Look. This is Beyoncé’s world and we ought to just be thankful we get to breathe the same air she does. Beyoncé – the album and the artist – is going to win Album of the Year, and it’s not really close.
First thing I need to bring up about this album is it’s release. Sometime in the middle of the night on December 13, 2013, it just appeared on iTunes. There was no build up. No pre-release single. No rumors or leaks. One moment it wasn’t there, and then the next moment it was. After 3 days, 800 thousand people had downloaded the album. In 10 days: 1.3 million downloads.
Apparently writing and recording had begun as far back as 2012. It’s a visual album, with 14 songs and 17 videos, and the collaborator list extends to something like 50+ individuals – from big names like Pharrell, Drake, Sia and Justin Timberlake to relatively unknown names like Boots, who produced the bulk of the tracks. And obviously her husband, Jay-Z.
How is it even possible for 50 different people to stay completely silent on the project for well over a year?! How does no one say anything for that long?! What kind of power must an individual possess in order to keep a group that large so silent for so long?
Somehow, Beyonce has risen to that level of power. This is NOT the girl from Destiny’s Child. This is not even Sasha Fierce. This is NOT the leotard wearing, hand waving diva from Single Ladies. She and her husband have managed to transcend all others on this planet. I have no hesitation in dubbing them the most powerful couple in the world.
I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking, then, to imagine that Queen Bey is capable of such a release. It really sparks the conspiracy theorist in me – what sort of power are we dealing with when it comes to Beyonce? Does she know whether the Apollo 11 mission actually landed on the moon? Does she know the truth behind the Denver Airport construction conspiracy? I mean, in the same year that her husband released an album with “Holy Grail” in the title, Beyonce manages to sneak a complete visual album on to the internet without anyone noticing or anyone saying a word? This is some serious Illuminati ish, if you ask me.
I mean? Who is she even competing with for Queen at this point? Taylor Swift? Lady Gaga? Next to Bey, these two seem off-brand. At one point on the album, Bey tells us all to “bow down, bitches,” and we basically respond, “yeah, sure…I mean, yes, ma’am.”
But here’s the other thing about the surprise release: it only worked because this album was so daggum good.
“But Adam, it’s dirty! Have you listened to the lyrics? It’s like super sexual and dark and graphic in places.”
Isn’t it though?! Yep, this isn’t the Beyonce we’re all familiar with. This Beyonce is deeper and darker and harsher than ever before. This isn’t Bootylicious or Jumpin’ Jumpin’. This isn’t Irreplaceable or even Crazy in Love. This album is hot and heavy and borderline voyeuristic in spots. This album gives us a peak inside Beyoncé’s marriage that we probably shouldn’t be allowed to see.
Beyonce is trying to say something about marriage. In a culture where the sanctity of marriage is rare, the divorce rate is skyrocketing and promiscuity is borderline applauded, suddenly there’s Beyonce and Jay-Z. She’s telling us that marriage can be ultra sexy and desirable. Sex isn’t only attractive when it’s promiscuous – marriage can be steamy too. This isn’t a message we receive often in our culture.
It’s actually refreshing to listen to an album and know exactly who the artist is singing about. When she sings about how she’s “Drunk in Love” and the last thing she remembers is “our beautiful bodies grinding up in that club” – you know exactly who she’s dancing with. Jay-Z is the focus of every love interest-focused lyric. It’s an interesting twist we don’t see often in music these days. This is like John Lennon and Yoko Ono only instead of breaking up the Beatles they basically rule the entire planet.
But its not just about Bey and Jay – it’s also about motherhood. The last track on the album is called “Blue” after her daughter and future destroyer of worlds, Blue Ivy Carter. Blue undoubtedly has achieved genetic superiority over the rest of mankind. (It’s also been rumored that Beyonce is pregnant with #2. Or, should I say, they’ve hired another surrogate for round two.) Blue even gets her first vocal spot at the end of the album: “Hold on to me! Hold on!” Beyonce is positioning herself as a wife and mother – and one with all sorts of power.
This whole album exudes power. There’s even a track titled “Superpower” with Frank Ocean (naturally, my favorite track on the album since I’m a sucker for anything Frank does). It’s a feminist album. Women are powerful, and Beyonce the most powerful of them all.
“Flawless” incorporates a spoken feminist speech from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that questions how we have taught women to view themselves – as lesser, smaller, less powerful and less free to be sexual and ambitious as men. There’s no mistaking the agenda here. Beyonce ought to be applauded for her willingness to unabashedly fight for how her gender is represented. The album reframes multiple aspects of womanhood – marriage and kids, sure, but power and influence and sexuality too.
The album took a risk and moved Beyonce away from being a poppy, Top 40 artist and toward the heart of the hip-hop/rap genre.
The tracks are occasionally disjointed – longer tracks, seemingly two song in one at times – and there are a half dozen jarring moments into audio clips of musical competitions from Beyoncé’s childhood or paparazzi crowds. The tracks are structured in completely different ways. It’s tough to find a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure on this album. “Haunted” – for example – incorporates multiple movements: an intro audio clip, an opening verse and a spoken section all lead up to the actual track which doesn’t really begin until 3 minutes into the song. It’s a journey from movement to movement rather than a typical pop album from track to track. The exceptions are “XO” and “Drunk in Love” – the first two singles for the album – which are probably the most well known tracks but the ones I’m the least jazzed about.
Let’s take a quick track-by-track look at the album and wrap this thing up…
Pretty Hurts – Written by Sia. It’s a song about beauty and self worth. Not my favorite. Also, I can’t stand that the open to the whole album is some guy asking Beyonce (aka Miss Third Ward) what her aspiration in life is at some beauty pagent. Meh.
Haunted Already mentioned the structure of this song, but it’s one of my favorites. Eerie and ominous.
Drunk in Love – Surfbort.
Blow – An upbeat Pharrell and JT track. It’s basically the same lyrical content as Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum” and just as awkward in spots.
No Angel – Least favorite song on the album. I usually skip it. It’s the only one I can say that about. Lots of breathy vocals from Bey. Just not a fan.
Partition – The most explicit track on the album, hands down. Things get hot in the back of a limo and “we ain’t even gonna make it to this club.” The intro percussion was conceived by JT.
Jealous – Interesting conflict in the marriage conversation. The wife is home cooking dinner for her man in the buff…”so where the hell you at!?” But seriously, Beyonce gets jealous? Doubtful.
Rocket – Oooooo a slow jam?!? Smooth and sultry. Beyonce has even said it reminds her of D’Angelo’s “Untitled.”
Mine – This song features Drake. I’m not a big Drake fan, but this song is beautiful. “I just wanna say, you’re mine all mine” the chorus croons.
XO – The single. If this was all you heard off this album, you might think this is the same ole Beyonce.
Flawless – The feminist track. Coined the phrase “I woke up like this.”
Superpower – In a world starved for more Frank Ocean, this track feels like a Godsend. Amazing how similar their voices are – nailing the insanely low end of the register but able to go high too. I’m praying for a new Frank Ocean album in 2015.
Heaven – A song about death?! Woah. Sad and dark, but freeing at the same time.
Blue – A song for and about her daughter, Blue. But don’t be fooled by the sappy subject matter – this song is legit.
There you go. The album that I believe is a no brainer for Album of the Year. And deservedly so. When someone inevitably makes some comment about how the Grammys just give awards to the biggest names, I’ll be here to remind you that the biggest names are huge for a reason.
This album is insane, and deserves any award it receives.
My Top Tracks: Superpower, Haunted, Flawless, Mine
The other albums up for Album of the Year…