Released December 13, 2013
Album length 1 hr, 6 min, 35 sec
Nobody saw it coming.
The night of December 12, 2013, as the clock struck 12 and the day shifted to December 13, Beyoncé dropped her fifth studio album, with zero promotion, zero prior notice, zero indication that anything was coming. She’d been working on music, sure, but there was no timetable or hints at singles, let alone an entire album, let alone an album with a video for every single song. Coming off of the more modest success of previous album 4, Beyoncé was a statement.
Beyoncé Knowles is back, and you’d best be prepared – she’s going straight to the top.
And straight to the top she went. With over 800,000 sales in three days – a weekend, Friday to Sunday. On one platform, that platform being iTunes. Was a lot of that hype stemming from the fact that this album came out of fucking nowhere? Sure. That’s certainly why I bought it (after that weekend, but not long). But the thing that people like me, who bought the album without really knowing what it would bring, discovered, was that this is likely going to be remembered as one of the greatest pop albums in history. It’s already Beyoncé’s best album, by far. It outclasses everything she’s done with Destiny’s Child, not even a contest. This album is the power of pop, the power of women, the power of feminism, from track one to track fourteen.
Like with ARTPOP, this subject matter is something that I am wildly unqualified to discuss in depth, and I’m going to tread lightly in recognition of that lack of qualification. Beyoncé is an album very, very concerned with embracing sexuality as a positive feeling and a positive aspect of life. Many of the album’s songs – “Drunk in Love” being one of those – focus on this, and all of them are unabashedly positive in their depictions of sexual activity. Even Jay-Z’s verse on “Drunk in Love” is a feel-good verse, unusual coming from good ol’ Hov.
Beyoncé is careful not to push this as the central strength of femininity, because of course it’s not. There is no central strength, because they’re all equal. Beyoncé embraces all aspects of femininity, and is not afraid of throwing bombs at people who refuse to do the same. “Pretty Hurts” is a lamentation of American society’s common view of women as objects, where Beyoncé lays out the pain and frustration in being valued solely for looks, and not for anything important – like, for instance, the fact that women are people, too. Keep that in mind, boys. Don’t ever forget it.
“***Flawless” is the epitome of Beyoncé’s thoughts on the subject of feminism and femininity, anchored by the obscenely powerful hook of “bow down bitches.” The track is aimed entirely at critics of feminism, those ignorant enough to not understand why women are not willing to take what America has been handing them for the better part of two hundred years. Has progress been made? Certainly. But in “***Flawless,” Beyoncé sends out a call for action, a motto – and then she steps aside for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in an unedited sample, to lay out a number of reasons why feminism is still essential, why it is necessary, why it must always be a movement for everyone to support. This one sample – less than a minute of the song – is the single most powerful moment on Beyoncé. It’s probably the single most powerful moment on any pop album, ever, because this is an album that millions of people have heard. That’s important. That’s essential.
Keep that in mind.
Aside from larger topics intended to apply to large swaths of her listeners, Beyoncé touches on personal topics as well. “Jealous” is about uncertainty in long-term relationships, with hints that it isn’t a song about general subjects, while “Mine” is more specific in regards to fears regarding the future of a relationship in the wake of having a child. But nothing on the album is as personal as the one-two punch of “Heaven” and “Blue,” which are, respectively, about the child Beyoncé lost, and the child Beyoncé has now.
Both of these are, naturally, incredibly poignant, powerful tracks, because nothing is more powerful than singing about the things closest to you. Especially when children are involved. “Heaven” is a vocal tribute to a child that Beyoncé miscarried around 2011, expressing the sentiment that the child had “gone home” in the wake of the tragedy, as “heaven couldn’t wait for you.” The track ends with the Lord’s Prayer spoken in Spanish, over a single ambient note.
This might be one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Beyoncé’s voice breaks a couple times during it. I’m pretty sure I cried the first time I listened to it.
“Blue,” named after Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, is a tribute in a similar vein, though it is, appropriately, a much more uplifting track, in which Beyoncé expresses and reiterates her love for her daughter. The song’s music swells in intensity and instrumentation as it goes, only dropping out for the very end. The track, and the album with it, ends with quiet audio of Blue Ivy herself.
This one probably made me cry, too, for different reasons.
These two tracks are highlights on an album comprised entirely of highlights, and their relative musical simplicity puts the focus entirely on Beyoncé’s gorgeous vocals and supremely personal lyrics. They do what only the best music is capable of doing – making you feel what Beyoncé feels on the most personal level possible, and they cap off the greatest pop album of the last twenty years. Incredible.
The album’s features are similarly on-point. Jay-Z’s presence on “Drunk in Love” helps hammer home the album’s major theme of sexuality, intertwining with his wife’s vocals using his usual effortlessly genius flow. Drake, surprisingly, does something similar in his verse on “Mine,” complementing Beyoncé in a way that I honestly didn’t believe Drake was capable of doing, because he’s Drake. His verse makes for a great interlude towards the end of the track, throwing out great lines like “I know you think it’s funny that your ex is not a running back / but that nigga came running back.” My boy Frank Ocean completes the Jay/Kanye/Beyoncé trifecta with his feature on “Superpower,” delivering an understated performance that appropriately takes a backseat to Beyoncé’s own vocals. It’s a light track that doesn’t take a lot to listen to, providing for a good palate-cleanser before diving into the album’s closing tracks.
And the beats. My god, the beats. These are some sick-ass beats, and I mean that. Beyoncé curates a wide amount of diversity in the music she has on Beyoncé, and none of these songs really allow themselves to fit into the traditional “pop” sound. Several songs use pitch-shifting and vocal samples, most notably the opening of “***Flawless,” while others set their sights on the traditional sounds of other genres, such as the choir-esque a cappella vocals of “Superpower.” “Heaven” has elements of a funeral dirge, while a number of songs take pop sounds and darken them, crunching them into heavy, distorted beats, like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” This is some of the best pop production I’ve heard in a long time.
Beyoncé’s legacy has already been set. Breaking out of Destiny’s Child to become a pop superstar in her own right, Beyoncé and Jay-Z built empires separately, and then brought them together to become the biggest force in music. These were giants as individuals, and it’s unbelievable how far they’ve come together. But Beyoncé is never satisfied, and Beyoncé is her way of letting us know that she’s never going to sit back and set her music on autopilot. No, Beyoncé is fully in control of her career, her music, and the entire pop world, and Beyoncé is a thesis on why Beyoncé can do whatever the fuck she wants.
Your move, Gaga.
– Today’s post is part one of two, because Beyoncé is an album defined as much by its visuals as its music. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the seventeen music videos that comprise the latter half of Beyoncé, both in relation to the music and as an independent long-form music video.
– I was very, very worried about writing about Beyoncé’s subject matter, because it is incredibly important, and I, being a straight, white male, am incredibly susceptible to saying things that I have no business saying. That’s no excuse, obviously, but I felt that I could do this album justice while still remaining within the boundaries of what I can talk about given my biological status and knowledge of music. Hopefully, I did well. If not, well, tell me, and I’ll do my best to fix my perceptions.
– Did you read today’s post about Halftime Magazine? If you didn’t, please do.