3 stars (out of 4)
Beyonce surprised even her most ardent followers a few days ago by releasing her fifth studio album, “Beyonce” (Columbia), in one giant package on iTunes. The 14 songs and 17 videos comprise a “visual album,” the trump card in a year dominated by nontraditional and secretive marketing campaigns by major artists: Kanye West’s worldwide building-sized video projections; Justin Timberlake’s two albums after six years of silence; David Bowie’s stealthy comeback; the album-as-android-app by Beyonce’s husband, Jay Z.
The outpouring of double-take delight and praise in social media was instant, and “Beyonce” sold 80,000 copies in the first three hours of its availability early Friday. Much of the excitement stemmed from the notion that a superstar singer, one who had sold more than 100 million records and won 17 Grammy Awards, had released an album without hitting the usual promotional marks: radio airplay, major promotional tour, national television appearances, high-profile interviews.
On the contrary, Beyonce headlined the Super Bowl halftime in February and a national arena tour without any hint of a follow-up to her previous solo album, “4” (2011). Then came the on-line deluge, “the shock heard around the world,” according to Billboard editor Bill Werde.
But in an era of innovative album roll-outs, are fans, critics and industry wonks more excited about delivery methods than the actual music being delivered? Undoubtedly. But set aside the tech buzz and the music also holds up well. Beyonce reportedly scrapped a near-finished album earlier this year because she didn’t think it was strong enough. Such news usually suggests paralyzing indecision or deeper problems, and rarely turns out well for the artist. But in the case of Beyonce, it appears she really did aim to rethink her entire approach.
“Beyonce” is her most unconventional album, which may come as dismaying news to fans who loved the immediacy of such Beyonce singles as “Crazy in Love,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” and the sublime “Irreplaceable.” Nothing on the new album is nearly as catchy as any of those No. 1 hits, but it also brims with music that feels surprising and unstable, and some of Beyonce’s most unguarded and daring singing – from the gospel overtones of “Heaven” to the relaxed, jazzy flow of “Mine.” The big topic – sex any old place Beyonce wants it, whether in the back of a limousine or underneath an Andy Warhol painting in her home – isn’t particularly new or inspiring, but the musical settings feel fresher and more off-the-cuff than just about anything she’s done.
When Beyonce plays it safe, things stall. Two high-profile cameos in particular fall short. Drake’s long closing rap hijacks “Mine” and turns it into a six-minute slog. On the frisky reverie, “Drunk in Love,” Jay Z compares his relationship with Beyonce to Ike and Tina Turner’s. Really? So much for female empowerment. The predictable Ryan Tedder production on “XO” builds from jittery keyboards to an audience-appreciation sing-along that sounds like it was designed for an arena encore. “Blue” will please those eager to hear about how deeply Beyonce loves her child, but it never transcends its mawkish sentiment.
But when Beyonce puts those production dollars and her top-shelf collaborators to work – everyone from Frank Ocean and Miguel to video director Hype Williams and actor Harvey Keitel – she delivers A-list pop with a twist. The projects multi-media promise blooms on the opening “Pretty Hurts,” a soaring critique of the beauty industry that is enhanced by its troubling video. It depicts a beauty pageant contestant (Beyonce!) as not quite beautiful enough in a world that focuses on a woman’s flaws, and drives her into pill-popping self-abuse. “Strip away the masquerade,” Beyonce demands.
“Ghost/Haunted” suggests a two-part dream with its murky keyboards and creeping bass line. Beyonce’s recessed, reverbed vocals emerge from this vaporous backdrop with a sarcastic wink: “Sold not for sale/Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well.”
“Blow” (with significant contributions from Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake) opens with Beyonce as a jazz chanteuse in swan mode over sparse piano chords, then shifts into a swinging electro-funk groove that evokes Jimmy Jam’s work with Janet Jackson in her ‘80s prime. As discursive as “Blow” is insistent, the melody of “No Angel” slinks over a minimalist beat and takes its time introducing a subtle counterpoint bass line, while Beyonce sings at the very top of her range, her voice threatening to fray. “Underneath the pretty face is something complicated,” she informs her roguish lover. “I come with a side of trouble.”
“Partition” finds Beyonce credibly rapping over an Eastern rhythm as if paying homage to M.I.A., and it works. Just as steamy is the slow-burning “Rocket,” which acknowledges another obvious influence, D’Angelo, as Beyonce’s voice turns into a lust-saturated choir.
Throughout, the singer demands to be treated as an equal in the boardroom and the bedroom, a woman who gets fierce whenever she’s taken for granted (“Jealous”) and positively smolders when feeling the strength of a true union (the marvelously understated duet with Ocean, “Superpower”). Best of all is “Flawless”; in the video, Beyonce dances to a hard hip-hop rhythm like a flannel-shirted punk-rocker while the soothing voice of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discourses on the limitations imposed on young women: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’” If you are too successful “you threaten the man.” The merger of trap beats, punk defiance and feminist theory may not be destined for the top 10, but boldness like this can’t be measured by chart positions.