, December 14th, 2013 09:30
Just like that, with no fanfare and no promo, the biggest star on the planet drops a new album, leaving music critics scrambling to update their end of year lists. Beyoncé Knowles doesn't do things like other superstars. For example, it's easy to forget just how delightfully weird a universally loved song like 'Single Ladies' actually is; the video too, stark and stylised like the song itself, mean and huge, making the rest of pop look brittle-boned in comparison. And 'Why Don't You Love Me?' saw Beyoncé making one of her most unusual songs, combined with pin-up oddballery, a million miles away from the pretty safe (but clearly brilliant) 'Crazy In Love'. Able to switch from pop fortified with funk ('Déjà Vu') to leftfield synth powerhouses ('Sweet Dreams', 'Countdown'), fondness for 80s jams ('Love on Top') and the occasional melodramatic ballad ('Halo'), Beyoncé is back… but where is she at with this new eponymous album?
Beyoncé Knowles is always at her best when she's acting like a sponge, drawing on everything around her and, often, being much better than the sum of her record collection. Looking at her career, she's taken the kookiness of GaGa and melded it with super-modern soul and hip hop. In recent years, you've heard trap stylings locking horns with infectious choruses in 'Diva'. This LP sees Beyoncé taking on Lorde, Whitney, Kendrick, Erykah and Jodeci. Melding the digital with earthiness, she pushes the envelope as hard as she's ever done.
For a project that's been secret thus far, this album is massive, featuring collaborations with Frank Ocean, Drake, Jay Z, Miguel, Timbaland, Pharrell, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hit Boy, Sia, The-Dream… even her own daughter gets a look in. Fourteen songs, seventeen accompanying videos, all as strong as anything you'll hear this year. The whole LP (to merely call it an album is a slight misnomer as the 'visual album' is a cornerstone of the package) switches from righteous, empowerment to kitchen sink drama misery, which Beyoncé is more than capable of nailing. And through the visual element, Bey makes the not merely a record, but a statement. Beyoncé has always played with characters – herself, Sasha Fierce and now the mother, the loved-up wife, the gender bender, the seducer; she's high fashion, she's fun and, above all, with the video package, she's showing competitors that she's one of the most creative forces in pop culture.
2013 saw the triumphant return of the slow jam, and in 'Rocket', Beyoncé takes up where Ciara's 'Body Party' and R Kelly's Black Panties album left off, with a Miguel penned come-on which kicks off with "let me sit that ass on you" before the most swoonsome drop goes into the kind of digital swing that made Prince the king of pillow talk way back when. The cocaine soul bears down again, with the excellent 'Blow' which grooves along like Kelis on a Friday night, before gnashing its teeth into the gonzo pop of Cameo or Parliament. 'Grown Woman' is all jump-up afro-pop while Yoncé is the type of jam that'll make your clothes fall off. Elsewhere, 'Haunted' is a perfect slice of vanguard-pop where, hilariously, Queen B sniffs: "I probably won't make no money off this… oh well….". 'No Angel' is pure foreplay and 'Partition' takes it to the club. Frank Ocean duet, 'Superpower', is a unusual 2013 take on doo-wop, complete with Bey's trademark head-spinning harmonies.
However, Beyoncé is never far away from a message and in 'Flawless', it has never been more explicit. Previously, in 'If I Were A Boy', she clunkily made her way around a metaphor about it being easy to be a man, however, this time, she's eschewed that laziness in favour of lambasting critics for getting it 'twisted' about her status as a woman, and then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hits the listener with some powerful feminism which only a sneering killjoy would fail to be impressed by. Where people doubted her feminist credentials by getting sniffy about her naming her current tour after her married name, she is now, through Chimamanda, saying: "We say to girls, you can have ambition - but not too much. You should aim to be successful - but not too successful - otherwise you will threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support - but why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don't teach boys the same? We raise girls to each other as competitors. Not for jobs or for accomplishments (which I think can be a good thing) but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social political, and economic equality of the sexes."
If motherhood has made an impact on Beyoncé's creative output, it seems to have made her open about her wants. Throughout the songs, she's basically reclaimed her whole life. Lyrically, she's sharing a confidence we've not seen before, in one breath, cooing about her daughter Blue, before panting "let me put this ass on you" and "you can't keep your hands on my fanny, daddy". Themes of womanhood and strength are no stranger to Beyoncé – 'Single Ladies', 'Survivor', 'Independent Women' and more – but now, she's most certainly a confident adult who is as comfortable with sex as she is giving other women (and men) a moral boost.
Make no mistake, this is a typically offbeat, catchy soul album from Beyoncé. Expectation can cripple an artist, but she clearly thrives on it - she's delivered an album that is grown-up without being dowdy, weird without being trying and open without being a drag. It is a bold, expansive body of work that should have all the praise heaped on it because, without warning, she dropped one of the strongest albums of the year on us.