Jan 17, 2014 Web Exclusive
Released with nary a marketing campaign, Beyoncé's self-titled new album exploded on the scene two weeks before Christmas, debuting on iTunes and immediately selling over 600,000 copies in its first week—no small feat in 2013. Sure, Bey's always been a big seller—but for perhaps the first time ever, her album seemed intended to be taken as a cohesive whole, rather than as a vehicle for world-dominating singles.
And cohesive it is. While there are songs that will work as singles ("XO" made a strong case as song of the year, even though it was released after most year-end lists were already compiled, and "Blow" could skyrocket up the charts), overall, this is Beyoncé at her most experimental and, yes, risky. It's remarkable to hear a pop star at the height of her arena-tour powers taking chances like "Haunted," a dirge of a song that behaves more as spoken word until it's "Vogue"-y breakdown, or writing with the bracing honesty of the difficulty of marriage after childbirth in "Mine." Her ode to her daughter in "Blue" could have been saccharine in all the worst ways, but its effect is a wonderful and a pure expression of parental love. Even the experiments that don't work as well ("No Angel" is a little boring) come off looking better because so much of the album is so musically progressive.
Beyoncé is also surprising for its sexual frankness. Gone is the teasing Baptist Beyoncé of old-here is, to borrow one of Bey's phrases, a "grown woman" who knows exactly what she wants. The album's steamiest tracks function as both a clarion call of strong female sexuality and as explicit odes to monogamy. Sure, Beyoncé will have sex with Jay-Z in the back of a limo ("Partition"), but she's just as likely to be goading him with lyrics that will surely make Blue Ivy blush someday ("Blow). And if you thought that D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" was the sexiest song ever—a totally valid thought, by the way—wait till you hear "Rocket."
The album isn't without its flaws-"Heaven" and "Pretty Hurts" are okay songs, but a little on the nose. And it's weird to hear female empowerment anthems like "Pretty Hurts" and "***Flawless" in the same album that's, well, also very indebted to Beyoncé's sex appeal. It's sort of like saying, "You don't have to be anyone's ideal of beauty, but let me tell you, it's AWESOME to be me." Regardless of that nagging contradiction, it's still a massive leap forward—hearing a superstar be honest about her desires, in love with a family, and calling for an end to unrealistic expectations for women is a pretty great thing to have on a platinum-selling album. (www.beyonce.com)
Author rating: 7.5/10
Average reader rating: 7/10
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