Beyoncé isn’t known to be subtle or do things quietly, which is why it was such a shock to her fans when she quietly dropped her latest record, Beyoncé last Friday. At this point in her career, the pop diva is so secure in her place as queen that she doesn’t need to bother with pesky details like promotion to sell her music. Instead of playing the role of pop star, Beyoncé decided to an album as close to an art record as a mainstream performer like she can release; Beyoncé is her least-commercially viable album, but it’s also her most interesting and daring. Like a ninja, she stealthily snuck by at the last-minute and put out the best pop record of 2013.
Fans of “Get Me Bodied” or “(Single Ladies) Put a Ring on It” will be disappointed because there are no club bangers that will have people shakin’ their jelly on the dance floor. Her legion of gay followers also may be let down by the lack of disco thumpers – but listeners should be patient with the singer, as she’s trying to do something different with Beyoncé – she’s going for a darker, more intense sound – and for the most part she succeeds.
What sets her latest release apart from her other records is Beyoncé’s willingness to experiment with electronic music. This isn’t a dance record, but there are lots of faint echoes of Daft Punk or Kraftwork, and the songs are meandering and much less structured the immaculately-crafted-for-radio tunes she normally records. There aren’t the gratifying crescendos, and instead, the music hypnotizes its listeners into a hazy trance.
What’s interesting about this latest in Beyoncé’s career is that she seems to be embracing the more alternative urban pop of her little sister Solange. Beyoncé is billed as a “visual album” meaning each of the tracks has a music video attached – an interesting and daring marketing strategy in this age when the music video is a dying art form. It’s the work of an artist confident enough in her career, that she’s open to changing the way albums are dropped.
But what about the music? Well, it’s fantastic – easily the best music the singer’s ever recorded. She dips into electronica, rap, R&B, and Southern soul to put together a dizzying array of sounds. She’s willing to forgo radio play to make some strange, but exhilarating music. At turns the tunes are sexy, sad, joyful, and hilarious – and all have a genre-hopping aesthetic that shows the singer comfortable in various musical settings. Some of the best songs on Beyoncé have her embrace her sexuality: “Yonce” and “Jealous” are great songs that ratch up the hotness of the record, while “Drunk in Love” reunites the diva with her husband, Jay-Z is a sexy song about the superstars’ relationship. “Partition” is a grinding tune that seems patented for a stripper pole.
But this album isn’t Beyoncé’s take on Madonna’s Erotica, because there are other facets to the diva shown: “XO” is a joyful, loud pop number that’s the closest thing to a radio hit, while “Blow” is a canny throwback to 80s synth-funk in the vein of Andre Cymone, Jody Wately, or Control-era Janet Jackson. And if it’s the softer side of Queen Bey you like, “Heaven” is a gorgeous piano ballad that boasts a relaxed vocal performance (Beyoncé tended to over sing in the past), while her tribute to daughter Blue Ivy, “Blue” is a lovely, lilting song that thankfully avoids schmaltz and the kind of stickiness that often befalls pop stars’ records about their offspring.
But it’s the feminist Beyoncé that shines through brightest. No one will confuse her with being a Riot Grrrl, but Beyoncé’s pro-woman theme runs through the album, starting with the pro-female sexuality she pushes. And while sensuality is important, it’s the not the whole of her agenda: she also attacks misogyny and what Naomi Wolf coined the Beauty Myth in “Pretty Hurts” the best song on the album; her searing “***Flawless” that features writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is wonderful in its defiance in celebrating individuality and complexity: it’s clear that Beyoncé isn’t interesting in being anyone’s “nice girl” which she returns to in the excellent “No Angel.”
As part of the growth of the singer as an artist, she also plays with sounds and textures new to her; she’s never displayed much of a penchant for darker, moodier sounds, so it comes as a great relief and surprise that she doesn’t sound lost in the icy synths and the stark drum machines or multi-layered vocals. It’s stark music that is often atmospheric and haunting. “Haunted” – a thick, dark, dance number similar to Madonna’s “Justify My Love” (as is the promotional video) is a great example of Beyoncé embracing a bleaker tone. “Ghost” is another stark number that squeezes and crams Beyoncé’s normally explosive vocals into skittering, robo-speak.
Beyoncé is as close to a perfect record as the singer has ever released and it towers above other releases this year due to its scope and ambition. It’s always a joy to see an artist stretch herself professionally, and it’s even more astounding when an artist of Beyoncé’s commercial standing allows for her sound and art to be so challenged. While Lady Gaga’s Artpop was self-consciously an “art” piece, Beyoncé’s latest effort feels more sincere (despite having a similar sonic gloss and sheen – I’m not sure if there is an actual instrument on Beyoncé). What Beyoncé also shows is that the pop diva has been underestimated her whole career, reduced to a pretty, big-voiced diva, when there were dimensions tidily hidden away: it’ll be exciting to see what else emerges.