Review: Beyonce, self-titled



★ ★ ★

Posted 1:37pm on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013

A few minutes after 11 p.m. Thursday night, the news first rippled across Twitter.

Beyonce had announced a new album, her fifth studio effort and first since 2011’s 4, and that wasn’t the only surprise — fans could immediately buy it on iTunes, along with 18 new videos, totaling more than two hours of fresh material.

It was one final curveball in a year where major artists embraced the stealth release — David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake and even Beyonce’s husband, Jay-Z, all unveiled new records with little to no advance notice — and truly impressive, given the number of people involved in the creation of the songs and videos, that nothing leaked ahead of the shocking reveal Thursday.

The record and videos are being offered exclusively for one week on iTunes, with a physical release scheduled for Dec. 21.

The songs aren’t being sold separately yet — that comes on Dec. 20 — and Beyonce has stated she wants the LP consumed as a whole, which, these days, is a bold statement in and of itself.

The sonic side of Beyonce runs 67 minutes, and given the superstar’s penchant for privacy, it’s remarkable how much she shares (or alludes to) over the course of these 14 tracks.

Her sexuality is pushed to the fore as never before — songs like Drunk in Love, Jealous and Rocket evoke the sensually frank likes of R. Kelly, Maxwell and D’Angelo — and she swaps exclusively promoting feminine unity for a view of life from the front lines of a high-profile marriage and white-hot career.

A stronger effort overall than 4, Beyonce could benefit from a few judicious tweaks (as is the case with almost every A-list music release this year), but finds a fertile middle ground between the airy vagueness of alt-R&B and the forceful, bold strokes of mainstream pop.

Standout tracks include Drunk in Love, which features a cameo from Jay-Z, and the stunning run mid-album (Partition, Jealous and Rocket) that stands as one of the best stretches of music Beyonce has ever made.

What sets Beyonce apart is the Houston native’s willingness not only to embrace trap beats, rapping and distinctly adult themes, but her ease moving between the glossy ballads and the earthy, tough cuts that are a far cry from the halcyon days of Crazy in Love. (“I cooked this meal for you naked,” she sings on Jealous, “So where the hell you at?”)

Teamed with Timbaland, Pharrell and Justin Timberlake, among other heavyweights, Beyonce also collaborated with a few indie-rock writers, namely Sia Furler and Caroline Polachek (of Chairlift). She holds everything together by sheer charisma and while the record falters near its conclusion — Blue, featuring audio of her daughter, Blue Ivy, speaking, is a touching finale, however — Beyonce feels remarkably coherent, rather than a series of singles stitched together by filler.

It begs the question if slipping the record onto iTunes with no heads-up actually makes it easier to approach Beyonce. With no weeks of advance publicity customary for such big albums and by effectively coming to every song cold, the record is given something few releases get today: a level playing field and an opportunity to make its case free from preconceived notions or speculation.

Other artists will doubtless seize upon the strategy in the coming months, if only to momentarily goose sales ( Billboard reported Beyonce moved north of 80,000 copies in three hours from Thursday night into Friday morning) and stoke buzz.

Consuming 18 videos, which nearly run the length of a feature film at 78 minutes, in one sitting is overwhelming, but offers a different, equally powerful experience. (There are four extra videos, including Grown Woman, which is a song not found on the album.) Working with a small coterie of directors, including Hype Williams, Jonas Akerlund, Jake Nava and Terry Richardson, Beyonce deploys several closets’ worth of outfits, and nearly as many moods.

Pretty Hurts makes explicit its empowering message, with stark images of bulimia, while No Angel is a lovingly photographed tribute to Houston hip-hop (Bun B and Paul Wall are among the cameos) and the free-spirited XO feels like a wonderful stolen moment on a Coney Island boardwalk. There’s even a mini Destiny’s Child reunion in the clip for Superpower.

Taken together, it’s a formidable enterprise, and one that not only speaks to Beyonce’s power as an entertainer, but her welcome embrace of adulthood.

She has hinted at more mature material in the past ( Countdown, from 4, springs to mind), but Beyonce is a full-fledged leap into territory that leaves behind the perky past. (“Punish me, please,” she coos on Rocket.)

While the manner of its release is noteworthy, it’s the content of the record (and, to a lesser extent, the myriad videos) that will endure.

“I’m so comfortable in my skin,” Beyonce sings near record’s end, a declaration underscoring the conscious dissolve between personal and professional. Call it the most welcome revelation of all.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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