Stop everything, she dropped the record.
Twas the night before Bey’mas, not that we knew it. While we were sleeping, Beyonce dropped her fifth album, this one self-titled. After what felt like constant pushing back of the still fuzzy release date, a world tour that wasn’t plugging any new material, and rumours of rewrites, here it is.
This is not an overtly commercial record. It isn’t chock full of hits, but it is possibly Beyoncé’s most musically interesting record to date. She has always been ahead of the curve. Before HAIM were a glint in anyone’s eye, she was lashing Fleetwood Mac samples on Destiny’s Child tunes. Before the wave of feminism 4.0 she was telling all the women who independent to throw their hands up at her. Her touch stones of Tina Turner, Prince, Whitney, along with a savviness when tracking dance trends online that has completely overtaken Madonna’s magpie eye, have served her well. On Beyoncé she progresses from 4, turning to the contemporary minimalism that has typified pop music for the past five years, as we’ve seen with everyone from The xx to Drake, Lorde to Burial’s continue legacy from Untrue, James Blake to Mount Kimbie, SBTRKT to Bon Iver.
I’ve only listened to Beyoncé twice so far, but here are my first impressions:
‘Pretty Hurts’ begins with a beauty contest host interviewing ‘Miss 3rd Ward’, a new Beyoncé character. You can hear Sia’s ear for melody throughout, as well as Ammo’s contributions. It’s one of the more musically traditional tracks on the record, a brilliant soaring anti-plastic surgery ballad, a brave statement about the damage body modification in the name of objectification does – something that Pink could also knock out the park well enough. The tune takes the sentiment of Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ and TLC’s ‘Unpretty’ and runs with it, focusing fully on the ridiculousness of surgery.
This idea of competing continues, with a sample of a young Beyoncé delivering a speech at a contest as the intro to the best track on the record, ‘Haunted’, which opens up with an Eno sway and a fantastic knocking drum beat, and Beyoncé’s monotone rap, the flatness of the tone reflecting the repetition of labour, “the nine to five,” Beyoncé repeats. ‘Haunted’ is the billboard-sized sign that minimalism will permeate throughout the album. There were several moments listening to this and the other tracks that embrace post-dubstep quirks where I wasn’t thinking “Drake” or “Jamie xx”, but actually “Burial”.
‘Drunk On Love’ is a brilliant emphatic punch of a swaggering tune, with Bey going for a Drake-esque flow with brilliant effect. “We woke up in this kitchen saying how the hell did this shit happen?” is a great line, and loads of her intonations are just top. Jay-Z’s rhyme falls a little flat though, it would have been kind of amazing if he came up with something classic.
When the Janet Jackson-y sexytimez jam, ‘Blow’ winds up, the album falls off a little. I don’t know how ‘No Angel’ ended up as a track on this record, but it did and we’re just going to have to deal with it. Maybe it’ll take a bunch more listens, but I don’t get it for now. Oddly, Caroline Polachek from Chairlift from was partly responsible for it. Now, moving on to ‘Partition’, again starting with a “historical” sample, this time from a Beyoncé gig. “Radio say speed it up, I just go slower.” There’s a bang of M.I.A. off this Timbaland-produced joint, with Justin Timberlake jostling with Bey, Timbaland and J-Roc for a writing credit. Into it.
It’s worth noting at this stage that these are not radio jams, by and large. They’re long, four minute plus, five minute plus, three are over six minutes long. Now, on to the Robyn-esque sentiment in ‘Jealous’, which harks back to ‘Halo’. Detail wrote it with Beyoncé and others, also working on ‘Drunk In Love’. “Boots” pops up a few times too. Who’s Boots? ‘Rocket’ is simple and inoffensive, and leads into ‘Mine’ with Drake. What I love about this track is that you expect Drake’s arrival to be his usual smooth entrance, the type of cat-burglar arrival thing he does. Instead he flops onto it in a haze of fuzzy Yeezusy filters. Again, the ghost of Burial haunts this tune big time. His flow on this actually reminds of ‘Born Slippy’! Beyoncé, chameleon-like adopts Drake’s familiar vocal mannerisms herself, at times sounding as though she’s mimicking the vocal rhythm of ‘Headlines’
‘XO’ is a sunny party tune with a sentimental heart. Very nice stuff, and I’d say Hennessy are only delighted. Now, KABLAMO! ‘Flawless’ lands. Again, back to the past, with a trip back to Star Search when Beyoncé was starting out with Girls Tyme. Here, she instructs us to “bow down bitches” and diffuses any of the potentially difficult reaction to such instruction with a feminist manifesto from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s. Rock on! Like the New York Dolls realising they were dressed ridiculously when The Ramones walked into the room in leather jackets and jeans, you’d have to think (or at least hope) that when Miley and Rihanna listen to this track they’ll have a moment of, “jaysus, we’re a couple of saps, aren’t we?”-style reflection. Beyoncé is serving realness straight up. ‘Flawless’ is yet another Beyoncé-style anthem of female empowerment from a woman who makes a sport of producing them – ‘Irreplaceable’, ‘If I Were A Boy’, ‘Single Ladies’, ‘Diva’, ‘Run The World (Girls)’, not to mention the Destiny’s Child catalogue. What’s brilliant as well is how the track concludes. Hey, Girls Tyme didn’t make it, there are setbacks in life, but you persevere and get their. Flawlessness is also about the beauty in imperfections. Wabi-sabi, bitches.
Frank Ocean is at his Prince-iest on ‘Superpower’. ‘Heaven’ is a simple but beautiful piano ballad, and the album concludes with ‘Blue’, with its namesake giggling. You could dismiss ‘Blue’ as the inevitable tune-about-the-baby, but it really reveals its complexities in a sophisticated, not schmaltzy, way.
I’m gonna give this as bunch more listens, but on these first impressions, I’m into it. As I said, not a hit factory, but not the dizazzo people were wondering could possibly emerge after all the stopping and starting. It’s really strong, loads of interesting musical moments, very contemporary, and still plenty of room for the ballads. ‘Haunted’ is my fave, followed by ‘Flawless’.