Shocking everyone, Beyonce dropped her fifth studio album with no promotion, no single, and no warning. Available only on iTunes (for now), you must buy the whole album and not individual songs. Since music consumption has largely become listening to one single, Beyonce is making sure you listen to this collection as an album.
Along with the unconventional release, Beyonce is also going to different places musically. If you were disappointed that her last album, 4 (which was actually her best album to date), didn’t have enough pop tracks, then be ready to continue to be disappointed.
Since the music isn’t radio-friendly, it was a smart move for Beyonce to avoid potential media backlash that would have happened if her first single didn’t rocket to the top of the charts. Lady Gaga learned that the hard way this fall. Even though “Applause” ended up being one of the biggest hits of her career, it didn’t hit #1, so the media called it a “bomb” and she’s still trying to get her album Artpop away from bad buzz (even though it’s a totally solid pop album). Beyonce has bypassed all that and hasn’t made the success of her album be based on the performance of one song on the charts.
Beyonce clearly wants to scruff up a little bit of her “shimmer and shine” that she has on her music. There’s no pop anthems here like “End Of Time”, “Single Ladies”, or “Run The World (Girls)”. Instead, she moves more in the direction of Frank Ocean and Drake (who just happen to help out on two of the best tracks on the album). She experiments with a lot of different styles, and on tracks like “Haunted”, “Partition”, and “Blue”, she even does the change-up on the same track. It reminds me a lot of John Legend’s release this year, Love In The Future. While both artists still keep their R&B foundation, they build a lot of unexpected sounds on top.
She opens the album with “Pretty Hurts”, a track about our perfection-obsessed society, while “Blow” ends up being one of the high points of the album with its upbeat throwback groove, similar to “Love On Top”. It’s instantly identifiable as a Pharrell production (Timbaland, who pops up vocally on the track, co-produced). Justin Timberlake also served as a writer on several tracks. Lyrically, it’s Beyonce at her dirtiest. Just listen to “Partition” and “Drunk In Love”.
Following up their megahit “Crazy In Love”, B and Jay Z are now “Drunk In Love”. It’s a pretty graphic description of their love life. You may think “do we really need to hear about this?”, but the heavy bass beat and Beyonce’s vocals are so good, you won’t mind. She also sounds fantastic on “Jealous”, the closest thing this album gets to pop (she should be looking to this as a possible single). “Rocket” has an R&B groove that we’ve heard before, but Beyonce’s layered vocals sound so freakin good that it gets a pass.
My two favourite tracks are “XO” and “Superpower” for very different reasons. “XO” explodes with an unabashed love, while “Superpower” (with Frank Ocean) just simmers. You keep expecting it to build, but it just sits in this in-between. It’s feels like it’s playing with you. Beyonce and Frank seem like a fantastic combo on paper, and it proves to be just that. Drake proves to be just as valuable of a guest with the groovin’ “Mine” that’ll get you moving.
“No Angel” ends up being the only real clunker on the album with Beyonce flipping between rapping and a vocal whisper reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. She ends the album on a high note with 2 fantastic ballads, “Heaven” and “Blue”, that further defy your expectations.
This is not an album to judge after one listen. Sorry pop fans, this is an album that you need to listen to again and again to get all its little nuances and appreciate them. I love when a mainstream artist rocks the status quo, and Beyonce is challenging the music industry big-time on this one both musically and promotionally.
Preview all 17 music videos here: