Just when we thought she was going to leave 2013 without a single mention, Beyonce Knowles – Queen B to her loyalists – has gone ahead and slain the competition by releasing a brand new, unpromoted, surprise album called Beyonce onto iTunes across the world, sending a wave of shock, surprise and near-hysterical delight at the sight of Ms. Knowles’ new release.
However, is the album any good? Or has Beyonce given us the sneak attack for no good reason whatsoever?
At first glance, the album seems much less of a polished, universal sound that preceeding album 4 was, using largely R&B sounds and hip-hop beats throughout. However, there’s plenty of sonic inventiveness, particularly when clips of Beyonce’s life are interspersed throughout the record, making this her most personal cut to date and one that secures her place as the ruler of female R&B. Album opener ‘Pretty Hurts’ opens with Beyonce declaring that all she ever wanted to be was happy before dropping in catchy R&B beats over an atmospheric and seductively calm soundscape, while ‘Drunk In Love’, her duet with husband Jay-Z, is no less atmospheric but picks the pace up somewhat with a hip and hop and trap influence evident in the more globally-sonic track.
There are some real highs on the album that simultaneously feel fresh and act as a re-establishing of Beyonce’s persona and standing as a global superstar – the Ryan Tedder track ‘XO’ is a joyous standout, a stadium-sized tune of love that is sweet and emotive as it is powerful, while ‘Flawless’ combines previous buzz track ‘Bow Down/I Been On’ to create a feminist anthem with the eloquent speeches of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie transforming the song.
The album is largely constructed around R&B ballads and midtempo tracks – if you’re looking for another ‘End of Time’, then you’ll be kept looking until her next album – but the standard of the ballads is pretty solid. ‘Jealous’ is a sweet and heartfelt number, ‘Superpower’ is a gospel-inspired duet between Beyonce and Frank Ocean that succeeds on a number of levels, ‘Rocket’ is beautiful and by-the-numbers R&B and ‘Heaven’ is a subdued and quietly beautiful song that could be a cut off 4.
That’s not to say that it’s all balladry on Beyonce – ‘Partition’ is an uber-confident and catchy hip-hop track, ‘Mine’ is a fantastic duet with Drake and a sultry, sensual tune that is primed for the slower times on the dancefloor, and there’s even a ’70s-inspired soul ballad in the form of ‘Blow’ which channels of-the-era Donna Summer. That doesn’t mean every song is a winner, however – ‘Haunted’ is tense and full of vocoders, but fails to lack a real identity, and ‘No Angel’ feels like a filler track through and through.
In the end, however, the album feels an absolute triumph – the online edition features videos for every song on the album and shows an artist back in the field, both aurally and creatively, and feels as though Beyonce the artist and Beyonce the mother and human being have finally become resolved. On 4, she was in fully-fledged artist mode ahead of the birth of her daughter Blue, and in the well-received documentary film Life Is But A Dream, we saw Beyonce’s attempts to reconcile the two spheres of life.
Here, she seems to have gained a true handle on things, including her husband and her daughter as guest vocalists on the tracks and framing the entire album as an update to her fans and a celebration of the positives in her life. The album begins with Beyonce claiming all she wants is to be happy, and the closer ‘Blue’ is a sweet ode between mother and daughter, ending with Blue’s bouyant laughter. The entire album is encapsulated in happiness, and if making this kind of music and living this kind of life is what makes one of the world’s biggest popstars happy, then we’re thrilled she’s found that perfect medium.
Thanks for coming back to us in 2013, Queen B. Guess there is a season of miracles after all.
Check out Beyonce’s album on iTunes here.