Saturday, December 14, 2013

album review: 'beyonce' by beyonce

Imagine you're a music critic for a major publication. Imagine that you've reviewed well over a hundred albums throughout the course of the year and you've collaborated with your colleagues to post your list of the best albums of the year. Imagine your sighs of relief when the list goes live in early December and the irritated scoffs you make when the comments light up with complaints that you discounted some album or another. You think in the back of your mind, 'Hey, what do they know - I do this for a living, goddamn it, this list was hard to make, and we can't put everything on it!' You put the list in the back of your mind - because, hell, it's not like anyone's going to release any albums worth caring about in December, right?

Then imagine you get a call from your boss in the middle of the night just over a week later, screaming bloody murder because a press leak just revealed that a major pop star had decided to, without warning or promotion or even a lead single, drop an entire album onto iTunes. And this isn't just your run-of-the-mill major pop star, but one who is married to an all-star rapper and high-powered businessman who has enlisted some of the best producers worldwide for the album and who obviously is taking a big interest in his wife's success - and with no promotion, the only way the album will sell the numbers this pop star is used to is through the critical press. And considering this artist's last album was a critically acclaimed smash hit two years earlier, suddenly that year-end list of the top albums of the year looks a lot more shaky, doesn't it?

Now, I'm likely wrong here, but I can imagine the editorial teams for major outlets who already dropped their 'Best of...' lists panicking when they heard Beyonce had done exactly what I described, releasing a self-titled record to iTunes with no promotion or even a leading single. Fortunately, not having finalized my list yet, I did what any music critic does on a surprise release: put the album on repeat and work to take it in. Believe it or not, I actually was pleasantly surprised about this album - I'm no big fan of Beyonce, but her last album 4 was extremely strong, and she's working with some of the best names in the industry. So, how did Beyonce's BEYONCE turn out?

Oh boy, this'll be a tough one. Let's make this clear: Beyonce's self-titled album isn't bad (thankfully), but I can't precisely call it a success because it doesn't quite succeed in its twin goals: to make a sexually explicit and hot as hell R&B album, and then fuse it with a feminist empowerment message. And though she's definitely trying to make both elements work on this album, neither of them quite click, mostly because Beyonce's doesn't seem to have a focused direction in how to marry these themes (plus, you can tell there are bigger things on her mind - more on this in a bit).

First, let's talk about Beyonce herself. I've been open in the past how I've never been a fan of her as a singer - I didn't like her in Destiny's Child, I've never been a fan of her solo work, and her big singles like 'Irreplaceable' and 'Single Ladies' have never been songs I've liked. My issue comes with her delivery: Beyonce is a powerful singer with a big range and is great singing about how she's awesome. She's not subtle or especially raw, but she's effective - but outside of that range, she's not as strong or interesting singing about vulnerable topics, either because she's not subtle and it can be hard to buy into her investment. Now on this album, there are points where she has improved, and the real highlights of the album are where you can buy the songs come from an emotional place, especially the album closer directed at her baby daughter Blue. Unfortunately, this album is much more concerned with explicit cooing sex jams that would probably be a better fit for Mariah Carey than Beyonce, and as much as Beyonce is trying here, it was hard for me to buy into it.

This is mostly linked the album's twin intent: a sexually explicit album married with third-wave feminism, emphasizing female power and women who embrace and enjoy their sexuality. As a feminist, I think this is a fantastic idea for an album and one that Beyonce is almost uniquely perfect to make given her reputation, and there are moments on this album that strike a real chord in this vein. There's a sampled TED Talks monologue about female education by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which is as direct as you can make the message, the opening track 'Pretty Hurts' attacks superficial beauty standards imposed upon women in society, and songs like 'No Angel', 'Jealous' (my personal favourite), and 'Superpower' do wonders for spelling out Beyonce's feminist message. And I'll give her credit for showing vulnerability in songs like 'Heaven' and 'Blue', showing that love and motherhood are still essential elements to the female experience. 

And I just wish everyone else was on the same page as Beyonce here, because the songwriting doesn't do enough in this category, mostly because the sexual encounters still seem to be taking place on the terms of the male in question, and often with questionable connotations behind them. Take the duet with her husband, which is a money/power/sex anthem that a squealing half-synthetic baby voice that got incredibly grating very fast - Jay Z, was it really goddamn necessary to make an Ike Turner reference on Beyonce's feminist-themed album? Or take 'Mine', a song where Beyonce seems to referencing the complicated dynamic of her relationship with her husband (why else would she mention her baby) - Drake, would it have killed you to keep things classy and not have lines like 'And you tell me that you're done with that / and I believe it's true as long as you know who you belong to'? And even Beyonce, you have to know what songs like 'Partition' sound like, with lines about your man getting so horny in the limo he rips your clothes apart so he can have sex with you, or 'Rocket', a sex song that has all sorts of questionable sex references like 'hold me 'til I scream for air to breathe' or the bad girl roleplay in the fourth verse. Hell, take 'Blow', which takes all types of oral sex and ends up sounding like the gender-flipped version of R. Kelly's 'Cookies' (in this case, you'll never be able to have Skittles ever again)! The problem is framing: the most of these songs don't show Beyonce as the power or even much of an equal in the relationship (the 'daddy' references don't help matters), so there's a major tonal inconsistency between these tracks and those with stronger feminist themes. And even those don't always stick the landing: 'Pretty Hurts' gets the basic text of defining female preferences by female standards and rising above superficiality... but why then does Beyonce have lines like 'This time I'm gonna take the crown without falling down', where she conforms to the system she's protesting against? If anything, it seems a lot more of Beyonce's confrontational focus is directed at other women in songs like 'Flawless', which doesn't help any solidarity she might be trying to create.

But that doesn't touch on the other big problem, which is the instrumentation. Not the production - for the most part, that's fine (Timbaland is still a great producer), if a bit heavy on the reverb and echo at points. But the instrumentation suffers a lot of the same problems that have shown up on previous Beyonce records - a complete lack of tune. There's a lot of noisy percussion, some slick watery synths, extraneous voices that only detract from Beyonce's presence, and none of it sounds nearly as classy or opulent as Beyonce thinks it does. I'll give Pharrell credit for adding some funk-inspired grooves when he gets a chance, but none of this album has any force or weighty beats or even all that much texture to balance against Beyonce, which is a real misstep. It doesn't help matters that the tone of this album is so bleak and minimalist and empty that this album begins to feel long very early - which it is, because Beyonce apparently took a page from Justin Timberlake's playbook and many tracks run well over four minutes. And like with Justin Timberlake, this album is in desperate need of an editor - I have a feeling a lot of the extraneous repetition could have been cut to make this album a lot sharper, and too many of the tracks feel indulgent and stretched out for no good reason, especially when the lyrics can't support the length.

Ugh, I wanted to like this album a lot more than I do, because the intent and theme behind it are definitely worth talking about - but the execution does not do those themes justice. Worse still is the fact that some of the studio process that Beyonce has such scorn for could have made this album stronger, simply by virtue of tighter editing or catching some of the questionable songwriting. And while this album is better than her husband's, it's a step down from 4 and it's nowhere near as good Janelle Monae's feminist tour de force The Electric Lady from earlier this year. In fact, that's a good idea: Beyonce's self-titled album gets a 6/10 from me and a recommendation only if you've already heard The Electric Lady. Otherwise... folks, while Beyonce was taking a stab at third-wave feminist themes, Janelle Monae did it a whole lot better, so I'd advise you check that out instead.


  1. Very interesting review - brilliant examination.

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