I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to review Beyoncé’s eponymous album. Like millions of people, I downloaded the disc as soon as I found out it had been dropped in the middle of the night in December 2013. I listened to it pretty heavily through the end of 2013/beginning of 2014, and still listen to it on occasion. In fact, I’d say it’s my favourite Beyoncé album- not that there are many, but I digress. At any rate, for some reason I’ve forgotten to review the album, but hey, I’m here now.
Beyoncé’s fifth studio album wasn’t just a surprise because it was literally released overnight with no promotion- it’s also a bit of a surprise as it’s the first album that sees Beyoncé explore more mature subject matter and experiment with different sounds. Rather than sticking to the traditional R&B/pop format we’ve grown to know and love from Mrs. Carter, Beyoncé is a mixture of R&B, pop, hip-hop, and even a bit of electronica. The subject matter ranges from songs about sex to feminism, and as a whole, the album marks the most mature one in Beyoncé’s career.
Funnily enough the album’s opener, Pretty Hurts, comes off as a pretty substandard R&B track. Sure, I love the empowering lyrics about not buying into society’s definition of beauty (“We try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see/It’s the soul that needs the surgery”), and Beyoncé’s vocals are on top form, as always, but the song really sounds like a handful of R&B tracks that we’ve heard Beyoncé (and any other urban artist) release before.
Thankfully, Haunted follows, and is the first mark in Beyoncé’s more experimental musical direction. The track sounds less like Beyoncé and more like Massive Attack, with its synthesised backdrop, electronic blips and beeps, and Beyoncé’s throaty vocal delivery. The first half of the song soon segues into a sultry track, where Beyoncé purrs lines like, “It’s what you do/It’s what you see/I know if I’m haunting you/You must be haunting me.” The track is seductive, sexy and nothing I’ve ever would’ve expected from Beyoncé in the past.
Lead single, Drunk In Love, features Beyoncé’s husband and rap mogul, Jay-Z. We haven’t heard the two of them duet in quite some time, and they do this song just as great as they did “Bonnie & Clyde” back in ’03. The track verges more on a hip hop number than R&B, thanks to slick production from Timbaland and Boots. Jay-Z’s rap verse is sleek and sexy, as he and Beyoncé sing about how much they enjoy making love to one another “all night.” It all sounds a lot sexier in the song than it probably does on paper.
The risqué subject matter continues with Partition, a song in which Beyoncé asks her limo driver to roll up the partition so she can give her husband fellatio. Again, it sounds really dirty when I write it out so plainly, but Beyoncé manages to sing about such subject matter with charm. It doesn’t hurt that the beat is banging, and Beyoncé even sounds good rapping in the first half of the track (best line: “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.”), making the track another winner.
But we haven’t seen anything yet until we get to Rocket, which is simply the sexiest song I’ve heard since D’Angelo’s, “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” In fact, the song has a very similar feeling to D’Angelo’s classic; both songs feature a sultry beat, a sort of doo-wop, MoTown throwback sound, and incredibly seductive lyrics (“Let me sit this ass on you/Show you how I feel/Let me take this off/Will you watch me?”). Beyoncé’s vocals are at their prime on this song, as well, and the whole track oozes off the listener like warm honey. I can’t imagine anyone hearing this song and not getting into the mood. Or maybe that’s just me…
A Beyoncé/Drake duet sounded like the stuff of dreams before I listened to Mine. The ballad is a real surprise for me- I don’t know what I expected honestly, but this wasn’t quite it. Don’t get me wrong- Mine is a perfectly nice ballad, particularly the first half which Beyoncé sings solo. The lyrics are beautiful and heartbreaking (“Been having conversations about breakups and separations/I’m not feeling like myself since the baby/Are we gonna even make it?”) and her delivery is appropriately heart-wrenching. But the beat drops and Drake comes in singing a repetitive rap about Beyoncé being a good girl (or something) and that’s when they lose me. I want to love Mine, and some days I do, but overall, I feel like Drake and Beyoncé could’ve found it within them to produce a better song.
There’s a few similarly middle-of-the-road moments on the album. Blow sounds like a roller skating anthem, and Beyoncé makes a lot of obvious double entendres, but the track sounds like a wannabe version of Rocket, and is overall one of my least favourites on the album. No Angel is just a bore; the melody remains in the same three or four beats throughout, and even Beyoncé’s vocal delivery seems tired. I think she’s going for a sultry voice again, but it really just sounds like she’s bored of singing the song. XO was the album’s second single and was a huge hit, but I’ve never enjoyed the track. It’s the typical pop song about everlasting love (“In the darkest night hour/I’ll search through the crowd/Your face is all that I see/I’ll give you everything ”), and I find the lyrics so banal and pointless (and what the hell does “You love me like, XO” even mean?!). I much prefer John Mayer’s acoustic rendition- at least he performs it without all the over-the-top production.
Things definitely get better with Flawless, one of my favourite tracks on the album. Again, Beyoncé verges closer to hip-hop territory and raps a bit on this harder sounding track about feminism (“I took some time to live my life/But don’t think I’m just his little wife/Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted/This my shit, bow down bitches ”). This song has, of course, spurred several pop culture sayings in the last year, from “I woke up like this” to “#flawless” and it’s all much deserved; this is one of those rare pop songs that’s incredibly infectious and just fun to listen to. A bit of substance is thrown in with a excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about feminism. Overall, the track is one of the best on the album, and one of the best in Beyoncé’s catalogue.
Beyoncé duets with one of my favourite R&B singers/rappers of late, Frank Ocean, on Superpower. Again, I found the duet a bit underwhelming; the song is a slow-burning, mid-tempo ballad, and though Beyoncé and Ocean’s vocals are smooth and easy to listen to, I’d say Frank Ocean’s talents are definitely underutilised.
The album ends with two more ballads. Heaven is an emotional, piano-based ballad, in which Beyoncé sings to a deceased love one. The song is a bit of an odd one, mood-wise; the album to this point has mostly been songs about sex or female empowerment, so a track about such an emotional matter is odd, but at least it’s saved for the end of the disc. That’s not to say that it’s not a lovely song, because it is, but it’s just out of place thematically on the album.
The disc comes to a close with Blue, a ballad dedicated to Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy. The sentimental lyrics are terribly sweet (“Each day I feel so blessed to be looking at you/Cause when you open your eyes, I feel alive”), as are the closing snippets of little Blue saying how much she loves her mommy. Again, the change in theme is a bit surprising, but I can’t really say anything bad about this track. The love Beyoncé has for her daughter is sweet and inspiring and something I can’t wait to feel myself someday.
Overall, Beyoncé’s fifth studio album is impressive. Beyoncé managed to solidify herself as the current queen of R&B and pop with an album of personal songs about her views on feminism, marriage and life, all set to some really catchy beats.
1. Pretty Hurts
3. Drunk in Love – (featuring Jay-Z)
5. No Angel