In his introduction to our list of the 25 Best Albums of 2013, Slant’s Ted Scheinman heralded the LP’s resilience despite persistent reports of its demise: “If album-as-format is dead,” he reasoned, “it’s enjoying one hell of an afterlife.” Thirty-six hours later, Beyoncé bolstered his point with, if not one of the year’s best albums, certainly one of its most notable. Ms. Knowles explained via Facebook that she wanted to create an “immersive experience” by shooting music videos for all of the songs on her fifth album, Beyoncé, and releasing them simultaneously. And in a move that was unexpected (and, perhaps, wise given the recent rocky or perpetually delayed releases by her fellow divas), she eschewed the usual media hype and industry prognostications by releasing the “visual album” sans any pre-release promotion whatsoever. The law of diminishing expectations.
“Probably won’t make no money off of this, oh well,” she half-raps, half-shrugs on “Ghost,” as if directly countering Scheinman’s silver linings playbook. “Don’t trust these record labels/I’m touring,” she laments, making sure we know she’s aware of her privileged plight by following up with, “All these people on the planet/Workin’ nine to five just to stay alive/How come?” Hey, at least she bothers to wonder. Elsewhere, her typical third-wave feminism yields to some more traditional feminist missives: The self-help-as-pop-song “Pretty Hurts”—which, as she intended, is much more “immersive” in tandem with its visual counterpart—includes the admittedly catchy slogan (and inevitable meme) “It’s my soul that needs surgery,” while “***Flawless” tempers its liberal use of the word “bitches” with a sample from a TED Talk on contemporary feminism by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and a self-conscious, if not apologetic, performance from ’Yonce in the video.
The pointedly titled Beyoncé is also surprisingly, strikingly personal. If 2011’s 4 revealed Bey’s yen to have Jay-Z’s baby (which, according to our own Eric Henderson, who apparently moonlights as a clairvoyant to the stars, it most definitely did), then Beyoncé wants you to know that life isn’t all peaches and cream in the Carter household. “Been having conversations about breakups and separations/I’m not feelin’ myself since the baby/Are we even gonna make it?” she sings on “Mine” after questioning her man’s loyalty on the standout ballad “Jealous.” But she also wants you to know that they’re working it out—and having lots and lots of sex.
Beyoncé is, in fact, the singer’s most sexually explicit album to date, from the spectacular sub-bass smut of “Partition” to the post-disco slink of “Blow,” which has zero interest in subtlety (sample lyric: “Can you lick my Skittles/That’s the sweetest in the middle/Pink is the flavor/Solve the riddle”). The relationship thread reaches its climax with “XO,” a “Halo”-esque power ballad that, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear even from the amusement park-set video, begins with a dubious sample of NASA’s flight-control dispatcher during the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.
Ultimately, neither Beyoncé’s stealthy release nor its visual accompaniment breaks much precedent for the LP format. Death Grips’ Government Plates was released unannounced (and for free) exactly one month earlier, and similarly featured music videos for every track; Beyoncé herself dropped an “Anthology Video Album” as part of the deluxe edition of her sophomore effort, B’Day, in 2007. Instead, what makes the album significant is the fact that its creator is a bona fide superstar who, apparently, seems to care more about following her creative bliss than scoring easy hits. And it takes her (and us) to some mighty weird and exhilarating places.