66:35 min • Parkwood / Columbia • December 13, 2013
Little Bastard reviews
Now, I don’t like Beyoncé. I never really have. I like ‘Green Light’ (the original version, not the hideous Freemasons remix), and the majority of her last album 4, but I have never really understood her standing as one of biggest artists in the world. Then something incredible happened. Without any promotion, in what seemed like complete secret, Beyoncé managed to release her fifth studio album. And it’s fucking amazing! This new self-titled visual album is easily the most artistic thing Beyoncé has done, and instead of 3 minute commercial pop songs, Knowles has chosen to go down the route carved out by her peers and has worked with her co-writers to produce a soul opus, where songs travel from genre to genre, from future hip-hop and trap to electro r’n’b and sex slow-jams. Beyoncé raps and purrs, and whilst her voice is in solid shape, there’s little of the vocal gymnastics we’ve come to expect from her. This album is not about booty shaking, getting to number one and showing off her vocal range. This album is about the music and the artistry. And this is certainly a review I never thought I’d be writing.
The album is a mixed bag of influences, mainly the future funk of people like The Internet, Blood Orange and Beyoncé’s sister Solange (often thought of as the ‘cool one’) and with a list of collaborators that includes the crème de la crème of pop and hip hop, from Timbaland and Justin Timberlake to Pharrell and Sia (but who isn’t working with Sia these days?). She even takes producer Boots out of almost complete obscurity and writes some of the most interesting work of her career with him.
Right from the opening moments of the Sia-penned ‘Pretty Hurts’, a harsh and emotional pop ballad about the beauty industry, where Beyoncé’s beauty pageant character says her ambition in life is “to be happy”, (the accompanying video to which has made me cry every time I’ve seen it … I know, I’m a wuss), through to her duet with her own daughter, Blue Ivy, on the gorgeous ‘Blue’ (not as soppy as you’d expect), Beyoncé runs through countless emotions in songs of female empowerment and vulnerability. She sings about eating disorders, post natal depression, love and sex (lots and lots of sex, actually) and, making this a visual album, she works on videos with everyone from Hype Williams to Terry Richardson.
The real surprise for me is that it’s flawless. An obvious artistic statement, and probably the first time in Knowles career that she can truly be seen as an artist, this is an album made for love, not money. On second track ‘Haunted’ (the first part of which is separated as ‘Ghosts’ for the visual album, and has it’s own FKA Twigs inspired video) she sings
Probably won’t make any money off this – oh well –
And you really get the feeling that despite the large production values and the amount of capital that must have been ploughed into the project, money and chart success are the least of her worries. The album doesn’t so much have stand out tracks – it’s all bloody brilliant – but there are songs worth mentioning.
The Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell penned ‘Blow’, for instance, whilst being the most commercial thing here, has become my jam. Slinky, funky, filthy, it recalls ‘Doncha’ by The Internet, but with added fellatio. It is almost Pharrell and Justin by numbers, but still manages to sound unique in the vast cannon of Beyoncé’s pop material with its Deep Throat does roller disco video.
Elsewhere, the gorgeous ‘XO’, the next single, is probably the most overtly beautiful pop song Beyoncé has ever written or indeed sung, and its accompanying video by current controversial genius Terry Richardson (surprisingly the least sexual thing here) is a stunningly shot love/drug trip through Coney Island. She raps on the brilliant ‘Partition’ (the rap section of which is referred to in the visual album as ‘Yonce’, and includes the line
I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker,
Yonce all on his mouth like liquor –
which is one of my favourite lines on the album) that then transforms into a sexy r’n’b club jam in which Beyoncé part-sings, part-speaks and part-purrs her way through. Many of the songs, like Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, transform (or in some cases completely change) half way through, and this is one of them. Another is her duet with Drake, ‘Mine’, the aforementioned postnatal depression song, which starts off as a Beyoncé piano ballad and then, a minute or so in, switches to a quintessential Drake track. It’s this sonic experimentation that sets this Beyoncé album apart from the rest of her work.
She has a writing credit on each song, and I think this shows in the lyrics and melodies. These are not chart-friendly pop songs, and it stands to reason that, in writing heavily for the first time in her career, the result would be less commercial and melody driven. Not saying the songs are bad, they’re just … interesting, often without the traditional form that normally permeates her pop driven work. The biggest surprise for me is a song leaked early last year on Soundcloud, originally called ‘Bow Down’ and now renamed ‘Flawless’. Not only is this the hardest hip-hop we get on the album, it’s also incredibly artistic, the entire middle section of the song being a speech by Nigerian academic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about what it truly is to be a feminist, before Knowles spits
My sister told me I should speak my mind –
solidifying my opinion that Solange has had a strong artistic influence on this body of work. Ok, so both song and video are Rihanna at her most interesting (as well as being Destiny’s Child on acid) but the sight of Beyoncé in a warehouse dressed in a checked shirt done up to the top, moshing with skinheads and singing and rapping about feminism makes me very happy.
So, yes, at points this feels a little bit like Beyoncé is trying on her sister’s clothes, kind of like when Kylie released Body Language yet in the same way Yeezus by Kayne West managed to be, assembled of other people but still be quintessentially Kayne. The same thing happens here. I could talk to you for hours about this album, but as Beyoncé intended, maybe you should just experience it … with as little preconception as possible. My suggestion would be to watch the visual album all the way through, from beginning to end. Then you can begin the process of becoming obsessed with each song individually, as I have. This album hasn’t made me a Beyoncé fan. I still wouldn’t want to see her live as I know I would be waiting for the new material and dreading ‘Single Ladies’ and ‘Crazy In Love’, but I do hope this new Beyoncé is around for a while. She made the tail end of a brilliant year for music even more interesting.