On 13th December 2013, a new Beyoncé album was released. Nothing inherently strange about that, Beyoncé is one of the biggest stars in the world, and the follow up to 2011’s “4” was eagerly anticipated. Except nobody knew this was coming until it was already out. It wasn’t just a hotch-potch of tracks thrown out as part of record company politics, this was a fully-formed album – perhaps the most cohesive work she’s ever put her name to – and even came with slick music videos for every track.
There it was on iTunes, no promo, no singles, just… ta-da! There wasn’t even a physical edition until a few weeks ago, and you couldn’t buy individual tracks, it was the complete package or nothing. This astounding gamble paid off in a big way, topping the US charts with her biggest first week sales – in 3 days – and ultimately one of the biggest albums of the year a few weeks later. The story played out similarly worldwide.
The best bit is… it’s a brilliant album. If I didn’t expect Team Beyoncé to come up with such a kamikaze album campaign, it was almost more surprising that it’s such a good album. I don’t think I’ve ever REALLY taken to a Beyoncé album; “I am… Sasha Fierce” was her blockbuster but rather hit & miss, the bizarrely-named “B’Day” always has a place in my heart too, but I don’t think she’s had an album I’d happily listen to in one sitting, no skipping, and even want to go around again straight away. But here we are.08 Pretty Hurts – Dealing with the pressures to be perfect in the era of gossip mags, eating disorders, size zero models and cosmetic surgery, it feels like we’re going over a road well-travelled but you can’t argue with the delivery. I’m still a little cooler on this one in the context of the rest of the album, but it’s comfortingly normal for Beyoncé.
10 Haunted – This two-part track kicks off with the first bit of archive footage from Beyoncé’s long but inevitable road to stardom, and kicks the album off properly. Stream-of-consciousness musing on how messed up the world is, accompanied by one of the highlight videos of the collection (for the first bit). “Probably won’t make no money off this” … think again!
The second half is a totally different beast, another slick video too. I LOVE this, understand piano intro with a first glimpse of the infectious chorus. But then that amazing rhythm kicks in. It just feels so effortless in a landscape where female music stars are ever-more hyped and exposed to keep their ground.
08 Drunk in Love – When this album first appeared, people keen to get in first with some criticism said “there are no singles”. Nonsense! But when one was picked – the urban radio one at least – I do wonder why it was this, definitely doesn’t feel like the obvious first pick. I mean the Jay-Z spot is probably the explanation but still. It has grown on me a lot though, it’s a bit of a slow burner, and there are some sort of annoying bits (“Surfboaaardd”). But still solid.
07 Blow – Actually for all my raving, there’s a little patch on this album I’m always keen to get out of the way, and this nu-disco nugget is the middle of it. The song is likeable enough, and the video did really help its appeal, but what cheesy lyrics! Not particularly sexy but it’s an easy listen.
07 No angel – A good fit with “Blow” but another shrill slow-jam wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it feels like we are getting a bit more personal. The chorus isn’t a favourite but verses are great. I’m a little out of my genre comfort zone but those lite-electro R’n’B moments just work so well.
08 Partition – Another two-parter, with “Yoncé” oddly not fitting that well with the main course but I still quite like it, getting into a more urban sexual arena. Love that lite-rap too, “sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker”. The sexual fantasy of “Partition” is one of her more provocative moments, and while that “ooh Daddy Daddy” stuff leaves me a bit cold, she can pretty much get away with anything by this point in the album. Brilliant video too.
08 Jealous – Another gorgeous video. This feels like a 2013 update of “If I were a boy” with a much more subtle approach, even if she does visit the role-reversal scenario. Again there are flutters of electro in amongst the predominantly R’n’B beats, it’s not like anything I’ve really heard before. Feels very personal again, this is such an interesting album!
08 Rocket – Now for a real slow-jam. A hyphenated phrase that usually makes my blood run cold, but it’s decent enough. What an interesting video though, she’s never looked more gorgeous than this video album. The song doesn’t set me alight for the most part but it just seems to get richer and brighter the further we get through, especially that … erm, climax.
09 Mine – You can tell this is a Drake song, she even sounds like she’s covering him in that sort-of-chorus about getting carried away. But what’s going on, a rather frank confession about her marriage troubles and post-natal depression? I love that it’s not used as a tool to get some cheap attention. WHAT a video too. It took a while but this is really a highlight track. Drake is HOT too, where did that come from?
10 XO – Jesus fuck, now THIS is the song. I get excited just know it’s coming up. That shuddering electro simmering under it all, there’s that wonderful rhythm too. This is just such a warm, euphoric love song, I don’t even know where to start with it, I think it could be my favourite thing she’s ever done. That video, the simplicity, that slow drift down to Earth before the last chorus, it’s just perfection.
09 Flawless – How do you follow that? A totally different direction but no less potent. More electro R’n’B (how long before they redefine that genre?), and more reaction to the pressures on women but in a much more direct way than “Pretty hurts”. Centrepiece of this is the excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists” that just steals the show. A great idea brilliantly executed.
08 Superpower – In the home stretch now, and continuing the unsettled sound of Beyoncé dealing with the changes to her world. This time a claustrophobic-feeling call to arms, with a feeling of revolution in the video. Not sure I’ve quite got the measure of this but it’s still curiously addictive. Love Frank Ocean’s cameo on vocals, and the Destiny’s Child reunion amongst other familiar faces. Can you imagine this woman led her first single with “Run the world (Girls)”? It feels like that must have been in a parallel dimension.
09 Heaven – An even more quiet and introspective pair of tracks to finish this album. The poignant video really turned this one around, dealing with the death of a friend through before & after scenes. Simple but devastating stuff.
09 Blue – Finally, while the big changes in her life have been alluded to, the birth of her first child Blue Ivy is finally explicitly covered. A tender piano ballad with some subtle beats after the first minute. I think it’s an important track to close one of her darkest albums – with all this baggage and chaos around her, it’s a comforting note to end on. Despite everything, she’s OK.
It’s not really like me, maybe it’s my age, but those echoey recordings of Blue Ivy make me feel a bit misty. It’s like if Beyoncé never made another album, you’d know she’ll be OK. It feels a bit stupid saying that but that’s how I feel. A bit like Kate Bush laughing with the birds at the end of “Aerial”, it’s just a nice image to be left with if this was the end.
Special mention to Grown Woman though, a frothy Caribbean track that only appears on the video album, not the studio record. Tropical and wonderful, but it’s the video I really love – with more revisiting of her home videos, this time re-dubbed with her singing along to this new song. I’d seen this in Alanis Morissette’s amazing video for “8 easy steps” but it’s still great to see.
So that’s the album. I didn’t want to go too overboard but what a transformation this was, and delivered in such an exceptional way too, I love it. She’s always been a strong singles artist, even if it felt that her label missed a few great opportunities (hello, “End of time”). But this is really a watershed moment for her as an artist, and surpassing what I thought must be her high-point at the peak of the “Sasha Fierce” era too.
It took me a few listens to really click with this, but I’m so glad I persevered.
Keepers for the iPod – I think I might keep the whole lot, you know. I could do without “No Angel”, “Rocket” & “Blow” but right now I don’t think I want to lose anything.