncé’ is impressive both visually and musically. It takes a marquee name and lets them do something genuinely different with music that is a mix of strange, forward-thinking and still accessible. Sure, Beyoncé has tapped into a lane Drake, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd and more have developed over the last few years but her pop sparkle offers a new context for this sub-genre of R&B to shine. In some ways the lack of signature Beyoncé tracks in the vein of Crazy in Love is a shame. The Beyoncé we have now is keen to make the album an event for music listeners and it’s working. Sales are already huge and her “no hype” move is an excellent form of hype in itself. It will be interesting to see what songs become the markers of this album’s impact with her audience once she adds them to her tour or they go to radio. Beyoncé has absolutely switched up how a popstar can deliver their big work but the ways in which people will latch on to it may not change as quickly. Still, there’s enough charm, vibrant sexuality and refreshing honest on this effort to make it a release that lives up to the hype.
Beyoncé was released exclusively on iTunes last Friday the 13th of December. The physical release will be available in Ireland from this Friday the 20th of December.