Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth album took many by surprise with its release on December 13 via iTunes without any hype or promotion, but perhaps what’s most surprising – and exhilarating – about this release is the actual music it contains.
Beyoncé stands emphatically in praise of the complete listen, a full recording that should be heard in a single sitting rather than as singles in multiple sittings. To that end, the singer crafted a “visual album” that includes 17 videos.
Behind the curtain is an artist in control, a woman who understands the insane level of hype around her very existence and is able to evaluate it from a position of intelligence and imperfection. The lyrical themes of Beyoncé are deeper than ever before, surpassing the rickety empowerment anthems found on previous releases with a gutsier, realer sense of empathy.
“Pretty Hurts” opens the record with Harvey Keitel asking “Miss Third Ward” what her aspiration in life is. “To be happy,” Beyoncé responds. The tune takes down common standards of beauty, discussing manifestations of image and how people sacrifice themselves to attain a moving target. “Trying to fix something you can’t fix,” she sings. “It’s your soul that needs the surgery.”
Beyoncé’s moral stance is a strong one and she doesn’t waver, even as the publications fawning over statements like those found on “Pretty Hurts” supplement their praise with garish slideshows of sideboob and famous people without makeup. The arc of Beyoncé is mindful of this incompatibility and the artist mallets it home on “***Flawless,” a piece that includes a portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We Should All Be Feminists.” The track explores the reprehensible myths and orders passed down to girls, from the notion of “shrinking themselves” to the irrational proposal that they “cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
Again, a scan of most magazines of any stripe reveals how necessary the message of “***Flawless” is. And again, Beyoncé takes things head-on with an eruption of songs like the deeply sexy “Blow” and the sweltering “Yoncé/Partition” that shows off B’s hip-hop chops.
These sorts of carnal surges have been largely met by admiration because of who Beyoncé is. Allow Miley Cyrus the same real estate and she becomes a slut, doesn’t she? The true empowerment behind Beyoncé as a record is that the lens is broader: Beyoncé can be sexual, but so can everyone else. The universality of the narratives confirms it.
“Mine” internalizes more, as does the album closer “Blue.” The latter features Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy and is a pensive tune about being blessed just to look at life. “When you open your eyes, I feel alive,” she sings. She’s still “Crazy In Love.”
With Beyoncé, “Miss Third Ward” insists that there’s a whole lot to this joy thing. And despite all the absurd invocations offered in tribute of Queen B, she never seems totally comfortable with the idea that she’s the exception. Rather, this Houston native wants all listeners to “hold on,” get dirty in the back of a limo and, most of all, rediscover happiness.
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