Premature Evaluation: Beyoncé BEYONCÉ

There’s some chance that Beyoncé’s new self-titled album is the best album that anyone has released in 2013. I don’t want to overstate things here; it’s not perfect. Jay Z’s verse on “Drunk In Love” is pretty bad, and it’s pretty inconsiderate that he couldn’t show up when Beyoncé was nice enough to record an entire album about how it’s so much fun to have sex with him all the time. (I already grossed a bunch of people out when I pointed this out on Twitter, but Jay’s “your breasteses my breakfast” line is extra-nasty when you consider that Bey is probably still lactating.) The album might be worth an extra $2 or so if “Blow” didn’t have Timbaland chanting “turn the cherry out” in that nyah-nyah-nyah voice. Bey’s “probably won’t make no money off this, oh well” line on “Haunted” is a bit disingenuous, since she’s totally going to make so much money off this. “Pretty Hurts” has a glorious hook and an empathetic lyric, but there’s also a slight frisson when someone so gallingly pretty is telling us that it’s hard to be pretty. In some of the accompanying videos, Bey probably could’ve asked her stylists to relax a little bit. And “No Angel” is pretty boring, at least until that subtle digital bassline finds its way into your head. But these are tiny, miniscule, deeply minor quibbles, and I won’t mention any of them ever again. Because this album, culturally and artistically, is a titanic achievement, a sweeping statement of dominance, a triumph of taste and technique and exquisitely rendered emotion.

The circumstances surrounding the album’s release are part of the excitement, of course. When there’s absolutely no buildup, as there was here, and something just happens, it makes for this shared cultural feeling that’s impossible to duplicate. With Channel Orange and Watch The Throne, we at least had some time to anticipate them. And with the year’s biggest albums, including things like Random Access Memories and Reflektor, the grandeur of the announcements and the slow speed of the rollout were part of the fun. With this, though, I could know that all my friends, around the world, were either staying up all night with the album, or they were waking up Friday morning, checking their phones, muttering “whoa” to themselves, and immediately pushing “buy.” My parents asked me about the album, and my parents never ask me about albums; I think the last time they bought something new was an Enya CD in 1993. In a Vice piece, the rapper Kitty misheard a Jay line as “eat the cake, anime,” and that had time to go from minor outrage to conversation-point to meme to snark-fodder in something like 48 hours, just because everyone heard that Jay line at the exact same time. That’s fun, that’s exciting, and that’s part of the story of the album. It should be. The mere fact that she pulled it off in absolute secrecy is amazing, and it makes the album feel like a gift dropped from the heavens, even if we all had to pay for it.

But that enthusiasm echo-chamber also creates an ideal circumstance where we can collectively overrate an album like this. And after a few days of intense listening, I’m delighted to report that I don’t think that’s happening. This thing is legitimately amazing in ways that have nothing to do with the context of its release, and these songs are sticking. Every Beyoncé solo album has been, at the very least, pretty good, but this one already feels like a huge leap beyond all of them. Every song is worth hearing and focusing on, and the videos-for-every-song approach just reinforces the reality that there’s no one immediate focal point. The movie moves quickly and fluidly among moods and textures and ideas and mini-genres, but it goes after every one of them with absolute ferocious self-assurance.

It’s obvious, for one thing, that Beyoncé has been paying attention to what’s been happening on the fringes of R&B, to the art-dazzled icy minimalism that’s made certain mini-scenes within the genre so exciting lately. The more beat-driven passages of “Haunted” bring the same chilly drum-centric minimalism of the great mixtapes that Cassie and Kelela released this year, increasing the scope of those singers without losing the fundamental punch of their sound. “Flawless” is amazing Night Slugs/Fade To Mind apocalyptic tear-the-club-up dance music. “Partition” has drum programming so smart and off-kilter and propulsive that I kind of want to bake a cake for whoever was in charge of the fingersnaps. Solange shows up in the “Blow” video, and the song has a lot of the same organic breezy joy that Solange brought to her True EP last year. Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek gets co-writing and co-producing credits on “No Angel,” and even without the hey-cool-Beyoncé-likes-Chairlift factor, the song’s queasy refracted soft-rock synths draw an unlikely straight line to the whole vaporwave thing. And the Drake collab “Mine” takes obvious inspiration from the sweaty rhythmic intimacy of the xx, probably by way of Drake’s own Jamie xx-produced “Take Care.”

Those stylistic left turns all represent bold choices, and they all do fascinating things with Beyoncé’s voice and her melodies. But they still resonate as straight-up pop music, and they mesh beautifully with the more down-the-middle sounds elsewhere on the album. If the album has an immediately apparent hit, for instance, it’s probably the incandescent “XO,” which Bey co-wrote with The-Dream and Ryan Tedder, the guy from OneRepublic. It’s a big, juicy, dizzy-in-love pop song with a howling-into-infinity chorus, but it still has these great weird off-kilter drums from producer Hit-Boy, and these little sonar pings in its sonic mix. It’s sandwiched right between “Mine” and “Flawless,” and the transitions aren’t jarring on either side. “Superpower” has a Frank Ocean guest vocal (and writing credit), but it’s a soft out-of-time relationship ballad — not too terribly removed from what Ocean was doing on Channel Orange, but more obviously populist than any of that, like what might happen if Ocean and Beyoncé tried to get together and write their own “Man In The Mirror.” “Pretty Hurts” is big synthy pop-radio bait, with nothing subversive going on beyond its beauty-standards-are-fucked-up message, but it’s absolutely great on its own merits; I’ve had the hook in my head since I first heard it. And “Rocket” is a squelchy, Prince-ly old-school sex-ballad, co-written by Miguel. There’s nothing remotely innovative about it, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a ballad of this type so completely fleshed-out and fully realized; even the lick-you-up stuff on Miguel’s own masterful Kaleidoscope Dream seems just a tiny bit leadfooted in comparison.

I’ve said a lot about the various collaborators here, and with good reason. The cast of characters who worked on this album is a huge and fascinating one, and they all did great work. But Beyoncé deserves the lion’s share of the credit herself. For one, she’s ultimately the one who had the vision to bring all these people together. She’s also got co-production credit on many of the songs and co-writing credits on all of them. But even if we completely discount the questions of who gets credit for what, she does amazing things with her work here. She’s always been a fantastic interpreter of popular song, someone with a massive technical range to show off but also the emotional intelligence to know when to hold back. And her delivery on every one of these songs is its own thing completely. She goes from warm, friendly belter on “Pretty Hurts” to elusive slyph on “Haunted” without the slightest disconnect. Her falsetto on “No Angel” is a thing to behold. A ballad like “Superpower” seems engineered to build to one big glory note, like an American Idol performance, but she holds back on it, understanding that the song’s vibe works better if she keeps her melisma runs contained and understated. On “Drunk In Love,” her delivery doesn’t exactly constitute rapping, but it’s better rapping than whatever Jay is doing. On “Rocket,” she seems to melt into the track, but then on “XO,” there’s this wide-open innocence that reminds me of Taylor Swift, of all people. And for the relationship real talk of “Mine,” she pronounces every word with the sort of matter-of-fact clarity that people tend to use when they’re having actual conversations like the one she’s evoking here. And I also like the way the album brings in little pieces of her past — that clip of Bey’s pre-Destiny’s Child girl group losing on Star Search gets even better when you get a load of who they lost to.

And I’ve come all this way without mentioning the last two songs on the album, “Heaven” and “Blue,” both of which absolutely lay me flat. “Heaven,” very plainly, is a love song for the baby that Beyoncé lost in a miscarriage. If you’ve ever gone through that, or been close to someone who has, you understand that this is an absolutely devastating thing to go through, and it’s something that we, societally, barely ever address. People who have had miscarriages, by and large, don’t feel comfortable talking about them, and people who haven’t don’t have any idea what that’s like. (Promise: Even with an early miscarriage, you can be firmly and fiercely pro-choice and then still feel like your best friend has been ripped away.) Beyoncé was already the rare celebrity to discuss what she’d gone though, and she was a hero to the women I know who were waiting for someone prominent to talk about that. So this song, so heartfelt and beautiful and wounded, feels like a hug. It’s an incredibly brave and real act for someone as famous as Beyoncé to be singing about this stuff. People are going to cry their eyes out to this song. And then, immediately after, there’s “Blue,” Bey’s song for the daughter who didn’t die. It’s lighter, more buoyant, and it shines like a glimmer of hope after “Heaven.” The two songs, together, make for a pop-music statement of great depth and power. The album is a blast before those songs show up. But those two songs are maybe the realest, most grown-up things Beyoncé has ever done. Long after the whole story of the album’s release has become a distant memory, those two songs will stick with me.

BEYONCÉ is out now on Columbia.

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Comments (70)
  1. Great to see Beyonce #BREAKFREE from the norm with her release.

    - Sent from my Virgin Mobile phone

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    • Um. you need to listen to Haunted again, because that line is definitely on there

      • If you’re listening to the album, then that line comes in “Haunted.” If you’re watching the album, it comes during “Ghost.”

        And I for one thought Jay’s verse was good enough for the album. I don’t necessarily understand the running joke in the review of Jay’s verse being horrible. Yeah, he’s laid some turds this year, but this one’s probably his shiniest.

      • If you check the Wikipedia article for the album the title for the second track on the album is “Ghost/Mirrors” and further down there’s a track called “Yonce/Partition”. Although the audio album doesn’t separate the tracks, I think they’re meant to be separate parts stylistically. This idea is further supported by the separate musical videos for “Ghost”, “Mirrors”, “Yonce” and “Partition”. Drake also did something similar on Take Care with track “Cameras/Good Ones Go Interlude”. No idea why artists do this rather than just separate the two tracks.

  3. So right about Jay-Z’s verse. The entire time I was listening to the track, it began to hit me hard that he’s becoming the old man who can’t keep up with his sex-craving wife — the Michael Douglas to the Catherine Zeta post-Chicago and before the revelation that he got throat cancer due to oral sex (after all, those breasteses, right?) Heard Hova used to abuse Viagra for the fun of it, but his rap game is getting to the point where he needs a bit to barely get it up next to whomever he’s rhyming with in bed, and this is his own wife we’re talking about here.

    I need to relisten to the end of the album, because it’s a big, long listen (like a surfboard if you will) and my mind started to wander before I could take in the words on top of the sound.

    Oh, and I feel for Solange. Bey basically took a ton of her ideas and went with them. Solange was like the “indie” Bey, but now now Bey is the “indie” Bey.

  4. I never ever listen to the same album more than once in a day. I listened to Beyonce this morning, and I *really* want to listen to it again. That tells me all I need to know about whether it will stick with me.

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  6. Is it a coincidence that Bey & Burial have very similar artwork for their surprise albums?

    New hypothesis – BEYONCE IS BURIAL.

  7. There really needs to be an article written about how Jay needs to go like Wizards MJ and pack it in. Every line he spits now is just embarrassingly bad yet everyone is reticent to call him out fully for it because of his stature.

    Jay, you suck now. Please quit and save some face.

    • Jay Z recently admitted his new stuff isn’t his best stuff, so I think to some extent he’s aware of his decline. I’m inclined to think he’s holding onto his rap career for other reasons. Is possible that he just wants to feel younger and rapping is his best outlet for doing so? His wife is much younger than he is and she’s at the top of her career (as is his protege, Kanye). It seems to be he’s just having a hard time letting go of that part of his career. I’d like to see him transition into a mentor/producer role and leave the rapping to the younger guys (who still have the ambition).

  8. So can we agree that based on 4 versus Blueprint 3 and BEYONCE versus Magna Carta, that Bey is officially putting out better albums than her husband?

    • True, but if you’re strictly comparing years, 2011 had “4″ versus “Watch the Throne”, which is a little bit more of a fair fight.

      • True, but that’s more of a Kanye vs Beyonce comparison. Kanye did most of the heavy lifting on Watch the Throne.

      • Watch The Throne is Kanye’s weakest for me so far and rather overrated (although some songs are great). But 4 is an excellent, gorgeous album. I’d pick it very easily.

      • As much as I love Watch the Throne, I think that “4″ still wins. Party alone beats most of the stuff put out that year.

        • Real talk: there are basically no good songs on “Watch the Throne” after “New Day.” First half slays, next couple are kinda meh, the last few tracks are actually horrible. “Sweet baby Jesus… we made it in America…”

          So yeah I give that one to 4, even if WTT had the better singles.

  9. When dealing with producer-driven pop/R&B/rap, I think there are some issues the critical world needs to tackle without the fear of appearing “rockist”.

    One, focus on the person’s performance and performance only (in this case the writer effectively did for the most part). Cause going into the credits can be too misleading and confusing as to who did what. The more outstanding/unique/captivating the performance (singing and dancing, etc) the more the he/she should be praised.

    As far as vision, quality of the music, etc, yeah a certain amount can be credited/blamed to the performance, but lets be real, at their best (like MJ or to a lesser extent Beyonce, Janelle Monae, and Gaga) they really inject their fingerprints onto the sound) and at their worst (Miley, Britney, etc) they simply figureheads to the producers vision. This would hopefully prevent overexaggeration of the level of the pop stars accomplishments. This needs to happen in fairness to all the artists that truly do execute their entire vision themselves, and it also puts to beleaguered, troubadour old-school rocker on and equal footing.

    • I disagree. This is a perception that comes from the rock-criticism-based world. The work of producers and songwriters must absolutely be considered, as pop comes from a much more collaborative process rather than a band/artist sole vision. And a collaborative process is not of less value than a singular point of view, especially because in case of some artists, like Beyonce, the collaboration happens to drive a point of view forward anyway. You say you don’t want to appear “rockist”, but different genres and artists should be judged on their own terms. You don’t need to create a rule to determine quality. You take into consideration what the genre does and needs and how it’s made into account, and that will never be in equal footing, but it doesn’t need to be, and it doesn’t invalidate any of the many different sides to the story.

      • But they’re not being judged on their own terms, that’s the problems. Some people are calling Beyoncé some sort of visionary. She’s not. Shes a fantastic performer who has a vision, but she’s no visionary. These reviews seem to allude to that.

        • You’re limiting the concept of vision by process and you ideas of what vision must be out of rock habit. Why can’t someone who uses a highly collaborative process be a visionary? If there’s a distinct personal point of view, it’s visionary in some form. I don’t think anyone can deny this is a very personal project no matter how the process came to be. Every aspect of this feels like it could’ve only come from her, even if she has people along elaborating her vision with her.

          And they are being judged by their own terms. Their producers and songwriters matter to the process, hence her album is judged on every single aspect that matters to the end result, just like every album should be no matter the process the artist in question uses. You’re saying only the aspect of the artist performance themselves must be considered on reviews for popstars like that, which I disagree, and come from a place that associates artistry as something from a singer/songwriter or band, rather than thinking a process like Beyonce’s can be and must be respected even if it’s different from what rock criticism and fans are used to have as way to determine vision and quality.

          • I see your point, but a collaboration should be credited to the whole team, Bey being one of them. She deserves all credit as a performer, and alot of credit for getting her fingerprints into this collaboration, but I feel she’s getting more credit than she deserves. It seems to get lost in most of the reviews I’m reading. It’s tricky, and it’s something that I feel hasn’t been properly addressed by the music writer world.

        • Most people have no problem calling a filmmaker like David Lynch a visionary, but film is arguably even more collaborative than pop music. “Blue Velvet” depended on the talent and effort of actors, an editor, cinematographer, lighting, make-up and camera crews, a composer, etc…yet they all worked to realize something inimitably Lynchian in vision. Can’t the same be true for Beyonce?

  10. I’m so happy that some of the biggest names in popular music (Beyonce, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake) are taking creative risk with their music rather than sticking to a formula that works (I’m looking at you Rihanna). The commercial success of these albums will hopefully give future pop artist more creative control over their sound, and hopefully lead to better quality overall. I’m of the opinion that there is no disconnect between pop music and good music, however we’ve just been living in an age where that most often hasn’t been the case. But the future is looking brighter.

    • I’m not sure if it’s fair to say Rihanna never takes risks. My wife and I both think that the last Rihanna album is her best; every track is at least interesting. Beyonce is definitely the more creative, interesting artist; Rihanna still puts out an album every year that is at least worth exploring a few times.

    • Rihanna actually takes more risks than given credit for. She was one of the first popstars to include dubstep/garage leaning sounds on singles and album tracks, and she has some of the most adventurous producers.

      • Ironically Yonce is basically a Rihanna song just done much better.

        Rihanna is so frustrating because she could be so great. Maybe not Beyonce great but much better than the singles artist she is now. She takes plenty of risks and usually knocks those out the park but for everyone of those there’s a chart-seeking ballad or collaboration with someone like David Guetta. Hopefully now that her stream of annual albums is coming to an end she can put a fully focused album together. Not likely though.

        Beyonce herself took a long to get to this point though. It wasn’t long ago that her albums always felt so close to greatness only to fall short by a commercial desire. But now she’s undeniably at the top professionally and personally. If anything you could argue the Jay/Bey marriage has been a boon for Beyonce while at the same time being a detriment to Jay. It seems like it would take something like this point personally for Rihanna to achieve her greatness like Beyonce did.

  11. Very upset that you mentioned Prince instead of D’Angelo when you were talking about “Rocket,” Tom…

    • It’s so, so much Prince. The only track of D’Angelo’s that is similar is “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, but that’s D’Angelo doing a Prince homage.

      • Did the person who downvoted me ever listened to Prince? Do people get Prince’s influence is pretty much everywhere in modern r&b? Now let me see this getting passive aggressive downvotes for pointing the downvotes and the importance of Prince…

        • Yeah but D’Angelo’s influence is just as widespread as Prince’s. Which is crazy since he’s only had two albums.

          • I love D’Angelo, and yet I can’t see how anyone could say he has influence r&b just as much as Prince. I really can’t. They are both huge points of reference, but Prince’s influence is seismic and felt though all different genres and subgenres of not only r&b, but hip-hop, and hell, music in general.

            Considering Rocket was written by Miguel, who holds Prince as kind of a personal God (with reason!), I think it’s safe to assume the similarities to “untitled” are a coincidence, and that this is yet another Prince homage from him, just so happens it’s similar to D’Angelo’s Prince homage.

      • Yeah but it also sounds almost exactly like Untitled.

        • The construction of the song is reminiscent of Prince, for sure, but those really wonky sounding synths and he way the vocals are multi-tracked sound make “Rocket” the first track since “Untitled” to sound even remotely like “Untitled.” The *sonics* are definitely in homage to D’Angelo, I’m surprised that Timbaland even figured out how to recreate those sounds.

          • Those “wonky” sounds are very Prince too. Again, Miguel, the actual songwritter of the song, is extremely guided by Prince’s music aesthetic. I get why people are reminded of “Untitled”, but again, I think it’s just a coincidence, since both songs borrow heavily from Prince.

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  13. good thing she has a cool name, otherwise this could’ve been titled, “MARGARET”

  14. Am I the only person who thinks this album is a steaming pile of dog poo?

  15. Probably my favorite thing about this album is that just about every song carries a thesis strong enough to record a whole album about.

  16. Masturbeyt (verb) – To write a terrible, unresearched thinkpiece about Beyonce.

  17. I honestly don’t understand the excitement people have with this album, by all means enjoy what you want, but all I hear is the same banal, empty, hook based pop that I come to sites like this to get away from.

  18. I agree on the pairing of “Heaven” and “Blue”. Even though they are very emotional, they are also very tasteful and elegant without sacrificing the story behind the songs. Pretty much a knock-out way to close an album. Blue specifically has some early Kanye inflections (Family Business-like) without feeling like it’s straight up emulating that. And both manage to be very sophisticated in production and very touching in songwriting and performance. You can tell this is a special album for her by the way it ends with such special and personal songs. And it doesn’t feel like personal indulgence, but feels like sweet and caring vulnerability on display.

  19. Remind me again why this site covers mainstream rap and pop? Isn’t that for Rolling Stone to do?

    • Because good music is good music regardless of who makes it.

    • I agree. Does mainstream radio and mainstream press cover Stereogum favorites? Do you see Grizzly Bear getting any traction in the mainstream? It is the biggest swindle ever that the “hipster” community gave cred to the pop world while the pop world continues to ignore the artist community. It wouldn’t sit as poorly with me if there was a genuine transaction between the mainstream and “indie” (hip, underground whateveryouwannacallit) world, but there is very little. But where is the tradeoff? None. Just another pocket of fans to make money off of while “indie” acts continue to starve.

      • Mainstream radio hasn’t reacted to indie world? What world are living in? The indie/hipster music aesthetic is all over radio. Just because it doesn’t come from the actual indie/hipster bands, doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced pop music. It has. Big time. Wake up, man.

        I truly think you people are all just bitter that Stereogum and sites like this are making harder and harder for people to be anti-populism snobs that irrationally hate artists like Beyonce.

        • Dude, I’m a huge Bey fan. You’re barking up the wrong tree. But your prving that it’s next to impossible to make this critique without having an irrational response.

        • The indie/hipster music aesthetic is all over radio. Just because it doesn’t come from the actual indie/hipster bands, doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced pop music

          “it doesn’t come from the actual indie/hipster bands”

          And I guess those bands and their fans are supposed to be happy that pop musicians are getting big exposure / selling records based on an aesthetic they’ve worked and sacrificed to produce and pioneer?

          If indie bands were as lucrative as mainstream pop acts, I would agree with you. But they’re not. The power balance you’re describing is very unequal.

    • Nah, Rolling Stone’s job is to give out 5 star ratings to Bruce Springsteen and U2 albums.

  20. C’mon Tom — it’s a fun pop record that I’m going to wear out, but “this album, culturally and artistically, is a titanic achievement, a sweeping statement of dominance, a triumph of taste and technique and exquisitely rendered emotion” is quite possibly the most overwrought thing I’ve ever read on this website and I actually laughed after reading it.

    • That last paragraph just made the album a little heavier for me, though. I have never followed Beyoncé news and didn’t willingly listen to any of her work before 4, so I didn’t know she went though that. Listening to “Heaven” and “Blue” again. Wow. A friend of mine lost a child we were all pretty stoked to have in the world. It’s definitely not a great feeling and it really never goes away.

    • hahaha dude, spot on! completely ridiculous hyperbole.

      if that’s the kind of praise lauded at a destiny’s child solo record, then i can’t imagine what’s left over for say, the next radiohead record.

  21. ii cant believe people think no angel is boring! it might be my favorite song on the entire record. Gosh when the bass kicks in at a minute and a half….so dreamy.

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