What does it mean to be a woman, especially a woman of color, in America in the year 2013? We’re writing about that difficult, important, and rewarding question in myriad articles, discussing it across a multitude of social platforms, and seeing it debated in political forums both mainstream and microcosmic. It seems at best silly and at worst impossible for an album of pop music to attempt to parse out the answers to these questions, but that’s exactly the length of Beyoncé’s ambitious reach with her complicated, fascinating self-titled surprise album. That Beyoncé even begins to manage to answer that question is impressive. That the multimedia excursion does so with deft intelligence and memorable tunes means that Beyoncé should carve out a place among pop’s most important moments.
First, that surprise release. If you follow music online in any capacity, you either went to bed on Thursday, December 12th or woke up on Friday, December 13th to every musically inclined person you follow on social media being unable to shut up about it. Annoying as that may sound, the precedent for a star the level of Beyoncé releasing a record with no lead-up, with no advance singles, with no warning simply doesn’t exist. In any other era, it’d be career suicide. In 2013, it’s leading to gold record status over a single weekend. Beyoncé essentially pulled the same trick video game companies have been pulling for years: release big shit right before Christmas. Take advantage of the social impulse to buy shit in December. Even if Beyoncé wasn’t any good, she’d have had the best opening weekend of any pop star in 2013. That the record is as good as it is means it’s taking a run at platinum in its first week.
The most obvious thing about Beyoncé is that it doesn’t have an obvious single — and, importantly, it doesn’t want to present one. The idea of a record from a major star studiously avoiding radio play is a relatively new one, with the most aggressive precursor to such a move being Yeezus. And it seems clear that Bey took that idea to heart because Beyoncé is an album in the classic sense: it’s a collection of articulate, thematically linked music. It trafficks specifically in lost arts like sequencing, pacing, and mastering. It’s not concerned with moving units. It’s concerned with Beyoncé’s self-exploration, in a complicated, incredibly intriguing way.
So, what does it mean to be Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter in America in 2013? Firstly, it’s clear that womanhood and femininity are chief concerns for the Houston native, from the dramatic and painful exploration of female beauty in America in opener “Pretty Hurts” to the Houston-meets-TNGHT empowerment thrash of “Flawless”. Obviously, female issues have been a part of Beyoncé’s repertoire in the past (“Single Ladies”, “Irreplaceable”, “Jumpin’ Jumpin'”, “Say My Name”, that list is actually pretty endless), but even as recently as “Run the World (Girls)”, those sentiments were couched in Spice Girls “girl power” terms: calls to arms with little enough specificity that they couldn’t really be seen as challenges to male power structures. By contrast, Bey drops highly acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the middle of “Flawless”, speaking directly about feminist theory and gender hypocrisy. The days of messing around are over; now it’s time for a coup.
It’s hard not to see such frank talk as a result of motherhood, even before Beyoncé sings, “I’m not feeling like myself since the baby” on “Mine”. Self-reflection after the birth of a child, especially after the birth of a girl, is to be expected. Women are statistically far more likely to be subject to gender-centric challenges and heinous behavior, and bringing a girl into the world can definitely lead to further contemplation on those issues. As such, Beyoncé spends a lot of the record examining her role in relationships, and then lending those examinations universal appeal via musical accompaniment. On “Mine”, she may be specifically referring to her and Jay Z when she says she isn’t feeling like herself since Blue Ivy and asks, “Are we gonna even make it?”, but the song’s aching, rich piano balladry means it could apply to any woman in a difficult situation.
But Beyoncé is far from being all sentiment. Because a large part of being Beyoncé in America in 2013 is being a sexual creature and not only being unafraid of that fact, but reveling — and reveling confidently — in it. The amorphous, shifting Houston-trap-meets-Noah Shebib trunk rattler “Partition” exemplifies this particular sentiment. On the track, the Queen Bey tells her driver to put the partition up because “I don’t need you seeing ‘yonce on her knees”; uses Monica Lewinsky as a euphemism for her man finishing on her clothing; reveals that “he like to call me Peaches when we get this nasty”; and repeats that it took her “45 minutes to get all dressed up/ and we ain’t even gonna make it to this club.” And in maybe the wildest moment in an album full of bold moves, Beyoncé actually slips in the French translation of Julianne Moore’s “Feminists love sex” monologue from The Big Lebowski. Let me repeat that. Beyoncé actually slips in the French translation of Julianne Moore’s “Feminists love sex” monologue from The Big Lebowski.
Ideas of sexual confidence and sexual freedom as a natural — and largely oppressed — part of femininity pop up everywhere. “Rocket” is basically a primer on what sex with Beyoncé is like (Spoiler: apparently amazing. You may need a personal trainer or a therapist.) that beats R. Kelly at his own game of pairing hyper-specific, “so ridiculous they’re incredible” bedroom euphemisms with the most classic of soul vibes. On “Haunted”, the record’s constantly morphing six-minute mood setter that dabbles in R&Burial, Evian Christ’s drag-influenced codeine hip-hop, and Nothing Was the Same‘s Xanax club rap, Bey breaks through the ghostly vibes when she demands, “Slap me, I’m pinned to the doorway/ Kiss, bite, foreplay.” It’s probably no accident that Bey slides into the last word of that lyric, making it sound even less radio friendly. And on the space disco funk of “Blow”, Bey announces, “I’m about to get into this girls. This for all my grown women out there,” before telling her man over and over that “I can’t wait ’til you get home so you can turn that cherry out.”
Of course, the bold lyrical proclamations about women’s social and sexual issues and how they’re entwined would be appreciated but pushed aside if there wasn’t an equal strong musical backbone. Beyoncé’s team of producers here range from the legendary (Timbaland, Pharrell) to the highly respected (Noah Shebib, Justin Timberlake, J-Roc, Mike Dean) to the almost completely unknown (BOOTS, Andre Eric Proctor) to Beyoncé taking her own turn on the boards, and the entire team delivers on the 32-year-old singer’s ambitious aspirations. There’s an incredible stylistic range displayed within the constraints of the album’s contemplative and darkly seductive tone. Opener “Pretty Hurts”, as well as later tracks like “XO” and “Heaven”, pairs the cinematic reach of modern Top 40 pop with the patience and melancholy of post-808s & Heartbreaks hip-hop. Tracks like “Jealous” and closer “Blue” slow down radio R&B to molasses RPMs. Tracks like “Drunk in Love” traffic in a strain of vaporwave soul that buzzes like frayed nerve endings. “Haunted” and “Partition” and “Mine” are confident enough to take one, two, three left turns while maintaining thematic cohesion. Across its length, Beyoncé is built like a house of all-black cards: each track leans against its neighbor and creates something grander in doing so.
It’s no surprise, and it’s probably not incidental, that Beyoncé shows up every man she allows on her record. Jay Z’s verse is as token as anything he left off of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Drake is largely forgettable, even as a texture on “Mine”, and even Frank Ocean cedes superhuman soul duties to Queen Bey on “Superpower”. And many tracks here are hostile takeovers of styles that male pop stars have made famous: “Blow” mastering Futuresex/Lovesounds-era Timberlake, “Rocket”‘s R. Kelly takedown, “Flawless” as Yeezus but listenable, “Mine” as Drake without the misogyny. All of that reads as a conscious and concerted effort from the longtime pop star to answer the question of what it means to be a woman, especially a woman of color, in America in the year 2013. Beyoncé‘s answer is to consider yourself a goddess in every facet of your life.
Essential Tracks: “Pretty Hurts”, “Partition”, “Flawless”, and “Blue”