Rating:2013 was a year of bold promotional campaigns in popular music, from Kanye West’s Yeezus wall screenings to Arcade Fire’s post-“Saturday Night Live” Reflektor television special and Daft Punk’s vintage Random Access Memories billboards. Beyoncé Knowles, a contender for the title of “biggest pop star in the world,” bucked this trend when she released her fifth full-length solo record. The self-titled album dropped with little by way of pre-announcement on December 13th while Knowles was in the midst of a world tour. Fans logged onto iTunes in droves to fork out $15.99 for not only 14 new Beyoncé tracks but several accompanying short films.
Beyoncé’s “sneak attack” approach to releasing her latest project is consistent with the album’s confident tone. The pop musician doesn’t need clever gimmicks to remind the world that she exists. The vitality of the music speaks for itself. Beyoncé has not only produced the most fully realized record of her career so far but also has constructed a provocative, meditative, pro-feminist, pro-family, sex-positive ode to monogamy in the 21st century.
Of course, not everyone agrees precisely on what Beyoncé is trying to say. Many feminist bloggers have praised the pop star’s proud projection of her sexuality on her own terms, her promotion of a positive body image and her inclusion of an excerpt from a TED talk on feminism by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Meanwhile, some old-school feminists have expressed queasiness over the sexually explicit content of both the music videos and the songs themselves, postulating that they are more exploitative than empowering. Nevertheless, it is clear that Beyoncé, who recently penned a web article titled “Gender Equality Is a Myth!,” has entered the ring of “pop feminism.” She has positioned herself as part of the movement to bring complex, ambiguous ideas about marriage and gender performativity from academic journals and seminar classrooms into the realm of pop-culture discourse.
Beyoncé, then, is largely an album about finding a way to be comfortable in one’s skin, to be both an independent woman and an empathetic spouse. It’s no accident that the record begins with Harvey Keitel asking Beyoncé what her ambition is in life, only to have the pop star answer, “My aspiration in life … would be to be happy.” The ensuing opening anthem is both a beauty-pageant deconstruction and a summation of the record’s thesis: “Perfection is the disease of a nation/ We shine the light on whatever’s worse/ But you can’t fix what you can’t see/ It’s the soul that needs the surgery.” This assertion of personal confidence echoes throughout the album, as we see on Beyoncé’s “Look at Me Now”-ish denouncement of her critics on “***Flawless” (“I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife/ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted/ This is my shit, bow down bitches”) and the hip-hop bravado of “Partition” (“I sneezed on this beat, and the beat got sicker”).
While Beyoncé asserts her independence at every turn, she simultaneously expresses the bliss of her physical relationship with her partner. It seems unlikely that Jay-Z can listen to Beyoncé without blushing. We get every sex metaphor in the book, from waterfalls to rockets to various food items (see Skittles, for example). Beyoncé doesn’t always rely on figurative language. Sometimes she cuts right to the chase, giving us lines like “Keep me coming, keep me going/ Keep me humming, keep me moaning” and “Let me sit this ass on you/ Show you how I feel.” The integrity of the pop singer’s forceful voice and the passion in her delivery make these visits behind closed doors seem natural rather than gratuitous and cheap. This is partly because Beyoncé proves herself a realist by depicting the dark side of married life as well, from the emotional threat of infidelity (“Jealous”) to the tragedy of a miscarriage (“Heaven”).
No matter how important the pop star’s messages might seem, they would be all for naught if it weren’t for the high-spirited, sonically adventurous music that accompanies the lyrics. Working with industry all-star producers such as Pharrell Williams, The-Dream and Timbaland as well as more obscure artists, such as Boots and Caroline Polachek of the synthpop duo Chairlift, Beyoncé constructs a palette of sounds and grooves at the cross-section of today’s radio music and the indie underground. The spare, bass-heavy rhythms of “Haunted” are reminiscent of the xx, while the alien-sounding hip-hop verses on the same song sound in spirit like Kendrick Lamar. “Rocket” is straight up porn-gospel, with Beyoncé sexily harmonizing with herself. There are touches of Sinatra-esque torch ballad on “Mine” and minimalist doo-wop on “Superpower.”
While this sonic eclecticism feels both progressive and backward-looking at the same time, the tune “No Angel” represents the biggest leap for Beyoncé as an artist. The pop star has made her name by having an angelic, nearly flawless voice. On “No Angel,” the diva is clearly out of her range, forcing an airy falsetto that lacks her usual rich, resounding tone. This is the musical equivalent of Beyoncé standing naked with no computer software or airbrushing to disguise the imperfections of the human body. The pop star has never been more vulnerable and real. She has also never been so vital and important. Over four albums, Beyoncé has perfected the creation of pop music. On her fifth, she has figured out how to make art.