by Chad Jewett
The greatest of the many feats Beyoncé manages on her newest, self-titled, album, is to make us all feel ashamed for having ever doubted her. At first blush this may seem like an odd way of talking about an artist responsible for “Single Ladies,” “Irreplaceable,” “Crazy In Love,” “Ego,” “If I Were A Boy,” “Ring the Alarm;” the list goes on. At least two of those songs were absolute in their appeal – likable across generations, demographics, music value systems. The main question in mind leading up to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance was how she was going to find time, even in “little-bit-of-everything-medley” mode, to cruise through that many hits. But here’s the thing: perhaps due to the archetypes of modern R&B, perhaps due to her specific appeal, perhaps even due to the fact that she basically played a thinly-veiled analogue of this woman in Dreamgirls, Beyoncé Knowles has always felt like our Diana Ross. She was beautiful, confident, able to evolve, and capable of seismic pop songs both with and without the group of women with which she started. But the drawback has always been that format – even as other Motown artists – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, even the Temptations – began to find a place for their craft in the art of the album, Ross could bless us with an “I’m Coming Out,” even if the LP it came packaged with, Diana, was, like most of Beyoncé’s records, warmly-regarded and uneven. Even Beyoncé’s most committed effort to a “capital A” album, I Am…Sasha Fierce felt like a vessel for singles, wherein the deep cuts lacked most of the giddy futurism that made “Single Ladies” so much fun for us, and seem like so much fun for her. Like no artist besides Kanye West, Beyoncé has excelled at making the new addictive; the problem has come either in her confidence in or commitment to making that central to her art. That Diana Ross affinity – it sometimes felt like a classicist trap, in which charisma and pipes and the knowledge of the ins and outs of lunch pail pop music came so easily to Bey that the risk of innovation seemed understandably besides the point.
But then you hear “Pretty Hurts,” and you immediately feel guilty for not expecting this album from Beyoncé Knowles; from Queen B. The song begins with free-form bits of harmony, signs of ownership that establish what sets Beyoncé apart from so many of the other expensive, future-pop albums of 2013 (even very good albums like Bangerz and The 20/20 Experience Part 1) – this record is a marvel of musical innovation on which the greatest advance is the humanism of Beyoncé’s voice. The album is the result of an army of pop technicians, but the record’s packaging – all matte black with “Beyoncé” in pink, all caps — tells you all you need to know about this album’s center of gravity. Her voice is the story, her way with narrative and emotion is what captivates, even above these stunning marvels of pop advance. “Pretty Hurts” skitters along compressed electro-pop drums, expanding into thumping EDM on its cavernous hooks, and you immediately understand what has been missing –there simply hasn’t been a big enough game for Beyoncé until just now. “Pretty Hurts” manages to be a symphony of computers made sympathetic, synapses firing to Beyoncé and not the other way around, so that you feel all of the interiority of Bey, admittedly missing till now in her decades of stage-child perfection, on impressively detailed lines like “Just another stage / Pageant the pain away.” Beyoncé’s voice curls around those drum patters, filling the cold with real feeling, in a way that might be a challenge for a woman who could likely sing most of this album in first takes. You wonder if, two years ago, she’d have kept some of these verses, where her voice quivers, where her emoting is tasked with expressing a lack of confidence, as is the thesis of “Pretty Hurts,” a gorgeous statement about the emotional tolls of appearance. Now you get the sense she was throwing out every take where she didn’t connect enough, where she was too confident.
Beyoncé finds a new gear in the nervy trap thump of its moodier tracks, songs like “Haunted” and “Partition,” the former of which finds Beyoncé rapping, pushing herself farther and farther out of that comfort zone. When her falsetto coo returns, draped in reverb and more of that human touch, the beat responds, gathering clatters of sound, trickles of synth, vocoder harmonies. But already you find the album’s real system of thought, a commitment to never-ever tread water, as all of that tempest drops away and suddenly it’s just a piano and Bey (it almost feels like Beyoncé is stretching to show you just how much she could own Lady Gaga’s territory, finding ways to blend deep club production with noir-ish balladry in a way that has only ever really been theoretical for Gaga), and what felt like the most humid of clubs suddenly becomes the haziest cabaret as Beyoncé blows smoke rings: “I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me,” giving you a sample of what Beyoncé in “Bond girl” mode would be like, even if I’d much prefer her as “girl Bond.”
And indeed, that switch, that refusal to be sublimated to traditional male figures, be it the scientists behind Beyoncé’s soundscape, or her most-famous-rapper-alive husband, is the album’s subplot. But what makes this album really special is that, rather than define herself in relation to Jay Z, or any other man, Beyoncé spends so much of the record discovering herself, her own body, her own sexuality. There’s a valuable statement in Beyoncé declaring she is more than “just his little wife,” but it pales in comparison to the intimacy and power of songs like “Blow” and “Rocket,” songs of grown-up intimacy and owned-sexuality that make you realize just how shallow this stuff tends to be coming from Katy Perry (whose lyrics, by comparison, feel like collages of old Cosmo articles and Twitter hashtags) and Justin Timberlake (who is much better at convincing us of his love for Stax/Motown than his love for Jessica Biel). “Blow” is especially notable in this regard, a cherry-coke fizz of sugary funk, a space where closeness and intimacy and self-discovery is fun, as opposed to “shocking” or “transgressive” (indeed, the song’s greatest feat may be in making a woman owning her sexuality feel effortless – you know, the way it should be) an opportunity for self-knowledge and exploration, rather than exhibitionism or sublimated performance.
“Partition” is the slinkier, night-time version of this, an absolute explosion of deep low-end force, shaking knees as Queen B demands “Give me something!” and is swiftly obeyed by sub-bass and jittery dance hall samples. Beyoncé follows up on that island cadence, a verse spent in Rihanna’s wheelhouse, except Bey has gathered so much alto muscle that she feels of a piece with all of that bass; and sure enough, Beyoncé raps: “Drop the bass, man the bass, get lower / Radio, say speed it up, I just go slower / High like treble, puffin on the mids / The man ain’t ever seen a booty like this.” It’s the moment where you realize just how sharp Beyoncé’s instincts are, a moment in which she capitalizes on just how physical everything coming out of that speaker is – even the sounds that aren’t Beyoncé are Beyoncé. It’s a song about feminine sexuality that is never anything but STRONG. There’s a similar kind of power in “***Flawless,” the most exhilarating ode to self-confidence and self-acceptance I’ve ever heard, the song where Beyoncé brushes off any reduction of her enormous talent to her proximity to Jay Z, the song where she makes the ticky-tacky boy’s club sonics of video-game trap positively explode with femininity.
Frankly, the only times the album’s commitment to feminism (and indeed, Beyoncé washes away all the hemming and hawing of female celebrities over feminism with a sample of a TED Talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) is endangered are when Beyoncé gives too much room to her boneheaded bro guests. Indeed, you can’t help but wonder at Bey’s charity in devoting so much of “Drunk in Love” to singing the praises of Jay Z when he spends his embarrassing verse comparing himself to Ike Turner – the unrepentant abuser of one of Beyoncé’s most obvious role models, Tina Turner. Only slightly less egregious is Drake, stopping by on “Mine” to assure Beyoncé she’s a “good girl” in a melody recycled from Thank Me Later, as if she doesn’t know it, as if she gives one shit whether or not anyone think’s she’s “good” or not – besides of course herself. Indeed, coming only a few spots after a song like “No Angel,” a caramel-drip of R&B frostiness that quickly dispatches with just these binaries of “good” and “bad” to instead celebrate empathy and understanding, all in that upper-register falsetto that constitutes Bey’s secret weapon on this record, you can’t help but wish Beyoncé told every male other than Frank Ocean to save their stuff for the remixes. And indeed, “Superpower,” co-produced and co-written by Ocean, finds Beyoncé meeting the closest thing to her match, a fellow rhythm-and-soul obsessive with a voice that can contract and expand to any soundscape. Like Frank’s guest spot on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday” his performance here is ego-less and sympathetic, showing just how deep his R&B history goes in playing the happy-to-be-here Marvin Gaye to Bey’s explosive Tammi Terrell (see: “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”). Ocean’s beat is a weird bit of pop-soul drama and you get the sense that B wouldn’t have it any other way, that by the album’s back third she’d be bored with anything that doesn’t constitute a sonic challenge.
But then there’s “XO.” Like “Mirrors” and “Wrecking Ball” — 2013’s other anxious-love showstoppers — you can hear the Guitar Center power ballad latent in “XO”‘s DNA, a trace hint that makes you admire each song’s architects even more for diffusing it, for finding smarter ways to own your car’s radio and your favorite basketball team’s PA (not to keep picking on Katy Perry, but she obviously didn’t hear that 2013 came with non-Aerosmith/Celine Dion ballad templates). For Justin and Miley, that scrambling process has mostly meant subtraction and compression, subbing in icy keys and EDM haze where there would normally be seventy Les Pauls. For “XO,” it means expanding the song past the dull limits of rock, making it bigger, trusting Beyoncé as our last, greatest progressive-populist voice (she’s our Springsteen, only with more hooks and better dance moves), pilling on harmonies for her to high-jump over, tasking Bey with connecting on a formula as old as Pythagoras: “Love + a Major key.” “Love me lights out” is not only a charming, cornball sentiment, it’s also the song’s obvious desire for itself — it’s a tune working overtime to make its own properties undeniable. It feels good for everyone when, for all that effort, it ends up so effortless a song to adore. Like the album, “XO” is the sound of Beyoncé hitting her absolute stride as a pop artist, as a genius of empathy and expression, as a role model of self-worth, as a willing voice for everyone, a woman who in 2013 declared her support of gay rights and feminism, and who, with Beyoncé set the new standard for pop music. It’s the kind of record you can’t imagine anyone topping – unless of course Beyoncé does it herself. Set your Google alerts wisely; keep an ear to the wind this time next year. It’s Beyoncé’s game now, like it always was; we’re all just watching.