It all makes sense now.
In an era where the element of surprise is all but dead, Bey pulled off the impossible: she shocked the world, releasing her self-titled fifth album without a shred of promotion or advance notice. Not only that, but she packaged the thing with a staggering 17 music videos — each of which is a gorgeous, fully-realized piece — making Beyoncé a true 360-experience, perhaps the first of our time (and certainly the first by an artist of her magnitude).
Given the profile of the project, and the sheer amount of people involved in its creation, it’s a miracle no one knew it existed … but somehow, she managed to keep it under wraps. Beyoncé is the Area 51 of albums.
But is it any good? Well, given that it’s only existed for 12 hours now, it’s tough to give it a full-and-proper review, though since we’re all experiencing it together, I think it’s safe to side with popular opinion: Yes, Beyoncé is good. Very good. It’s a common practice to refer to any artist’s latest release as “their most personal,” but in this case, that assessment is true.
Beyoncé pulls no punches, makes no attempt at hiding her flaws or insecurities. Believe it or not, she is not always perfect, a point she drives home on tracks like “Pretty Hurts,” “Jealous” and “Mine,” where she reveals the rocky patches in her high-profile marriage to Jay Z — “I’m not feeling like myself since the baby/Are we even going to make it?” — and seems to confirm reports that the couple went through a separation.
She also spends portions of the album exploring the transformative powers of motherhood (“Blue,” featuring a cameo by her daughter) and the changing face of feminism (“*** Flawless,”) yet despite her newfound sense of self, on cold, coital tracks like “Haunted,” she is unafraid to admit that she needs someone to make her feel whole. There are homages to her hometown of Houston — the re-appearance of her “Third Ward Trill” character, the re-purposing of early track “Bow Down,” the rap-sung jabs of “Yoncé — celebratory odes to love (“Drunk in Love,” “XO”) and, of course, plenty of affirmations for her females … chief amongst them, the “I woke up like this” coda to “Flawless.”
And, oh yes, there are plenty of songs about sex, and they’re the best of the bunch: “Blow” is a roller-disco jam that starts all breathy, then morphs into a masterful recreation of mid-’80s First Avenue funk, “Partition” is a slinky, silky ode to auto eroticism, and “Rocket” is a slowed-down jam in the purest sense of the term. When combined with the other subject material covered on Beyoncé, these songs help flesh out the most fully-realized portrait of a superstar in recent memory. The fact that she includes old track “Grown Woman” as a music video almost feels like overkill: after listening, we all know she’s good and grown.
Speaking of those music videos, while most artists tend to include them as deluxe-edition ephemera, Beyoncé made them an integral part of the experience. “I see music, it’s more than just what I hear,” she said in a statement that accompanied the album’s release, and she wasn’t lying. Working with the best in the business — directors like Hype Williams, Jonas Åkerlund and Jake Nava — she’s created a collection of 17 clips, each of which could serve as a standalone (and some of the best, like “Pretty Hurts,” “Blow,” “Superpower” and “Rocket” probably will). But, when viewed as a whole, they truly elevate Beyoncé beyond a mere album … it becomes a work of art, a fully conceptualized experience few could hope to match.
In the coming days, Beyoncé’s release strategy will undoubtedly be the subject of much discussion, and rightfully so. But, when the smoke clears and attention turns to the album’s content — the honesty, the ambition, the homages, the anthems, and the artistry — its true impact can more accurately be measured. This is an album that reveals itself gradually, with pace and purpose, the kind of thing artists dream of making. And Beyoncé’s done it. With one bold gambit, she’s turned the industry on its ear and proven that, yes, it’s still possible to surprise. She’s given us all a gift, and now it’s up to us all to unwrap it. All hail Her Majesty the Queen, our patron.