I’ll admit it. I was a little worried about my girl for a minute there.
I’m talking about Beyoncé. Lately she seemed off. She hadn’t released any new music in almost three years. Sure, she had a sold-out global tour – no small feat – but it was essentially a victory lap, the kind of tour performers embark on at the end of their career, not the prime of it.
She parted ways with her dad and longtime manager. She cut her hair into the drastic (albeit adorable) pixie cut, and then immediately put a weave back in. Any woman will tell you that hair mood swings often mean trouble. It seemed like she was always on vacation. She’s entitled to it, but those who love Bey know that she lives to work. Creating art is like breathing for her.
So like I said, I was worried.
Consider me relieved.
Beyoncé’s new self-titled album, which she dropped suddenly without a single hint or a whif of drummed-up marketing buzz, is her most mature and multi-dimensional body of work yet. Since she released it as a “visual album” consisting of 17 music videos, it’s only fair to evaluate it as such, not separating the sights from the sounds, but taking them as a whole, just like Bey intended.
While the album doesn’t have any slam dunk radio hits like “Crazy in Love” or “Single Ladies,” in all fairness, it doesn’t strive to. In fact, it almost deliberately positions itself as work of art, not pop, with Beyoncé declaring early on “I probably won’t make no money off this. Oh well.” In that way, the entire project is very Kanye-esque, with Bey even dubbing herself “Yonce” to his Yeezy. Where Ye conjures up images of Yeezus, Bey channels the Virgin Mary.
She repeatedly smashes trophies, showing obvious disdain for empty accolades and mainstream acceptance. Like Kanye, you get the very clear sense that Bey is so over being a pop star. “Radio say speed it up, I just go slower,” she says in “Yonce.” Like Kanye before her, this is Bey’s foray into performance art.
The videos are visually masterful, ranging from a gritty cinema verite portrait of day-to-day life in Brazil in “Blue” to the mesmerizing “Ghost,” which looks like an inkblot in motion. Much of it seems to be ripped straight out of Beyoncé’s fantasies, carrying a theatric, glossy, dreamlike quality.
Speaking of Bey’s fantasies, the album introduces us to the most overtly sexual Beyoncé we’ve ever seen. It makes perfect sense. After all, this would be her first album recorded in her 30’s, and well, they don’t call them the dirty 30’s for nothing. A good portion of the album is unaplogetically about sex. Not making love. Sex.
In “Partition” she sings, “Driver roll up the partition please. I don’t need you seeing Yonce on her knees.” “Drunk in Love,” her collaboration with husband Jay-Z, leaves no question as to how Blue got here. Their chemistry is so palpable that the video feels like a home movie we really shouldn’t be allowed to see. At one point, she gets licked by another woman. And overall we see so many snippets of Beyoncé’s various body parts that if you were to put them all together, I’m pretty sure we see her completely naked over the course of the album.
Of course it wouldn’t be Bey if we didn’t also see her softer side. “Blue” is a heart-meltingly authentic account of a mother falling in love with her child, and, punctuated with the visuals of Blue’s tiny toes and bright smile, it’s enough to make you misty eyed. Where “Blue” is about falling in love, “Heaven” is about losing it, when someone special leaves our realm too soon. “XO” is a soaring ballad, the closest thing to a radio hit like “Halo” on the album.
So, how does the music stand on its own? It’s impossible to say. Even a song like “Flawless,” which was almost universally hated when it leaked as “Bow Down,” makes perfect sense when paired with the anarchist skinhead-ball visuals. Once you’ve seen the songs the way Beyoncé herself envisioned them, the two are indelibly linked. And that’s exactly how the Queen wants it in her kingdom.