"I see music," Beyoncé said in a video on her Facebook page, dubbed "Self-Titled, Part 1," just minutes after her surprise announcement of "Beyoncé," her fifth album. “It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies. And they’re all connected to the music.”
Inspired in part by her childhood memories of watching music videos like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as a shared experience with her family, "Beyoncé" was released Friday morning as a simultaneous audio and visual album, with full-length videos for each of the 13 tracks (plus a bonus video-only clip for "Grown Woman," a song she premiered in a Pepsi commercial earlier this year.)
While many fans stayed up until the wee hours listening to it – over 80,000, to be exact, according to sales estimates from the first three hours on iTunes – many more were tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming about it. How did she pull it off, and who's on it? For starters, there's Boots, the virtually unknown producer/songwriter signed to Bey's hubby Jay Z's management company Roc Nation, who revealed on his Facebook page Friday morning that he produced 85% of the album and contributed four original songs. There's also several contributions from Pharrell, guest raps from Jay and Drake, a featured vocal from Frank Ocean and co-writing contributions from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Charlift's Caroline Polachek and Miguel.
But once the initial novelty and shock wears off of Beyoncé's impressive stealth-release feat, the brilliance and creative audacity of the album itself can sink in. Though there are a few songs with traditional pop structures ("XO," "Blow" and "Drunk In Love" chief among them), many of the tracks are more experimental, half-rapped/half-sung songs with suites and interludes that pack more ideas (and more sexually explicit dialogue) than radio-friendly hooks at times.
And yet that's exactly what "Beyoncé"'s aim is – to shift your perceptions and expectations about everything, from release dates to marketing launches to what "pop" should sound like. Much like her sister Solange's compilation "Saint Heron," which featured vocal-heavy, minimalist R&B compilation "Saint Heron," "Beyoncé" signifies where the future of R&B is heading, with less focus on beats and more emphasis on emotive falsetto, stream-of-consciousness ideas and the occasional burst of braggadocio ("Bow Down," the much-debated hype track she released in February, makes its return as an intro to the flossy "***Flawless," and "Yonce" rivals "Single Ladies" as her most quotable song ever.) It's as impressive an accomplishment creatively as it is for shifting the industry towards a more nontraditional take on the "single-album-tour" strategy.
Which tracks on "Beyoncé" take the crown? Read on for our track-by-track review.
1. "Pretty Hurts": “What is your aspiration in life?” a beauty pageant judge asks Bey, credited as “Miss 3rd Ward” (a reference to the Houston neighborhood where she grew up.) “My aspiration in life would be…to be happy.” What follows is a litany of expected beauty staples (“brush your hair / fix your teeth / what you wear / is all that matters”.) The song was penned by Sia, the go-to girl for pop divas who want to show their emo side (see: Rihanna “Diamonds,” Celine Dion “Loved Me Back To Life,” Christina Aguilera “Blank Page.”) But unlike those other vocalists, Beyonce doesn’t just re-sing a Sia demo – she fully makes this self-empowerment anthem fully her own, with a powerhouse “Halo”-esque vocal, and a bridge that could take you from Houston to Brooklyn in five seconds flat (“it’s my soul that needs surgery.”)
2. "Haunted": The spine-tinglingly glam Madonna-meets-“American Horror Story” video for this track is worth Beyoncé’s case for making this a simultaneous visual-and-audio experience alone. But divorced from those powerful visuals, “Haunted” still emerges as one “Beyonce”’s strongest tracks – and most insightful in terms of how she chooses to run her own business. “I don’t trust these record labels / I’m tourin’,” she says in the spoken-word intro, making a chant out of “workin’ 9 to 5 / just to stay alive” as if her Mrs. Carter World Tour was some sort of tribute to the working class. (Which, have you seen it? No one worked harder for your applause on the road this year.) “I probably won’t make no money off this. Oh well,” she later says. Starkly minimal, with a spectral falsetto applied amid warped, ghost-ly vocal effects, “Haunted” is one of the album’s most staunchly non-commercial moments, but endlessly listenable just the same.
3. "Drunk In Love (Feat. Jay Z)": No single was released prior to the album, but if a case could be made for one to be pushed to R&B radio (or Top 40, with the right crossover momentum), it’s this duet with Hov. An ode to raunchy love-making with a dedicated partner, “Drunk In Love” delicately dances around TMI territory with its asides like “grainin’ on that wood” (she’s supposedly talking about a “surfboard.”) But an infectious, wailing of “loooove” on the chorus, a sassy half-rapped second verse from Bey and a memorable rap from Jay (“your breastesses my breakfastesses”) make this a potential smash.
4. "Blow": The dream-team from Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” – JT, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, James Fauntleroy and Timbaland – bring on Pharrell as producer and a sexy vocal Bey for this slinky club banger, that recalls previous “B Day” collabs with Pharrell like “Kitty Kat” and “Green Light.” Just don’t try and explain this one to the kids too much, as there’s cunnilingus references aplenty (it’s called “Blow” for a reason.)
5. "No Angel": “Would you rather I be a machine who doesn’t notice when you late or when you lyin’?” Beyoncé says, admitting she’s far from perfect herself. Queen Bey gets breathy and pleading on this throwback track. Once again, that lovely “Halo” falsetto makes a welcome return, but with some heavy bass and a brief interlude to move things to the bedroom. If there’s a recurring to this album, it’s that being happily married life takes a lot of work – but also lots and lots of sex.
6. "Partition": The track opens with the call-and-response Beyoncé asks of her crowd every night on tour (“Lemme hear you say “Hayyy Ms. Carter!”) and quickly turns into a lady-thug anthem called “Yonce” “(every girl on here gotta look me up and down / All on Instagram cake by the pound,” she boasts, adding even more memorably, “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.”) “Partition,” the full-length song within this interlude, is yet another “gettin’ freaky with my baby” jam, with some of Bey’s most frankly sexual lines yet (“oh he Monica Lewisnky’d all over my gown.”)
7. "Jealous": One of several self-referential moments on the album, Beyoncé takes her “Freakum dress out my closet” to make an ex “she used to flex in Texas” envious of how bodacious she’d become. A brooding beat amid distant yelps gives the track a Lana Del Rey/Jeff Bhasker/Emile Haynie vibe, but then that chorus kicks in and suddenly you can see Beyonce singing this from the stage surrounded by smoke machines. An uncanny mix of tones and styles, often within the same song, is felt throughout.
8. "Rocket": “Let me sit this ass on you,” Beyoncé announces from the jump. “Let me take this off while you watch me / that’s my’ass appeal.” It’s a Roger-and-Zapp style slow-jam, baby-making anthem, and Beyonce is fully equipped for the occasion.
9. "Mine": Beyoncé continues to reveal everyday doubts that haunt her ("I'm not feeling like myself since the baby, are we even going to make it? If we are, we're taking this a little too far"), bringing in Drake to turn the darkness into hope.
10. "XO": The magical "XO," co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder and Terius Nash, is the most radio-friendly song on "Beyoncé," and finds the hopeful singer in tranced with love.
11. "***Flawless": When we first heard the Hit-Boy produced track in March it didn't contain the content of the full-version, only to come off abrasive. "***Flawless" though, with the insightful commentary of feminism by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, carries power and highlights camaraderie amongst women.
12. "Superpower": Pharrell lends Beyoncé a cinematic gift, in the form of song. "Superpower" amplifies Pharrell's musical genius, producing a magical bed for Bey' and Frank Ocean's sweet duet of an imaginable force.
13. "Heaven": Mysterious producer and writer, Boots, assists Beyoncé in letting go of a lost love. Boots, whose name appears everywhere on the album, has a way of bringing out the softer, compassionate side of the singer.
14. "Blue" (feat. Blue Ivy): Bey' flexes her vocal prowess for her daughter, Blue Ivy on the angelic Boots-produced song. She dives into the seemingly indescribable love that she feels for her baby girl, whose giggles close the song. Baby Blue made her musical debut on Jay Z's "Glory," which he released shortly after her birth. The accompanying video features Bey' strolling the bright streets and sandy beaches of Brazil with Blue in her arms.