LABEL Columbia Records
RELEASE DATE 12 December 2013
10 | 10
In many ways, the timing of Beyoncé’s masterclass display of artistic expression could not have been better. Not only does she exceed the bar she set for herself with the tragically overlooked 4 (2011), but she sets a new bar for the pop genre with her visual and aural display of superiority.
My aspiration in life would be … to be happy.
That’s the voice of a much younger Beyoncé Knowles, responding to a question from a talent show proctor, and it sets the stage for the personal yet universally relatable sequence of songs that unravels over 14 of the most breathtaking recordings of 2013. Her pursuit of happiness begins with the former Destiny Child’s star ripping into beauty standards that afflict all women, including Beyoncé herself, as hard as it is to imagine from the immaculate image she has been able to craft for herself throughout the years. “Perfection is the disease of a nation,” she sings during the chorus, fully aware of her diagnosis years ago. “Pretty Hurts” ends with baby Beyoncé saying, “I’d like to thank the judges for picking me,” and after such a scathing critique of female beauty standards, it creates an undeniable friction between what she espouses on the track and the industry that she has made fall to its knees with her every move.
A lot could be written about BEYONCÉ as it relates to feminism in the 21st century, and I will leave that to people better suited to tackling that topic. But it is unmistakable the message it sends that someone like Beyoncé, the epitome of Celebrity, our very own Helen of Troy, is so upfront with her distaste for how we “rate” women’s beauty as if it were sport, and neglect to see the motivations behind their movements. When she invites the brilliant Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie to offer illuminating thoughts on femininity on “***Flawless,” which repurposes Beyoncé’s earlier 2013 release “Bow Down” to be a more fully fleshed out ode to female authority and ownership, she gives light to a far too deserving voice, and makes a major impression with the words she endorses.
I’ve gotten four paragraphs into this review without much mention of the stunning visuals that accompanied the album’s immaculate release on the 12th of December. While the songs are more than capable of standing on their own feet, the videos for the album’s 14 tracks, in the form of 16 videos (“Haunted” and “Partition” are split into two), create a fully immersive experience that goes unrivaled in 2013. Together, they tell a beautiful story of emotional and artistic freedom. From the cannibalistic nature of beauty pageants portrayed in “Pretty Hurts” to Beyoncé spending precious moments with her adorable baby daughter Blue Ivy, the videos that make BEYONCÉ serve a pivotal role in how one interacts with the audio material.
I don’t trust these record labels, I’m touring
Musically, the album features production that is very of-the-moment, which can be directly contributed to the singer’s largely successful 2013 world tour, as a communal spirit rings throughout the record. Her sister, Solange Knowles, is also (indirectly) a significant player in the album’s sound, as her foray into more indie territory has pushed her big sister to explore musical structures and sounds that are far removed from the mainstream. “Ghost,” the opening to “Haunted” in the album version, features Beyoncé at her most cerebral, as she monotonously raps, “I’m climbing up the walls cause all the shit I hear is boring / All the shit I do is boring, all these record labels boring / I don’t trust these record labels, I’m touring.” You’ll hear similar themes in an album like Yeezus, but that’s to be expected from Kanye West by now. For Beyoncé to be as candid as she is on “Ghost,” and throughout BEYONCÉ, is the “Radio say speed it up / I just go slower,” she raps on “Yoncé,” the first part of the exquisite “Partition.” The two act as an X-rated version of Justin Timberlake’s seminal “My Love,” with Beyoncé later singing on “Partition,” “Driver roll up the partition, please / I don’t need you seeing ‘Yoncé on her knees,” and in the process furthering every male’s jealously towards Mr. Shawn Carter. But even when she’s “on her knees,” she exudes power, always in control.
“Nothing could slow us down,” she sings on the gorgeous “Superpower,” with an even more gorgeous video to go along with the spiritual hymn. Beyoncé stands in the center of a revolution in the song’s visuals as she sings, along with Frank Ocean, “And I thought the world would move on / without us,” before ending the song by chanting “They couldn’t break us down.” Standing next to Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, and Pharrell, it makes for a powerful image of the strength and resiliency of the African American community.
Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor
If you’re looking for Top 40 affair, you’ll find that, too. Her duet with husband Jay Z on “Drunk In Love,” ten years after her instant classic “Crazy In Love” graced the airwaves for the first time, is destined to be a radio staple in 2014, as well as the Ryan Tedder-produced “XO.” While his productions have been (fairly) criticized for their similarities, most blatantly Beyoncé’s own “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” he teams up with The-Dream for the cleansing and communal track. But what sets that song apart from his previous productions is how assured Beyoncé is when delivering the vocals. Always known for her powerful vocals, she has taken that art to another level with her performances throughout her self-titled fifth LP. From her sensual, D’Angelo-inspired “Rocket” to the blurred “Ghost” and the aforementioned “***Flawless,” Beyoncé has never sounded so involved in the process of making music as she does here. The most primary of sources that I can point to would be the “Yoncé/Partition” hybrid. She has certainly tried brash, minimalist hip-hop (“Diva”) and synthy, electro-pop anthems (“Sweet Dreams”) before, but she has never sounded this honest.
It may seem like a hyperbolic reaction to say BEYONCÉ is the best album of the year, what with the album only being released a few days ago. But when you put the whole picture together, with the incredible attention to detail that not only went into these songs but the breathtaking visuals that accompany Ms. Third Ward’s best collection of music to date, the picture is so vividly produced that it is difficult to look at any other work from 2013 with the same type of reverence. Her ability to take contemporary musical themes and give them a timeless feel can not be understated. “Heaven” takes the best qualities from Lana Del Rey’s discography, the cinematic scope of her songs, the slowly unraveling compositions, and positions them as perhaps Yoncé’s best ballad to date. Is the song about her miscarriage? It’s not for certain, but what is for certain is the pathos Queen B delivers her vocals in makes the song one of the more emotional tracks of the year. The closing “Blue,” a heartfelt ode to her baby daughter, takes shape due to an unforgettable opening piano riff, before Bey takes the reigns of the track with another world-stopping vocal performance.
While she has been the most talented performer, male or female, black or white, for some time now, Beyoncé’s discography has been decidedly mixed. She’s always delivered blockbuster singles that belong to the cultural zeitgeist, but with BEYONCÉ she has taken her talents to other dimensions. Instead of being propped up by a few surefire hit singles (and those are present), the album is composed of 14 towering monuments that help in better contextualizing the era we live in, and the woman who runs the world.