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Beyoncé’s hard-hitting, self-titled “visual album” highlights pop music’s fall from grace into EDM’s tarry pit by bucking convention.
Like an energy bar, the gratification of pop is fleeting. ‘Top 40’ radio gets feet tapping but does it tug heartstrings? Evidenced on the track, “Haunted”, Beyoncé’s disenchantment with industry status quo and record label agenda formed the premise for her on-the-sly December 13 release exclusively on iTunes of 14 songs buttressed visually by 17 music videos. Artists taking the reins can produce catastrophic results (this is Bey’s first release without the input of her former manager father or that of outside management), but the album sees the singer spread the storytelling wings she’s gradually grown into throughout her 16-year career.
The sheer ground ‘Beyoncé’ covers and the cohesiveness of its statement (namely, “I am Beyoncé, uncut”) should be its most-lauded achievement: we have the prima donna vaunting her undisputed Queendom in “Grown Woman”, intimating her existential fears in the psychedelic “Haunted”, coining tacky, hydrology-inspired metaphors for coitus and the anatomy in “Rocket” and wailing the pure, hair-raising notes of a mother’s grief in “Heaven” for the child she miscarried before conceiving daughter Blue Ivy.
Critics were quick to pounce on “Partition”, a minimalist R&B track whose throbbing bass packs Dolby Surround Sound oomph, in which Bey relates a lewd tale of back-of-the-limo sex. We hear the partition rolling up, blotting the volley of clicking camera shutters from encroaching paparazzi. After husband Jay-Z “Monica Lewinksis” all over Bey’s gown, they realize they won’t make it to the club. A pouty Bey chides “daddy” for not bringing a towel after they spent 45 minutes gussying up. The song’s shamelessness speaks to a larger lack of self or sales consciousness that permeates the album; a rejection of the record label rulebook outlining “what works” and what doesn’t. Beyoncé will have you know that she panders to no one. How else could a song like “Blow” (Warning: NSFW) have made the cut?
The album opens with ‘love yourself’ anthem “Pretty Hurts,” whose criticism of pop culture ideals of beauty – “Vogue says thinner is better” and “South Beach, sugar-free” – are standard fare. But amidst Bey’s clichéd exhortations to “take the crown without falling down” (excelling on assets other than appearance) are eye-openers such as “Perfection is the disease of a nation” and “You can’t fix what you can’t see/It’s the soul that needs surgery”. The song’s triumphant tempo, recalling “Best Thing I Never Had”, renders the message assertive rather than plaintive; begetting the liberation of admitting defeat in hankering after perfection. Finally, she offers the rhetoric: “When you’re alone all by yourself/And you’re lying in your bed/Are you happy with yourself?”
Second track, “Haunted”, is sonically confusing, a seemingly indeterminate layering of eerie samplers of synth and ticking clocks, but that’s just the mental static seething Bey’s mind. Her voice distorted and silvery, she recites “I’m climbing up the walls ‘cause all the s**t I hear is boring/All the s**t I do is boring, these record labels boring”. She then questions why the majority work 9-to-5 “just to stay alive”. This could be dismissed as the fabricated pity of a queen looking down upon toiling commoners, but Bey is likely referring to a daily grind without room for self-actualization. Speaking of paychecks, Bey’s offhand remark “Soul not for sale/Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well”, couldn’t have been further from the truth. ‘Beyoncé’ sold 828,773 copies on iTunes in its first three days, according to Apple, topping iTunes charts in 104 countries.
Tracks eight and four are best consumed in private – unless you want to fill the room/office/car with Beyoncé’s…sighs of satisfaction in the old-school “Blow”, a catchy tune that is otherwise airwave-happy if not for its indecorous lyrics. Meanwhile, “Rocket” is not, as the title insinuates, the bass-laden, sultry stuff of “Baby Boy” and “Naughty Girl,” but a play-by-play of Bey and Jay’s bedroom antics dressed as a slow, jazzy number in a futile bid for propriety. Oh wait, shame was never an issue. As Bey declares in “Partition”: “Radio say speed it up, I just go slow” and she’ll take her sweet time “rockin’ it ’til water falls.”
Bey will have a lot of explaining to do when Blue Ivy is old enough to ask what mommy means by “reaching into the bottom of her fountain.” But I see a distinction between Beyoncé’s erotically-charged offerings and the mulch peddled by R&B counterpart Rihanna, whose “Birthday Cake” is so desultory and transparent it can’t be anything but a “sex sells” paying of dues. For the songs about coupling are rounded out with nuanced tracks “No Angel,” “Jealous” and “Superpower,” which, as a whole, paint the highs and lows of married life – of which sex is an inextricable part. Would a little delicacy have detracted from the honesty? I couldn’t say, but Beyoncé isn’t one to beat around the bush.
In “Jealous,” Bey has outdone herself to be the appeasing wife, cooking a meal (really?) for Jay naked, and is anticipating his homecoming, shot glass in hand. But when he doesn’t show her mind begins to whir. “I’m jealous”, she states sullenly; and one must admire her for shooting from the hip. The war cries à la “Girls (Who Run The World)” express Beyoncé’s frustration with herself as she sings, “I wish that you were me so you could feel this feeling,” therein touching on the truism “Every man is an island” even in marriage. “No Angel” is Bey’s falsetto reiteration that she’s in it for the long haul despite her and Jay’s flaws. The incorrigible Sasha Fierce makes way for a woman who apologizes for her shortcomings, that she might not be “the girl you thought you knew and thought you wanted.”
The album’s sole failings are the meandering “Superpower” featuring Frank Ocean and “Flawless,” in which Beyoncé’s feminist teeth come out. There is an extract of the TED talk, “We should all be feminists” by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Beyoncé’s connotation of “flawless” is a nod to women who hold it together in the face of adversary day after day. But the extract from “Bow Down/I Been On”, cheap R&B noise at its worst, clouds the message.
Beyoncé’s ode to her baby daughter, “Blue” is a delightful, piano-led tune of easy bliss, featuring sound bites of Blue Ivy’s laugh and “Mommy, mommy, mommy”. “Make it last forever/Come on, baby won’t you hold onto me, hold onto me” Beyoncé croons.
It doesn’t always work, but the intention in each song and its connection to the work of art as a whole is evident. Message-wise, at least, not a single track can be justly dismissed as filler – despite some unnecessary lewdness – which is a venerable achievement for any artist. While it certainly deviates from formulaic pop and is not really sing-along material, ‘Beyoncé’ is Queen B’s finest autobiographical achievement.
Image credit: Beyoncé via Facebook