Beyoncé’s surprise album is her most substantial and also her most human
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Beyoncé’s surprise album is her most substantial and also her most human

Jay Z and Kanye West skirted the music industry’s long-game rollout campaigns this year with albums that sped up the usual months-long marketing drumroll, but even their accelerated release strategies seem downright conservative in light of Beyoncé’s surprise fifth album. Late on a Thursday night in mid-December—after most of the music world had already finished the post-mortem on the year—the singer’s self-titled album arrived on iTunes without so much as a lick of pre-press: no big Billboard announcement; no radio singles; no multi-million dollar cross-marketing campaign with Target; no trickle of leaks revealing the album’s title, cover art, tracklist, and Frank Ocean collaboration—just an en-masse drop of 14 entirely unheard songs, each accompanied by a mighty expensive music video. That Beyoncé was able to keep a project of this scale completely under wraps is one of the most impressive tricks of her career, but the real feat is the album itself, a candid, confrontational work that dares to cut against the singer’s carefully cultivated goddess image to reveal the opinionated, imperfect woman underneath.

After a foray into R&B classicism on 2011’s feather-light 4, Beyoncé goes decidedly modern on this meatier follow-up, emphasizing moody, shifting beats and drawn-out vibe sessions over the punchy singles that have always been her hallmark. Several songs luxuriate at the unhurried pace of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, which makes sense given a few of them were co-written by Timberlake and producer Timbaland, including “Blow,” the last great disco song from a year that’s seen its share. Even that earworm resists playing things straight, though, opting instead for a twisty pastiche of Prince, Madonna, and Serge Gainsbourg. The D’Angelo-indebted grind session “Rocket” and frisky “Drunk In Love” are similarly sexy, but they’re not sexy like a glamour shot or a steamy video. They’re sexy like an overeager, pre-shower quickie, or a hushed morning make-out session before the baby wakes up. These are the most unapologetically raunchy songs she’s ever sung, and in many ways also the most romantic.

 A sampled speech from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “***Flawless” outlines some of the motivation behind Beyoncé choosing motherhood, of all times, to release her inner freak. “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” Adichie explains in a call to feminism. That’s a word Beyoncé has sometimes shied away from, but here she embraces it fully, dropping the vague pop-feminism of “Run The World (Girls)” for hard specifics. Throughout the album, Beyoncé spells out her convictions and opens herself up in ways she’s resisted before. On opener “Pretty Hurts” she chastises society’s impossible beauty standards, even as she concedes she’s been shaped by pageant ideals. On “Mine,” a stark Drake collaboration that doesn’t fully work but casts a chill regardless, she hints at a bout of postpartum depression and subsequent marital strife—a rare admission from a singer who’s always insisted her relationship is nothing short of a fairy tale. And though she tries to dress up the experience with some positive thinking, she conveys real, unfettered pain on “Heaven,” a crushing tribute to the child she miscarried.

Generally speaking, these are not issues people seek out escapist pop albums to hear about, but Beyoncé keeps the revelations coming anyway, and her candor is engrossing. Without playing into cheap “tortured by fame” tropes, she’s made an emotional album that’s dense and substantial but never difficult or self-important. “Beyoncé the impossible ideal” had a glorious run, but here “Beyoncé the real human” proves even more transfixing.

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