By Gerrick D. Kennedy
5:07 AM CST, December 13, 2013
Without as much as a hint, Beyonce stealthily released her new album.
As the West Coast was tucking into bed Thursday night, the singer rolled out one of the best-kept secrets in recent music history: The album she had spent the last year teasing was now available for purchase on iTunes.
The self-titled set comes as a “visual album” featuring 14 new tracks and 17 music videos.
It's currently available as an iTunes exclusive. Manufacturing of physical albums begins Thursday and a double disc CD/DVD will be available before the holidays, according to her label.
Working with Jay Z, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Drake, the Dream, Sia, Ryan Tedder, Miguel, Frank Ocean and Hit Boy, the singer churned out her most ambitious project to date, without ever actually saying she was putting out an album any time soon.
"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans," Beyonce said in the album's announcement on Thursday.
"I felt like I didn't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out," she added. "I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans."
The question of when Beyonce would release her follow-up to 2011's "4," and her first record since birthing her first child in 2012, has rattled fans for the better part of the year.
For her part, Beyonce dangled plenty of carrots that new music would be arriving, at some point.
She toplined the Super Bowl halftime show in February, sang for the president and launched a sold-out world tour, which she’s still on, and little bits of music were parceled out to fans.
She previewed one track, “Grown Woman” in a Pepsi ad, before debuting it on her Mrs. Carter World Tour, while another single, “Standing on the Sun,” was the backdrop for an H&M campaign. The video for "Grown Woman" appears as a bonus cut on the video portion of the album (it's excluded on the audio side).
But with each tease, the singer never revealed as much as an album title, release date or lead single. Collaborators would drop what little hints they could, but she continued to remain mum.
Beyonce's sneak attack is the result of more than a year and a half of work.
Recording began when the singer and her camp of writers and producers lived together in the Hamptons last summer. And the videos were lensed in places such as Houston, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney and Paris as she toured.
More impressive than Beyonce keeping the project under wraps -- only pictures from unconfirmed video shoots and a piece of footage from “Grown Woman” managed to leak -- is what she managed to pull off.
The album is a striking collection of work that shows her torching the veil of her carefully crafted image.
It's difficult to digest all she's weaved together in just one sitting. And she wants listeners to experience it as a complete body of work (the album's individual tracks won't go on sale until Dec. 20).
After chewing on 14 tracks produced by a dream team of beatmakers, including Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Ryan Tedder, Noah "40" Shebib and Hit Boy, a set of 17 music videos begin unfolding as provocative companion pieces. Terry Richardson, Jake Nava, Hype Williams and Beyonce herself helped direct the visuals.
Songs on the album jump and dive between genres and are woven together with everything from spoken word and trap raps to the coos of her daughter Blue Ivy and vintage Destiny’s Child footage. It's a lot to consume, but a revelatory look at the singer who has tirelessly calculated what she chooses to share (and it's not always much).
Beyonce vamps as the trophy wife to her lust-filled husband, Jay Z, in the video to “Drunk in Love,” does a steamy striptease for him in another clip, and references Monica Lewinsky when singing of a backseat tryst with him in another.
She shares her insecurities and anger on “Jealously,” revels in her daughter’s glow on “Blue,” commands her sexuality on "Blow," fights for her marriage on "Mine" and dials up her knack for feminist anthems with "***Flawless," which is built around the first half of "Bow Down/I Been On," a song she dropped in similar surprise fashion earlier this year.
The news of the album jolted the Internet and spread hotly across Twitter and Instagram as listeners quickly dropped $15.99 on the album no one saw coming, with chatter and OMG-ing fueling Twitter throughout the night.
She clearly took a clue from Jay Z and collaborator Timberlake, who both sneakily released details on albums -- Jay only giving fans a few days' notice in announcing an unprecedented plan of releasing his "Magna Carta Holy Grail" album for free, via smartphones.
Beyonce completely bypassed the announcement of details and opted to go straight for artist-to-fan consumption, releasing the project on her own terms.
The move is stunning, and virtually unheard of, especially considering how the hype machine -- singles, performances, interviews etc. -- that propels pop music up the charts is often treated as equally, if not more important, than the work itself.
With her latest work, Beyonce proved she wanted the work to speak for itself -- a luxury rarely afforded to an act of her caliber.
She not only changed the game with the move -- she claimed it.
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