Album review: ‘Beyonce’ is full of surprises
Beyoncé gets plenty of credit — OK, way more than plenty — as a singer, a dancer, a businesswoman, a mom. But she’s also a master of the humblebrag, that strategic assertion of modesty that actually demonstrates one’s fabulousness.
She unloads a great one near the end of her just-released self-titled album, which appeared Thursday night on iTunes free of any advance warning.
First we hear Ed McMahon on “Star Search” introducing an early version of Beyoncé’s group, Destiny’s Child. Then the talent-show host reveals that the outfit has been defeated by — wait, let me listen again — a band called Skeleton Crew.
“Star Search” branded her a loser, the clip is telling us, but Beyoncé somehow mustered the resolve to carry on.
“Beyoncé” (which the singer calls a “visual album”) is itself a kind of humblebrag, reminding us that only she can afford to drop product into a crowded marketplace without mounting the type of elaborate promotional campaign we’ve seen lately from the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.
“Probably won’t make no money off this,” she admits in “Haunted,” setting us up for one more delicious turnabout: “Oh well.”
What’s exciting about the record, beyond its means of delivery, is how the music similarly blends the intimate and the extravagant.
Made up of 14 new songs accompanied by 17 new music videos, “Beyoncé” is by far the most sexually minded album from a singer who’s often projected a virtuousness at odds with peers such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.
In “Jealous” she memorably describes an evening at home — “I’m in my penthouse half-naked / I cook this meal for you naked” — and in “Drunk in Love” trades terrifically raunchy come-ons with Jay Z; it’s like an NC-17 sequel to their 2003 smash “Crazy in Love.”
Yet rather than dramatize these moments with in-your-face production à la Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé underplays many of them, often murmuring her most explicit lyrics in a breathy purr that forces you to lean in and listen — another sly application of her power.
She does the opposite in a handful of bigger-sounding production numbers, making razzle-dazzle pop out of small-scale sentiments that might’ve seemed on paper like fodder for hushed ballads. “XO,” for instance, begs a lover for a kiss amid firework synths and a marching-drum beat, while the anthemic “Pretty Hurts” makes a considered case against our obsession with physical perfection.
This doesn’t mean the album forgoes the full-tilt spectacle we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé. “Flawless” spikes a clattering beat and instructions to “Bow down, bitches” with a monologue by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
And “Blow” and “Rocket” are sumptuous retro-soul tunes that feel like the singer just wanted to flex her impressive stylistic chops; the latter approximates D’Angelo’s behind-the-beat R&B so closely that you’ll scan the liner notes to make sure he didn’t write it. (In fact, it was Beyoncé working alongside Timberlake and L.A.’s Miguel.)
As for the liner notes, they too serve as part of the singer’s humblebrag here, with an absurdly expansive roster of talent — including Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Drake, The-Dream and Frank Ocean, among many others. The list of names indicates her willingness to recruit help while at the same time emphasizing her position at the center of the pop universe.
No one, it seems, says no to Beyoncé — not even her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, who contributes some high-pitched “mommy’s” to the album’s spaced-out closer, “Blue.”
And why would anyone deny her? Songs like the woozy “Mine” and the spooky, almost perversely stripped-down “Partition” reflect her determination, rare among superstars, to keep pushing creatively.
In spite of the misgivings she airs in “Haunted,” she’ll make money off this — loads of it, no doubt. But, perhaps more important, she’ll also keep hold of our attention long enough to surprise us again.
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