Last night will undoubtedly prove itself to be a “Where were you” moment in pop culture. With not one bit of promo, Beyoncé dropped her long-awaited, highly anticipated, hotly scrutinized fifth album, titled “Beyoncé.”
The album, which none of us saw coming, had almost become a thing of urban legend. Since the end of 2012, the album was always said to be being released “soon,” with dates given by everyone, it seemed, but Beyoncé herself.
Beyoncé owned 2013 with moments like the Super Bowl Half Time Show, the Pepsi deal, and the HBO documentary, just to name a few. All of this came together looking to be the biggest album campaign ever. And yet? No new music.
Meanwhile, she sold out a world tour using her name alone with absolutely no new material, reminding us that she doesn’t need to play by the rules that all these other pop stars are defined by. She’s not a pop star. She’s more than that.
I always think of how Jay introduced her as he brought her out during his set at Coachella in 2010: “ONE WORD: BEYONCÉ.”
Musically, "Beyoncé" is effortlessly incredible. There’s no EDM in sight, no Guetta-produced cookie cutter club bangers, just a collection of material that is both fresh and timeless. Oh, and did I mention that every video has an accompanying song? And no, we’re not talking photo shoot B-roll set to music or some try-hard “art film.” We’re talking directors like Jonas Akerland, Hype Williams, Terry Richardson. These are videos.
Here I was, minding my own business, ready to proclaim “YEEZUS” as the album of the year. Now I’m not so sure.
The album opens with “Pretty Hurts,” in which we see Beyoncé portrayed as “Miss Third Ward” (one of six wards of her native Houston) in a beauty pageant. The song and video are response, no doubt, to a life spent growing up in the industry. As the song and video begin, opening the album, Beyoncé is asked “What is you aspiration in life?”
“Well, my aspiration in life would be, to be happy,” she nervously replies. And we’re off!
Surrounded by other beauty pageant contestants, we see her being weighed, measured, and having plastic surgery lines traced on her skin, and syringes stuck into her face. All the while, she’s singing to us from a makeshift throne of trophies, obviously. The song begs the question “Stripped away the masquerade/the illusion has been shed/are you happy with yourself?”
The song ends with a simple and resounding “Yes.”
The album deals with the similar themes as her husband Jay-Z’s latest album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” did earlier this year. He talked about making a record, no longer as a hungry, up and coming rapper from the streets of Brooklyn, but through the lens of a successful mogul, entrepreneur, and millionaire. I see some of those same sentiments echoed on “Beyoncé.”
This isn’t just record made by another pop star, this is a record by Beyoncé made from the perspective of, well, Beyoncé. She herself is an icon, entrepreneur, mogul. One half of “music’s first billion dollar couple.
In the videos, she toys with the public’s perceptions of her, both real and exaggerated. She’s in a mansion! Wait, she’s running around downtown Houston! Now she’s in a castle! She’s getting it on in the back of a chauffeured car! She’s on a beach! Sometimes she’s just like us, hanging at a carnival, sometimes she’s covered in diamonds in the back of a vintage Rolls.
As one of the most private celebrities we’ve ever had, there’s something about this album that makes it feel like her most personal album ever. Maybe it’s because the music is a little but more real to her. Instead of singing a song about being wronged by her boyfriend while she’s actually happily married, she mentions, in one of the album’s heavier moments on “Mine,” being lost in her relationship, questioning breaking up, and not feeling like herself “since the baby.”
In just that one, small bit of truth, it feels like Bey is revealing more about herself than she ever came close to in her HBO special, the whole point of which was to reveal more about the star than ever before. There’s also a touching ballad, “Heaven” dedicated to the baby that she lost, who we first learned about on Jay’s “Glory.”
On the same self-aware note, there’s a small moment in the video for “Jealous,” an album highlight, where she’s being followed by a group of teens, all photographing her on their iPhones. Pair that with the lyric from “Ghost,” “all these people on the planet/working nine to five just to stay alive,” is almost a nod to the fact that she’s not one of them. I don’t know why, but the fact that Beyoncé is acknowledging the fact that she’s Beyoncé makes her feel more “real” than ever before.
While reception of her last album, “4,” was mixed, “Beyoncé,” is her most solid work to date. Some of my personal favorites include “Drunk In Love” featuring Jay-Z, a raunchy romp about sex on the kitchen floor after one too many drinks. “Yoncé,” where she breaks out my favorite cocky, Beyoncé swagger. “Blow” which is sort of this album’s “Party,” a throwback 70’s R&B jam. “Jealous” is also a pretty great, too, about having some tension with your man and going out, looking good, and running into your exes.
And then there is this MOMENT.
“XO” is a truly transcendental jam about being so damn in love. “In the darkest night I’ll/search through the crowd/your face is all that I see, I give you everything/baby love me, lights out./I love you like XO.” It’s not even worth talking about. I don’t care if you’re a Beyoncé fan or not (which you are. We are all Beyoncé fans) just go listen to this song.
Oh, and the visuals. In “Haunted,” we find Bey walking around a haunted mansion that looks like “Marie Antoinette” meets “Disturbia” which the Illuminati theorists and thirsty Twitter gays are going to eat up. “Superpower” could easily be the prequel to “Run The World (Girls)” if it was shot through a Nylon lens instead of one for Vogue, and “Mine” featuring my boyfriend Drake, we see Beyoncé in her interpretation of the Pietá. There’s also a cute portion of “Grown Woman” where they edited that old home video footage of baby Bey singing that gets played on like every interview she does, you know the one (“SO TAKE A SIP OF MY POTION”) to make teeny tiny Bey sing along with the song. So cute.
We’ve almost (mercifully) made it to 2014, and today, pop music is just as much about the promotion as it is about the final product. See: ARTPOP. After a year of scrutiny, rumors, and just about everyone questioning where this new Beyoncé album was, she let us have it. With no promotion, no incessant tweets, no viral campaign, no videos, not even a single . Not only that, but we have incredible visuals to accompany each and every song (sidenote: there are a lot of like, civilians in these videos. How did NONE of them leak this?! What kind of gag orders did Bey have them sign? That may be the most surprising thing about this effort as a whole.)
She has finally reached the icon level that she has always positioned herself for. This is not just an album, these are not just videos, this is a moment in pop. She has once again raised the bar, not only for herself, but for every other girl in the game. The album is incredible to say the least, and the fact that she put it out playing only by her own rules makes it a total triumph.
One word: Beyoncé
Follow Tynan on Twitter @TynanBuck.