When Beyoncé walks, she tells us, she walks with a vengeance. When she enters the room, she commands every eyeball and ear her way. And what an entrance it was, the release of her surprise fifth album, the consistently dazzling BEYONCÉ, which landed on iTunes without previous announcement last night.
Not just an album—a "visual album," with often enjoyable clips to accompany every song (and a bonus, the above-quoted "Grown Woman"). Beyoncé exists to overwhelm us with perfectly executed, extraordinary work ethic and here she did it in a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. It was a lightning bolt of art: Here is all of this new music. Here are all of these new visuals. Here they are, ready for you whenever you want to binge. People could Orange Is the New Black that shit and take their time, or take part in the pop-culture event that spontaneously broke out on Twitter.
These kinds of surprises are so rare, especially in the age of leaks, when we've already gotten tired of albums by their official release date. It would be a stretch to call this a "gift," as many pop artists love to do when discussing their work (Mariah Carey specifically), but what Beyoncé and her team engineered is about as close to a gift as something that you paid for can be.
How can Beyoncé possibly top herself next time? Create a new scale? Freeze time? Create a new form of currency from music ("Beycoin") and furnish us with billionaires? The reason we cannot possibly answer this is we are not Beyoncé.
This kind of release perfectly suits BEYONCÉ, because it assumes that enough people care about Beyoncé to overcome the complete lack of promotion leading up to it (in fact, last we heard, Bey had scrapped what she'd recorded and we should expect something next year). It's arrogant, the assumption that you can show up, say Now hear this, and that people will without any preparation. It's beyond arrogant: I'm fucking awesome and you're going to drop what you're doing and go to bed late because you're going to want to hear what I have to say. It's also spot on.
BEYONCÉ is an album about being desired. Its singer repeatedly asserts her beauty, her flawlessness, the sweetness of her genitalia, her prowess, her booty, in exactly the way she delivered her new work: Here are these things; I know you want them. She often delivers this in the form of raps, like "Partition," a minimal playground chant that finds Beyoncé aggressively submissive ("Driver roll up the partition please / I don't need you to see Beyoncé on her knees") and with cum on her dress ("He Monica Lewinsky'd on my gown"). The video dissolves from her eating breakfast. It's a fantasy, it's outrageous, it's aggressive—but there's also something striking about watching one of the planet's most desired women engage with the desire to be desired. This is Beyoncé's version of a Kanye rant. It hits you with multiple ideas that are just as likely to sound like bullshit as they are entirely true.
We watched Beyoncé wrestle with expressing her humanity earlier this year in her HBO documentary Life Is But a Dream, which was stilted and tight-lipped so that it seemed more like what she thought a documentary about her life should look like, rather than what her life actually looked like. BEYONCÉ isn't Blue, but there is expressive progress there. It doesn't get deeper than "Pretty Hurts," an adult contemporary ballad a la "If I Were a Boy" with a hook so caked in sugary synth sounds that is sounds frosted. Here we have one of the most admired women on the planet, one of the few who can say without exaggeration that she has helped set the standard, moaning, "Pretty hurts / Shine the light on whatever's worse / Perfection is the disease of a nation… Tryna fix something / But you can't fix what you can't see / It's the soul that needs the surgery."
The thing is, Beyoncé exists to be perfect. It's why that doc seemed so stuffy, and it's why she doesn't say a whole lot when she isn't singing. But while those lyrics may seem hypocritical coming from her, I think this song has the same ambivalent affect of Kanye West's "New Slaves," which calls out different kinds of racism West has felt as he's ascended classes, and bemoans a slavishness to brands while participating in it.
West fights back by attempting to build his own brand, to aggressively overcome those who would stifle or dismiss him (lately, this largely amounts to complaining). Beyoncé, on BEYONCÉ, calls out the game, but also attempts to build herself up within it through intimacy and unity. What goes without saying with West and Beyoncé is that they can achieve in their chosen fields because they think they're special enough to do so. So while, yes, one could make an argument about the unsightliness of arrogance, it works. And there's such a fine line between the confidence necessary to do anything worthwhile and the arrogance that some people may find distasteful that you often must risk the latter to achieve the former.
So Beyoncé exists to desire and be desired ("I know if I'm haunting you, you must be haunting me," she says in the closest flirtation she's come to making a straightforward house track, "Haunted"). She casually drops in the word "beautiful" to describe hers and her object of desire's bodies (Jay Z here, he guests on a verse) in the synth fantasia with a hook you'll want to spend your life with, "Drunk in Love." She never sounds happier than in "Rocket," a horny slow jam approximating D'Angelo approximating Prince (co-produced with Timbaland and Jerome Harmon). "Goddamn it, I'm comfortable in my skin / And you're comfortable in my skin / Ya look so comfortable in my skin skin skin," she sings at the climax, in the apotheosis of love and self-satisfaction.
It's fascinating peaking into the mind of a leader, when she's engaged with describing her perpetual public challenge of simultaneously finding worth within and asserting herself from without. "***Flawless" is a call to pride ("We flawless, ladies tell 'em I woke up like this") and feminism. It features Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reciting something she wrote about society's reduced expectations for women—expectations Beyoncé must have stopped listening to years and years ago to be where she is today. She's leading by example—she requests that her listeners "bow down" in the song's first verse.
Beyoncé seems to believe that depth is an ideal, though like in Life Is But a Dream, she won't allow you to get much lower than just under the skin. "No I'm not the girl you thought you knew and thought you wanted / Underneath the pretty face is something complicated / I come with a sign of trouble / But I know that's why you're staying," she sings alongside what sounds like the keyboard that played the Doogie Howser, M.D., theme song in "No Angel." In the gorgeous sounding but melodically inert Frank Ocean duet, "Superpower," human voices, crisp high hats, tympanis and atmospheric strings elegantly support her observation, "When I'm standing in this mirror after all these years, what I'm viewing's a little different from what your eyes show ya / I guess I didn't see myself before ya." The woman has room to grow. She has flaws. She "probably won't make no money off this, oh well." She even says at one point, "I'm just jealous / I'm just human / Don't judge me."
I'm not sure which is the bigger fantasy here: Beyoncé not being judged or Beyoncé being "just human," but BEYONCÉ makes them both feel this close to believable.
[Image via Getty]