Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Beyoncé BEYONCÉ

By Tom Breihan / December 16, 2013

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.