In the wee hours of Friday morning, Beyoncé debuted her surprise self-titled fifth album, complete with 17 dazzling music videos. Now, SPIN editors and contributors give their hasty and completely impulsive opinions.
JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD
Never mind that the midnight-arrival and video-album concept stunts on both Yeezy’s art projections and her beloved husband’s Samsung ballyhoo. This is different from anything Beyoncé’s done before, not in the sense of the big ballads showing off her vocal elasticity, nor in the sense that she’s dipping in Southern-girl ice-grills — she’s done both in droves, since the immaculate birth of Destiny’s Child. But as the sound of pop music has wadded up EDM beats and dramatic guitar-synth crescendos like dirty Kleenex, there’s been a void for something new, even in her hallowed zone.
And so she’s tweaked her diva crown just enough to make what sounds — and looks like — the freshest pop since Yeezus, skydiving self-confidence into just-askew Timbaland bangers and the best candy-apple disco Pharrell’s done since Kelis’ Tasty (yeah, I said it). Most importantly, the references back to Girls Tyme (B’s preteen, pre-DC quartet) and a sample from the Nigerian intellectual Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie holding forth on feminism seem to address critics who constantly discount her. But it’s the videos that make the statement, in perfect tandem with the songs: Addressing second-, third-, and fourth-wave feminism/womanism/whatever-you-prefer, this is Beyoncé’s true-love manifesto and total middle finger. SHE WOKE UP LIKE DAT. Don’t front. Early score: 9/10
Okay, fellas. Yeezus, R. Kelly, The-Dream, the Weeknd, even Drake (who appears here on “Mine”) — everybody out of the pool. And take your floatie groupies with you. Ms. Knowles is home. And she wants to tell you something, and you better be fully clothed and sitting down (to avoid undue embarrassment). And what she wants to tell you is that relationships are hard work, and women are doing that work and will probably continue doing that work, so maybe STFU every now and then about your struggle.
This album, in its truest form, is 17 songs accompanied by 17 videos. It’s not a tossed-off turnt mixtage. It’s the real ARTPOP — oh my Lord, is it the real ARTPOP! Here, Beyoncé decides to wipe the floor clean and then dance all over it as therapy and stump speech. While pleading, crying, preaching, testifying, and gettin’ as fiercely intimate as homemade sin. I mean, shit, she “cooked this meal for you naked” (“Jealous”) and undulated exotically onstage while you sat back and smoked a stogie (“Partition”). Here’s the simple, pretty, yet unbearably tangled truth: “Take all of me / I just wanna be the girl you like girl you like and the girl you like and girl you like….” Perfection is a mirage, even for B, so fuck all y’all,.
Beyoncé the human being seems “designed to be consumed as a comprehensive audio/visual piece from top to bottom,” so it’s no adjustment for us to approach her thrilling, sprawling, almost overwhelming new album in the manner she suggests above. For one song, “***Flawless,” which aims to clarify her controversial “bow down, bitches” lyric from “Bow Down/I Put On” as a feminist wake-up call, the visual gives the sentiment a remarkable, intense, self-deprecating frame. It opens and closes with a Star Search clip wherein a young B and her group Girls Tyme lost to a crew of sketchy rock bros named Skeleton Groove (two members wear berets!); meanwhile, back in the present, she wears a flannel shirt and dances to a trap beat like she’s moshing in the basement of a DIY punk dive.
But for me, an aging white dude, to say more than that, at this early prejudging juncture, would be the sort of mansplain move that this album is attempting to address. Listen to the women, Beyoncé implores, again and again, from the perspective of “no angel” who sings like one. So yeah, let’s listen — men and women, boys and girls. Let’s listen. Early score: 9/10
In a year full of both unexpected album drops and equally unexpected collaborations, nothing points to the likelihood that we’re headed toward some kind of pop singularity than Beyoncé arriving just days after Burial’s Rival Dealer. (Even the cover of her album looks vaguely like Burial’s.) Burial was sampling Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child way back in 2006, and now there’s a distinctly Burial-like quality to the sepulchral skulk of tracks like “Haunted,” “No Angel,” and “Partition.”
Furthermore, if you were working on a self-empowerment mixtape, you could do worse than to segue from Burial’s “Come Down to Us” to B’s “Pretty Hurts.” The former offers a triumphant swell of quiet-storm chimes and a closing sermon about self-worth from the transgender director Lana Wachowski; the latter, a skies-rending, breast-beating protest that “It’s the soul that needs surgery,” is equally ecstatic in its self-affirmation. (The video, meanwhile, features Beyoncé suffering through the self-hating hellscape of the beauty-pageant circuit before the crown finally goes to a woman who may or may not be albino — a story line that opens up a wealth of readings about race, skin tone, beauty standards, and her own mutable image. I’m not going to lie — I teared up a little at the end.)
After Jay Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail drove home the one-percenter lifestyle that pop’s First Couple enjoys, it’s refreshing to hear Beyoncé singing, “Nine-to-five just to stay alive” like a mantra; intra-class solidarity is scarce these days, so we’ll take what we can get. Make no mistake: Beyoncé sounds expensive, as they’d say on Project Runway. This is some top-shelf shit, from the Teflon-plated 808 toms on “Partition” to the million-dollar glitter-ball guitars of “Blow” to the zero-G bounce of “XO,” which, purely in terms of sonics, makes the most compelling argument for space tourism I have yet to come across. While we’re getting hyperbolic, “Jealous” is the most uplifting take on invidiousness since “Suspicious Minds.” “Rocket,” meanwhile, is a pitch-perfect rendering of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which feels pretty bold, since D’Angelo was about the only long-absent star who didn’t make an out-of-the-blue comeback this year.
Above all, though, the whole thing sounds incredibly intimate and incredibly human — no small trick for a blockbuster of these proportions. It aims big; its peaks are soaring, full-on, sky’s-the-limit peaks, some real yelling-from-mountaintops stuff. But it asks you to lean close, too, like there’s a secret hidden behind every muffled snare and sub-bass rumble. Early score: 8/10
As if we weren’t worshipping at the altar of Beyoncé already; as if we didn’t already regard her as the queen of style-stuntin’, high-heeled-struttin’, she-who-runs-the-world swag. Here comes “Flawless,” an anthemic track that envelopes Queen Bey’s “Bow Down Bitches” Soundcloud snippet from last winter, adds an interlude from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (wherein the writer purposefully defines the word “feminism”), and stomps out naysayers over sauntering, tightly rolled snares.
Marketing histrionics and the intense, en-masse release of this amount of content aside, the most refreshing part of this thing is just how deep she goes with it. Drake and Frank Ocean both appear for love ballads rife with worry, possessiveness, and tough decisions. But unlike Drake, who often gets so wrapped up in his feelings that it’s suffocating, ‘Yonce’s approach is dynamic: She always finds a way out. “Drunk in Love” makes a husky-voiced body party out of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, though even Hova’s creepo sexualization of his diva-wife (“Your breast-es are my breakfast” / “I beat the box like Mike in ‘97”) is nothing compared to her own flaunts. While she’ll take it from her hubby, Beyoncé doesn’t need anyone to subtly dress her down; she can do it herself.
Really, sex is fully on the table here. “Partition” has the singer asking her man to, ahem, “Monica Lewinsky” all over her gown, while the video for “Rocket” is practically a tribute to her curves as she croons, “You rock hard / I rock steady” before erupting into an orgasmic finish. Sonically, Beyoncé is loaded with hi-hat hat-tips to her hip-hop homeland. Putting the ballads to the side, trap beats and future-bass influence lurks under a handful of these songs. “Haunted” and the video snippet “Ghost” stand out in particular: Produced by someone credited as Boots, they’re full of clappity, clickity percussion and minimal garage-influenced bass, as though produced by a new-waving, trap-loving Burial. They also bolster one of this album’s overarching themes, exposing the sinister underbelly that creeps below all that is pretty. And while self-mined, underground-processed art-pop is certainly en vogue at the moment, Bey is quick to promise that this isn’t a front. As she so perfectly puts on “Flawless”: She just woke up like this. Early score: 9/10
First off, on the evidence, Beyoncé is the most sexually active mother of a one-year-old in parenting history. (Your hero and mine Tom Breihan has some valuable insight there re: Jay Z’s risible “your breasteses are my breakfast” line, though you may not want it.) But this is her singular genius, the mingling of humanity and intergalactic goddesshood, that we shift here from raw vulnerability (“Perfection is a disease of a nation”) and at least an attempt at working-class solidarity (“9-to-5 just to stay alive”) to the overpowering triumph of “***Flawless” and a torrent of life-changing superhuman boasts on the order of “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker / Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor.” How “It took 45 minutes to get all dressed up” is later compressed to “I woke up like dis.” How “I’m not feeling like myself since the baby” somehow summons Drake, of all people. How “I cooked this meal for you naked” splits the difference between humility and supreme confidence. She walks among us; she orbits high above us.
I watched every video last night. Was up until 4. (“Superpower” is the funniest, “Heaven” the heaviest, “XO” the sweetest.) By the time I got to “Partition” I was ready to declare this the single greatest musical thing that has ever happened. I have since calmed down, but only slightly. The broad-strokes gloss here is between this and 4; she’s trading monster singles for monster albums, instant three-minutes-and-change mega-pop gratification for erotic minimalism (“Partition,” seriously) and full-length immersion. (Plenty of maximalism here, too, though, of course: “XO,” for one, has monster-single potential.) I’d say this is a brave decision even if it affects her bottom line, but I just spent $16 on this outta nowhere, and it’s the best $16 I’ve spent in ages. Early score: 9/10
CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
The Achtung Baby of “Alt-R&B.” The Revolt TV of albums. Big money filtered through a lot of cool-kid signifiers. Melodies don’t do what you want in a Dirty Pro way, rhythms dissipate into slurry in a Weeknd way. There’s Janelle Monaé’s delivery meeting the xx’s reverb-y stare (“Haunted” — oh, yeah it’s called “Haunted,” in case someone wants to write Simon Reynolds or Trent Reznor a check). There’s a song that kind of capitalizes on the D’Angelo renaissance (“Rocket”) and also says “waterfalls” to maybe capitalize on the TLC renaissance (the song also has the words “cyclical trends” in it, so she’s probably just beating critics to the punch). “Superpower” has that more-fake-than-fake Oneohtrix Point Never style. Someone from Chairlift produced a song here (“No Angel”), and it’s as boring as any Chairlift song. All in all, a smarter attempt at modern #ARTPOP than, say, the last Jay Z album, but no hooks I’m gonna walk away singing (save the Dirty Mind-era Prince minimalist new-wave gem “Blow”). Also, side note to Jay Z: Maybe pick a better metaphor than “Ike Turner” on a song for your wife’s album. Early score: 6/10
There are surely some groaners that will stick out once the excitement over the totally random-ass arrival of a new Beyoncé album subsides, so let’s start there, and then get onto why this thing’s better and more coherent than this year’s elaborate PR stunts from Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and even Kanye West. The paparazzi whining on “Drunk on Love” needs to go, but the line that clocked me in the jaw right away with its pop-star cluelessness is stuffed inside “Haunted.” Otherwise a highlight — foggy like a Burial record, yet propulsive like, well, a Burial record —that “9 to 5 just to stay alive” thing leaves me cold: Most of her audience can’t even get a 9-to-5 anymore! But hey, Springsteen’s workin’-man songs are equally douche-y if you put them up to a close read, so let’s move on.
So, wow, Beyoncé is a Prince punk-funk Rick James-circa-Cold Blooded electro album (see the Mtume riff “Blow” or the distortion boogie of “No Angel,” produced by Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek), a Houston hip-hop homage (her rhymes on “Drunk In Love” nod to “Swangin’ and Bangin'” and constitute better rapping than Jay Z’s verse, plus there’s a Slim Thug flow on “Partition”), and a capitalist-considering, pop-feminist treatise. The inclusion of some goof mispronouncing her name at the start of “Haunted” is an interesting little self-deprecating detail that contains within it the work-a-day indignity so many people of color suffer for having weird-to-white-ppl names. Also, she does a Kendrick Lamar impression on “Haunted.”
Elsewhere, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appears on “***Flawless” (an adjustment to the “Bow Down” freeload from earlier this year that got the “ain’t feminist enuff” thinkpiece treatment) and makes explicit Beyoncé’s vision of being a woman with power and what she will do with that power. “Mine,” featuring Drake, is a reminder that B is the OG sing-rapper, long before dudes like Kanye, Lil Wayne, and Drizzy supposedly sparked a melodic-rap revolution (shout out to that late-’90s MTV2 bumper where Del The Funky Homosapien explained that Destiny’s Child were pretty much rappers). And in what has got to be one of the bravest combinations of songs in often album-averse modern R&B, closers “Heaven” and “Blue” take on her miscarriage and the birth of her child. So Beyoncé is an “I love my child and I love my husband and I love doin’ it with my husband” record that doesn’t stink of comfort — it begins with those emotions and spirals out from there. In that sense, it’s a lot like Yeezus, also empowered by an interior life seemingly in order, but here, that just allows her more time to focus on the outside world’s oppressive bullshit — and inspires her to fight back. Early score: 8/10
Irresistible as some of her singles have been, Beyoncé’s albums have always felt laborious and labored-over to me, like she was trying so hard for Michael Jordan-esque levels of perfection that she wasn’t having any fun; that the emphasis was more on the feat than the feel. (See disc one of I Am… Sasha Fierce, or the series of octave leaps at the end of “Love on Top.”) So it’s surprising that this, her most Herculean, long-percolating and (given 17 videos and unprecedented secrecy campaign) presumably effort-full effort yet is also, at first blush anyway, her most human. Whether it was Solange’s influence, frequent trips to Williamsburg. or whatever, B’s previous album, 2011’s 4, had moments of creative flowering, and here her muse is in full bloom.
As always, the collaborators are key: Pharrell looms large, teaming up with Timberlake to create a vintage Prince groove (more than slightly reminiscent of “Blurred Lines”) on “Blow”; “No Angel” has a wild, jazzy, Joni-ish melody that flies all over the scale; the opening piece de resistance, “Pretty Hurts,” has a shimmering, melancholy-yet-radio-friendly landscape that perfectly suits the song’s heavy subject matter; “Rocket” is a loving interpolation of D’Angelo’s steamy “Untitled” that oddly doesn’t credit him (maybe the fine print is buried somewhere in iTunes). Throughout, guest spots from Drake, Hov, Frank Ocean and others provide some vocal variety without stealing the spotlight. Maybe the real inspiration is in the two most prominent lyrical topics – the joys of family and surprisingly explicit odes to hot married sex – but whatever the spark, Beyoncé sounds like she’s enjoying making music more than she ever has before. And while the videos may not cohere into the full story she implies in her explanatory video, her attempt at reinvigorating the album as a concept certainly raises the bar: Beyoncé is the first album on this scale that you can watch as well as listen to. So who’s next? Early score: 8/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 8.25