It’s only taken five albums, but we’ve finally got to the real woman. She’s shed her Sasha Fierce alter ego and Mrs Carter tour title; she is now simply ’Beyoncé’.
This album has been a long time coming what with almost continuous speculation throughout 2013, advertisement campaigns for Pepsi and H&M, and a sell-out world tour. It’s been a struggle, as she bitingly claims on Haunted: “All these record labels are boring, don’t trust these record labels I’m torn”. Yet at fourteen tracks long, each with its own video, this ‘visual album’ has been well worth the gruelling wait – clearly Beyoncé knows what she’s doing.
But what is a visual album? In the press release she explains: “I see music. It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies”.
Essentially, though, she’s filmed all the music videos in advance – no mean feat alongside her tour dates. Each certainly complements the music with some fascinating imagery, but whether they’re an integral part of the experience rather than just a series of curiosities is up for debate. Moreover, will anyone watch them repeatedly? Unlikely. What’s left, then, is the music – does it stand alone?
The title may seem to be lacking in creativity, but importantly she’s consolidated each aspect of her personality into one single name. Here she is the sex-bomb, the independent woman, the doting mother and the loving wife. Thematically it might tread on familiar ground, but as with Timberlake’s ‘20/20 Experience’, ‘Beyoncé’ is her opus, her ultimate album, her true statement of intent.
Pretty Hurts makes for an incredibly strong opening track, even if it’s a typical Beyoncé power ballad about the superficiality of image. Here the target is plastic surgery - “Perfection is a disease of a nation”, she sings with yearning melodies, “It’s the soul that needs the surgery”. The video, meanwhile, is a powerful story of a beauty queen popping pills and vomiting. It definitely establishes a gritty, adult image of her that continues throughout the album.
This criticism of image is somewhat undermined by a number of the videos. Drunk In Love, for example, sees Bey writhing around on a beach whilst singing about how she’s “drunk in love” with husband Jay-Z (whose feature rap includes an irrelevant mention of wife-beating Ike Turner). Essentially it’s her Rihanna moment, albeit in a far more sophisticated form of sexuality than the Bajan singer. It’s followed by Blow, a lyrically vacuous song about oral-sex (“keep me coming keep me going, keep me humming keep me moaning”) accompanied by a neon lit dance routine (and a cheeky cameo for sister Solange). Later, Rocket is an R&B slow-jam with a video full of laughable sexual imagery ("let me sit this ass on you" it begins). That said, it’s hard to criticise her need for sexual empowerment when she looks so stunning. Nobody does sexy as well as Beyoncé.
You can also forgive her when the music is so good – Drunk In Love a hip-hop infused love ballad, Blow a Timberlake-esque funk-disco number. As a whole, ‘Beyoncé’ is a much tougher effort than her previous material, with utterly contemporary production that’s often cold, metallic and darkly sexual. Take Partition for instance – here Bey half raps, half sings over a finger-click beat and sparse, fizzing synths, its sexual lyrics including the line “He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown” before cooing “take all of me”. The accompanying video fittingly plays out like some dark sexual fantasy.
Other tracks include the sinister Haunted; Mine, a duet with Drake, with a Virgin Mary referencing video that’s a little overblown; breezy love song XO; and Jealous - an intense, sincere power ballad that strikes a truly emotional note.
However, it’s important to note that, as if in answer to her critics who claim her past albums are simply padding for her singles, ‘Beyoncé’ contains few discernible singles. Instead it’s intended to be listened to as a complete work. As such, it’s lacking the usual big belting tracks – the emphasis is on the production rather than her vocals, which remain muted throughout. This may not be what fans are expecting, but she’s doing something different – and that’s exciting, right?
And then we get to ***Flawless. It begins with Bow Down that she released as a demo earlier in the year, where she spits out “bow down bitches” to her competition. It soon morphs into a feminist monologue from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“we teach girls to shrink themselves to make themselves smaller…because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage”), before Bey launches into her own diatribe where she sarcastically boasts “I woke up like this”. Above all her previous tracks, this is her most explicitly feminist song and her true anthem for independent women.
It’s followed by Superpower featuring Frank Ocean: a track that is significant predominantly for its militaristic video that sees Bey marching against police alongside everyone from her career, including the likes of Destiny’s Child, Pharrell Williams and even her tour support act Luke James. Penultimate track Heaven is a poignant, piano-led ballad (“heaven couldn’t wait for you”), whilst final track Blue is dedicated to her daughter. Its thematic significance is obvious, rounding out the Beyoncé personality, but the album does tail off a little towards the end.
Also noteworthy is the lack of the Sia-penned Standing On The Sun used on the H&M advert – will this ever see release? Grown Woman, meanwhile, is disappointingly included purely as a video.
As a whole, then, ‘Beyoncé’ is a tough, powerful and honest album from the current Queen of Pop; a deeply personal work of art. The lack of singles and modern, hip-hop tinged production may not be what you’d expect from her music, but there’s only one woman on the planet that could release an album of such high quality with no marketing, causing such an Internet sensation. After all, she’s a grown woman – she can do whatever she likes.
* Pretty Hurts
Listen: 'Beyoncé' is available now from iTunes.