When it’s after midnight on a frigid Thursday and your phone doesn’t stop buzzing for north of an hour because people keep texting you, one of two things has happened. It’s possible that some horrific and terrible calamity requires your immediate attention. Or Beyoncé just went and released an entire new album and 17 mini music videos on iTunes and ain’t warned damned nobody.
Merry Christmas, all. Santa is Beyoncé.
Santa Knowles shocked the hell out of everybody when, with no fanfare, she released 14 new tracks and 17 accompanying music videos exclusively on iTunes late Thursday night (especially if you’re on the east coast). For fans of Beyoncé/good music/happiness in general, it was like an early Christmas gift, the first new album from the singer since 2011’s 4. The thing is: no one even knew to put it on their Christmas list, because no one had any idea it was coming.
The surprise “BOOM. NEW ALBUM.” release strategy was genius. The album, easily her most personal yet, just happens to be, too. Intimate, raw, and at times even X-rated, Beyoncé cements Beyoncé’s status as the most untouchable, perhaps even divine, pop star alive. And it does this by presenting Beyoncé, almost implausibly, as one of us. (Merry Christmas, you’re just like Beyoncé!)
As we learned with the tepid response to Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, nothing crushes a major pop release like anticipation and hype. Lady Gaga dug her own grave—and maybe bedazzled her own coffin—by aggressively hailing her own work as some groundbreaking reinvention of pop music, and then delivering just, you know, music.
By that measure, Beyoncé was screwed.
Talks of a new album from the reigning diva began over a year ago. People thought she might preview some tracks at the Super Bowl Halftime Show in February. Destiny’s Child was there! New music was not. More time passed. We waited. And waited. “Have you ever been trolled a pop star?” Michael Cragg at The Guardian asked in April, when no new singles had been released. “Grown Woman” leaked in May, and it was so freaking good. It was Beyoncé at her Beyonciest—a catchy dance track as irresistible as “Single Ladies” or “Run the World (Girls).” It was featured in a Pepsi commercial, and she performed it on her tour. But she never released it as a single.
So if Beyoncé ever announced a release date for her new album, she was dealing with more than 12 months of hype, an insurmountable amount expectation that pretty much destined her for fan disappointment. How do you escape the dooming anticipation that would build around an official release date? Apparently, you don’t announce one.
Listening to Beyoncé for the first time, therefore, is a strangely virginal experience—especially considering that the album drips of sex. Whether it’s Lady Gaga proclaiming the revolutionary marriage of art and pop or Britney Spears promising that Britney Jean would be her “most personal album ever :)”—a pledge sealed with all the intimacy of a smiley on Twitter—pop’s biggest stars seem to be damning themselves with the oversell.
Beyoncé, though, actually achieves the pleasurable experimental aesthetic that Gaga teased and really is the superstar’s most personal ever. Maybe the album actually accomplishes those things when ARTPOP and Britney Jean couldn’t because its unexpected arrival allowed it to debut its songs with no prejudgment. Or maybe it’s simply because it’s better than them.
“Pretty Hurts,” the album’s leadoff track, is a slow-burning emotional ballad with the same booming swell that turned “Halo” into a radio hit. Future American Idol contestants are already rehearsing their tortured, histrionic, “I’m feeling this song so hard” hand choreography for their Top 12 performance of it. It’s about the pressure on Beyoncé to be as gorgeous and amazing as Beyoncé. Somehow it’s not insufferable. You almost feel bad for the girl, in all her perfection. It’s maybe the most vulnerable Beyoncé has ever been, or sounded.
While so much of Beyoncé oeuvre presents a strong, sassy woman unafraid to brag about her ferocity and fierceness, Beyoncé reveals that even that strong, sassy woman has insecurities. And she’s allowed to. She also, as becomes nakedly clear on the stretch of tracks that fellows, is allowed to be hella dirty. Beyoncé, it turns out, loves herself some sex.
“I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking / I get filthy when that liquor gets into me,” she sings on “Drunk in Love,” with features husband Jay Z. “Why can’t I keep my fingers off you, baby?” It sounds so much like sex it somehow almost smells like sex, too.
“You like it wet and so do I,” she sings on “Blow.” “Keep me coming, keep me going, keep me humming, keep me moaning,” she pleads in the chorus. Produced by Timbaland and Pharrell, it turns the idea of a “sex song” on its head, with a production that’s so bouncy it’s almost coyish and flirty. It’s a brilliant counterbalance to the lyrics, because dear god are they raunchy: “Can you lick my skittles/ That’s the sweetest in the middle.”
Don’t light the cigarette just yet. She’s not even done with the foreplay.
B throws down on “Partition”—“I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker”—as a siren echoes over a staccato bass, hitting at a good thrusting pace. It’s not until the bridge builds towards a climax you realize that you’ve been listening to the star sing about having sex in a limo on the way to the club.
But Beyoncé isn’t just about sex. She may begin “Jealous” with “I’m in penthouse half-naked,” but it’s actually a song about the neuroses we have when we’re in a committed relationship. Beyoncé may be frustrated after cooking her man a dinner that he’s not home to eat in her freaking penthouse, but we’ve all felt the same in our studio apartments where the shower is in the kitchen because that’s where the plumbing is. We get you, Beyoncé. Even you feel nonsensical pain and baseless jealousy: “I wish you were me/ So you could feel this feeling/ I never broke one promise, and I know when you’re not honest.”
The best part about Beyoncé is that no two tracks sound the same. The retro vibe on “Rocket” does modern Motown better than even Bruno Mars, and “XO” has the stadium anthem sound of a U2 track, but still couldn’t sound more Beyoncé. The chorus features a call-and-response repetition with her backup singers (read: you, driving in your car, singing along to the radio) that’s actually becomes quite moving and transformative. I freaking can’t wait for her to perform this in concert.
The album manages to effortlessly vacillate between emotional states without seeming schizophrenic. She’s bombastic on “Flawless,” resurfacing the epic braggadocio that leaked earlier this year—“This is my shit/ Bow down, bitches”—and taking it even further: “I look so good tonight/ God damn, god damn, god DAMN.”
Then there’s “Heaven,” a wrenching ballad about death that finds the polished singer absolutely raw, wailing over a faint ivory tinkle “Heaven couldn’t wait for you” over and over. After it comes “Blue,” which bills a featured spot by her daughter, Blue Ivy. (She coos a bit at the end.) You could say it’s about birth. It’s at least about joy. “Each day I feel so blessed to be looking at you,” she sings. “Cause when you open your eyes, I feel alive.”
It’s hard not to notice that, for the range of emotions explored in Beyoncé, there’s no big Beyoncé hit. It doesn’t have a “Single Ladies,” or a “Crazy in Love.” But it doesn’t need it. Every pop star is under pressure to top themselves. How could Beyoncé possibly do that? As it turns out, it’s by showing us herself and all her imperfections. And, of course, executing it flawlessly. This is Beyoncé, after all.