Following a string of corporate tie-in songs that failed to connect with anyone save Pepsi and H&M executives, numerous rumors that she had scrapped over 50 songs in order to start afresh and a mammoth world tour largely free of any new material, Beyonce appeared to be going through something of a ‘difficult fifth album’ phase. Which is why the out-of-nowhere release of her first eponymous effort last Friday caught even her most clued-up fans off guard.
Having since topped the iTunes chart in an astonishing 112 countries, her decision to unleash the record on an unsuspecting public without any prior notice, a la David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine, already appears to have paid off handsomely. But the inspired no-hype strategy isn’t the only risk that the 32-year-old – who’s renowned for being the more vanilla out of the current wave of female pop superstars – has taken on the follow-up to 2011’s 4.
No doubt aware that younger sister Solange was gaining all the critical kudos for her leftfield R&B sound, Beyonce has largely ditched the pursuit of hit singles and has instead recorded 14 murky, oddly-structured tunes – all of which come equipped with an accompanying promo – which range from explicitly filthy sex jams to emotionally-devastating songs of loss, while also throwing in wonderfully idiosyncratic samples of Destiny’s Child’s failed Starsearch performance, Nigerian feminist poetry and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.
And for someone so usually guarded, Beyonce is a surprisingly personal listen, addressing everything from her and Jay-Z’s marriage problems (“Mine”) to their moves in the bedroom or in some cases, the car (“Drunk In Love,” “Blow”), to the miscarriage of their first child (“Heaven”). But although this new-found desire to express the real Mrs. Shawn Carter can sometimes drift into self-indulgence, it’s also helped to produce the most interesting, challenging and compelling record she’s ever made.
Perhaps inspired by her recent run-in with H&M over the use of airbrushing, Beyonce castigates society’s obsession with physical perfection on another booming power ballad penned by the ubiquitous Sia. A disappointingly safe way to kick off arguably her most risky career move yet: [LISTEN]
Sampling an acceptance speech she made as a precocious child, a monotone Beyonce then beats her detractors to the punch by acknowledging that she’s unlikely to add to her multi-million dollar empire with this album over a hypnotic wave of ghostly synths and increasingly frantic percussion: [LISTEN]
Waking up the morning after the particularly heavy night before, the Carters reveal a little too much information about their bedroom habits, with Jay-Z making a few tasteless references to several famous wife-beaters in the process, on a raunchy alternative to “the pair’s biggest hit:” [LISTEN]
Fusing the retro funk of Pharrell, the hype man chants of Timbaland and the icky sex talk of Timberlake‘s two 20/20 Experiences, this aptly-titled superstar production uses fruit-flavored chewy candy as a metaphor to bring a whole new meaning to ‘taste the rainbow’: [LISTEN]
Implying that it’s she who wears the trousers in their relationship, a seductive/manipulative Beyonce reminds Jay-Z of his dodgy past in a bid to get away with her bad girl habits on a sensual electro-ballad which bears all the hallmarks of its co-writer, Chairlift‘s Caroline Polachek: [LISTEN]
Ditching Sasha Fierce for another alter-ego – a trash-talking diva imaginatively named ‘Yonce – on this bass-humming club jam, a horny Beyonce implores her chauffeur to focus on the road ahead as she gets busy with a daddy who appears to use Bill Clinton as a sexual guru: [LISTEN]
Taking her freakum dress out of her closet in a bid to awaken the green-eyed monster in the ungrateful man who hasn’t even noticed her attempt to steal Jamie Oliver’s title, Beyonce then embraces her inner ‘playa’ on a dramatic reimagining of “If I Were A Boy“: [LISTEN]
Drifting into the kind of bloated self-indulgence that swamped co-writer Timberlake‘s comeback, Beyonce explicitly instructs her man how to hit her G-spot on a retro-soul slow jam which struggles to sustain its sex appeal over the course of its six lap-dancing minutes: [LISTEN]
Channeling the late-night confessional vibes of guest star Drake, Beyonce admits that the tabloid rumors are getting to her on a surprisingly revealing tale of her post-maternity relationship with the Jigga Man, which blends gentle Quiet Storm piano with suitably tumbling echo-laden beats: [LISTEN]
Reuniting with “Halo” hit-maker Ryan Tedder, Beyonce delivers one of the album’s few obvious singles with a dancehall-tinged loved-up ode to Jay-Z’s light-emitting qualities, which for reasons unknown is bizarrely opened by a sample of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster: [LISTEN]
Clarifying the ‘bow down bitches‘ command in its earlier incarnation, Beyonce touts her feminist credentials by inviting one of Africa’s leading authors to recite a poem about the oppression of women on a punchy hip-pop number which also samples one of her earliest showbiz knockbacks: [LISTEN]
Second only to “Get Lucky” as producer Pharrell‘s greatest musical contribution this year, this spaced-out doo-wop ballad sees Beyonce team up with Frank Ocean for a mysterious and magical ode to an unbreakable love which has the power of a bear and shark combined: [LISTEN]
Arguably the most genuinely moving moment of her career, Beyonce pays a heartbreaking tribute to the child she lost in a miscarriage on a restrained and fragile piano ballad which then concludes with a shortened Spanish-language version of “The Lord’s Prayer:” [LISTEN]
Following her credit on her father’s “Glory,” one-year-old Blue Ivy Carter adds to her extremely early discography by providing the cutesy pay-off on a slow-building declaration of parental love which is surprisingly nowhere near as sickly-sweet as you might expect: [LISTEN]