At the Last Minute, Queen Beyoncé Saves Pop Music in 2013

For the better part 2013, the release of Beyoncé‘s new album had been somewhat of a running joke. We expected a new album after her Super Bowl performance. When we didn’t get that, we expected it in the summer. No luck. We waited patiently, thinking she’d release sometime in Q4 alongside other pop stars like Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus. Our pleas for information went unanswered. Instead, we got snippets of new songs by way of Pepsi and H&M commercials. Eventually, rumors began to swirl that Bey had scrapped her album and started anew, which is hardly ever a good sign.

But then, last week: SURPRISE! Beyoncé released her fifth (and best) solo album exclusively on iTunes without so much as an announcement tweet. And just like that, she changed the game.

The Music

It’s good. Like really good. Like, if it had been released a month ago, it would have topped a lot of “Best Of” lists good. It is, unquestionably, Beyoncé’s best album. Bey made great strides with 2011’s 4, and Beyoncé takes the best elements of that album and expands upon them.

Until 4, Beyoncé albums were always something to get excited about, but taken as whole pieces of art, they were inconsistent, full of fillers, and a bit all-over-the-place. For every “Crazy In Love,” there was a less-exciting “That’s How You Like It.” For every “Single Ladies,” there was the entire I Am… half of I Am… Sasha Fierce. Beyoncé is an album, a complete body of work that demands to be heard (or seen — more on that in a bit) start-to-finish. It owes more to indie, minimalist R&B like The Weeknd than it does to anything currently storming up the Billboard charts. In that way, it is a quieter, more nuanced record than any of Bey’s previous attempts.

Beyoncé is aggressively sexual, but not in a “Miley Cyrus at the VMAs” way. “Drunk in Love,” “Blow,” “Partition,” and “Rocket” are all songs built by sex, for sex. They are sex. They are sex in the back of a limousine, they are intoxicated sex on the kitchen floor, they are slow, sensuous, all-night sex. They are the sounds of an adult woman confident in her own sexuality, not of an awkward teenager looking to attract a mate at a school dance. There is nothing wrong with sexuality, and so much of the criticism focused on Miley this last year was not because she’s a sexual being but because she just looked ridiculous, like an unwrapped gag gift placed atop a pile of immaculately-dressed Christmas presents. Beyoncé, on the other hand, is incapable of looking ridiculous. (Just kidding!)  But seriously, Beyoncé’s embracing of her sexuality is empowering, especially when you realize that she is simultaneously embracing her motherhood, her independence, her marriage, her success, her self. This is a celebration of every facet of her own womanhood.

The key to deciphering this aspect of Beyoncé comes during a spoken word sample from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk in “**Flawless*” Here is the transcribed sample:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”

On Beyoncé, there is no “Single Ladies,” no “Irreplaceable.” Were any of these songs to truly take off at radio, I would find myself genuinely surprised. That is not to say songs like “Pretty Hurts,” “Jealous,” or “XO” couldn’t catch on, because they could. But that’s not the point. The point, as Beyoncé herself explained, was to create and release a full body of work, for the fans. Because she’s Beyoncé, she did just that. (This is what Lady Gaga claimed she would do with ARTPOP, and despite that album not being bad, she ultimately didn’t walk the walk.)

The Videos

The concept of a music video for every song on an album is not new. In fact, Beyoncé did this in 2006 for her B’Day album. This is the first time, however, that all of the videos have been released simultaneously with the album. Beyoncé calls it a “visual album,” and that’s exactly what it is. Until now, though, this gimmick never succeeded. The videos always looked cheap, because artists spent their video budget on 12 videos instead of just two or three. That is not the case here.

Like the music, the videos are good. Many of them are among Beyoncé’s best (Destiny’s Child days included.) Directors like Jonas Åkerlund, Hype Williams, and Melina Matsoukas contributed. The videos are just as important as the music, and you only really understand how good this album is if you watch it from start to finish. From the melodramatic pageantry of “Pretty Hurts” to the tongue-in-cheek face-morphed footage of (bonus video) “Grown Woman,” Beyoncé works just as well visually as it does sonically.

The Release

Generally speaking, the music should stand on its own, outside of its historical context (read: album hype cycle). In Beyoncé‘s case, though, we must make an exception, if only because there was no album hype cycle. While artists like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry spent months promoting their new albums ahead of release, only to sell a fraction of what Beyoncé‘s on track to sell in just three days, Queen Bey proves that, sometimes, the best gimmick is no gimmick. Sometimes the art just needs to speak for itself.

And perhaps the most genius part? This can never be replicated to the same effect. Sure, other artists will try it, but the novelty will be gone. This is Bey’s moment. And she owned it. 

In Summary

Album Score: 9/10

Highlights: “Pretty Hurts,” “Haunted,” “Drunk in Love,” “Partition,” “Jealous,” “XO,” “**Flawless,” and “Heaven.”

Video Highlights: “Pretty Hurts,” “Haunted,” “Yoncé,” “Partition,” “Mine,” and “Grown Woman.”

Lowlights: “Superpower (Feat. Frank Ocean)” is the only song that doesn’t really pull its weight, which is disappointing considering Bey + Frank = a should-be smash.

Now that you know what we think, tell us what you think!

Lyrics for the full album are now on Directlyrics.