Few acts can pull off the stunt Beyoncé pulled on the night of Dec. 12. With no warning, no fanfare and no ad campaign, Beyoncé announced on her Instagram that her long-awaited self-titled fifth album, the all-caps BEYONCÉ, was now available for download on iTunes.
BEYONCÉ is what Beyoncé is calling a “visual album;” you get the songs, and every song has an accompanying music video. Every shot of every video is cinematographically perfect. Lots of time and effort (and money, surely) went into this project, you can tell. But here’s the thing: it’s not just for show. The set is really, really, REALLY good. There are no compromises on style or substance.
BEYONCÉ is unlike anything Beyoncé has ever released. And it doesn’t feel so much like a reinvention than a refocusing. It’s at once a R&B throwback and an entirely modern approach to the genre; there are only a handful of songs I can imagine radio ever touching though – “Drunk in Love,” a collaboration with Jay Z, “Pretty Hurts,” the number that opens the set and on which Beyoncé voice soars and roars through the chorus, and “Mine,” on which Drake guests – but the remix possibilities are endless starting with “Haunted.”
The album – the songs and the videos – sounds and looks like it has been choreographed, planned, storyboarded and edited to the most intricate of details. Everything you see and hear has a purpose. Most importantly, though, everything is beautiful. The move to release the album this way was gutsy, but this is a risky and risqué set by a grown-up, sexier than ever, totally in control Beyoncé. BEYONCÉ is dark and moody at times, then sentimental and romantic. Mostly though, it is sex filled. Indeed the lyrics verge from heartbreaking, heartfelt, sweet and cutesy, to coy, suggestive and downright raunchy. “Partition” and “Blow” in particular are blush-inducing: “Driver roll up the partition please / I don’t need you seeing Yoncé on her knees,” “He Monica Lewinsky-ed all an my gown,” “Take all of me / I just want to be the girl you like,” “Keep me humming / Keep me moaning,” “Can you lick my Skittles / It’s the sweetest in the middle.”
Maybe I’m delirious from the shock and excitement of the release of BEYONCÉ. I was about to write up a list of the top R&B songs and albums of 2013 and lament the fact that this year was a much weaker year than last when Miguel, Elle Varner, Melanie Fiona, Emeli Sandé and Frank Ocean released genre-redefining records. Beyoncé is changimg the game she helped create; BEYONCÉ is revolutionary. Everyone’s year-end best-of lists for 2013 need to be revised.
With less than three weeks to go, Beyoncé has snuck in and made 2013 the Year of Beyoncé.
Here’s my track-by-track video-by-video breakdown of BEYONCÉ. It’s worth noting that the grades were assigned after two full listens/viewings of the set. After digesting it for the better part of the day, it got better with every listen.
1. “Pretty Hurts” (dir. Melina Matsoukas) Video: A-; song: A
An up-tempo ballad about the shallow nature of show business, and the lengths people will go to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty. Harvey Keitel appears in the video for the song.
“Try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see / It’s the soul that needs a surgery.”
2. “Ghost” (dir. Pierre Debusschere) Video: A+; song: A-
An interlude of sorts with a runtime of 2:32, “Ghost” is a song with a hypnotic beat about working hard and not getting due recognition. So, not Beyoncé.
3. “Haunted” (dir. Jonas Akerlund) Video: A++; song: A+
A video with striking shots and some eye-popping visuals; a song that I expect will be remixed, sped up and a hit on the dance charts.
4. “Drunk in Love” feat. Jay Z (dir. Hype Williams) Video: A-; song: A++
The most radio-friendly and radio-ready cut on the set. The crisp black-and-white video was shot on a beach and night and directed by Hype Williams.
5. “Blow” (dir. Hype Williams) Video: A++; song: A
Beyoncé at her sexiest. This is a fun song that’s a bluesy-Motown-disco hybrid. And again, visuals are so on point.
6. “No Angel” (dir. @LILINTERNET) Video: A, song: B+
This is one of the simplest songs on the album but it’s oddly affecting. The shots of everyday people doing everyday things with Beyoncé singing “You’re no angel either, baby” worked.
7. “Yoncé” (dir. Ricky Saiz) Video: A, song: A-
The shortest cut in the release, the “Yoncé” video finds Beyoncé channelling her inner ratchet girl. Yoncé is her Sasha Fierce, but she raps.
“And why you think you keep my name rolling off the tongue
‘Cause when he want a smash I just write another one
I sneeze on the beat and the beat got sicker
Yoncé, y’all, on his mouth like liquor”
8. “Partition” (dir. Jake Nava) Video: A++; song: A+
This is daring, risqué stuff, even for pantsphobic Beyoncé. I can’t stress enough how visually impressive all of these videos are, and “Partition” is among the strongest in the bunch. This is “Naughty Girl” by way of this new Beyoncé. “I just wanna be the girl you like / Take all of me”
9. “Jealous” (dirs. Beyoncé, Francesco Carrozzini & Todd Tourso) Video: B+; song: A-
A little moment of weakness for Beyoncé on this track: “I hate you for your lies and your covers / And I hate us but we give good love to each other /And I love making you jealous but don’t judge me.”
10. “Rocket” (dirs. Beyoncé, Ed Burke & Bill Kirstein) Video: B; song: B+
The second black-and-white video on the album is the least exciting one visually. But the competition is stiff.
11. “Mine” feat. Drake (dir. Pierre Debusschere) Video: A-; song: A++
“All I’m really asking for is you / Long as you know who you belong to” goes the haunting chorus. I don’t see a scenario where this doesn’t become a huge hit for her and Drake.
12. “XO” (dir. Terry Richardson) Video: B; song: B
“XO” can be interpreted as a happy love song or Beyoncé’s appreciation for her fans. “I search through the crowd / Your face is all that I see / I give you everything / Baby love me lights out.” Either way, compared to the rest of the album, this is kind of safe and unexciting.
13. “***Flawless” feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (dir. Jake Nava) Video: B+; song: A-
The song is a real grower. Released earlier in the year in the lead-up to the Mrs. Carter World Tour as “Bow Down/I Been On,” it’s been edited and shortened, with the “I Been On” part replaced with an empowering hook (“I woke up like this …”). The video on BEYONCÉ is also not the same one used to promote the Mrs. Carter World Tour. This one’s a black-and-white grunge fest with Beyoncé reminding us she’s been running the game for a long, long time.
14. “Superpower” feat. Frank Ocean (dir. Jonas Akerlund) Video: A-; song: A-
Smooooooooooth. With guest vocals by Frank Ocean, the two singers tap into their lower registers and exercise perfect restraint on this nice jam. Beyoncé’s Destiny’s Child bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams are in the video, along with Pharrell Williams, who helped produce BEYONCÉ.
15. “Heaven” (dirs. Beyoncé & Todd Tourso) Video: A-; song: A
“Heaven couldn’t wait for you, so go on go home.” A sweet song that showcases Beyoncé’s vocals. About someone gone too soon.
16. “Blue” feat. Blue Ivy (dirs. Beyoncé, Ed Burke & Bill Kirstein) Video: A-; song: B+
Infinitely sweet song about Beyoncé’s sweet daughter Blue Ivy, who’s featured prominently in the video. As far as songs about offspring go, this one is as cheese-free as it gets.
17. “Grown Woman” (dir. Jake Nava) Video: A++; song: A++
The song seemed like it was going to be an upcoming single. Beyoncé performed “Grown Woman” on the Mrs. Carter World Tour. The song is a foot-stompin’, booty-shaking, hand-clapping good time.