More about: Beyoncé
It's not often a popstar truely, genuinely surprises you, which was why Beyonce unexpectedly dropping her long awaited and much discussed fifth studio album after months of rumours and speculation was refreshing and exciting.
From Destiny's Child to solo success with 'Crazy In Love'; ruleing R&B as Sasha Fierce with 'Single Ladies' and 'Sweet Dreams', Beyonce is now the biggest superstar on the planet. Her last album, 2011's 4, a love letter to R&B, initially divided opinion but was ultimately a critical and commercial success for the singer.
Now at a crossroads of sorts, how does the singer's self titled fifth album measure up? Has Bey finally bowed to the pressure of EDM, or is she still carrying the torch for damn good R&B?
The album's opener is a big pop number. Written by Sia Furler, it carries a message of female empowerment, which manages to stay on the right side of preachy and smug. The chorus is powerful and soaring, and worms its way into your brain on first listen. This could definitely be a single.
The six minute epic 'Haunted' kicks off with old audio footage of Beyonce winning a singing trophy as a child - this nostalgia is a theme throughout the album. There's impressive production here from Boots - a heavy bassline and ethereal, shimmering effects carry Beyonce's spoken word musings in which she sounds rather jaded by the 'industry'. It then spirals into darker, more dramatic territory in which Beyonce seems to be speaking to a lover: "I know if I'm haunting you, you must be haunting me." It sounds like two songs in one, and we're very much okay with that.
'Drunk In Love' featuring Jay Z
Beyonce's recent collaborations with her rapper husband have left us rather cold - the moony, self indulgent 'On the Run' on Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail had us yearning for the days of 'Upgrade U'. Luckily, 'Drunk In Love' seems to be a return to the form for the pair - they're not taking themselves too seriously here. Over a trap-style beat the pair muse about their relationship in a way that doesn't provoke a roll of the eyes.
Without even a glance at the album credits, it's clear Pharrell produced this disco-influenced track - in the best way possible. Beyonce coos about how her "Skittles are softest in the middle" (ooh er) over a frothy, playful beat which is underscored with a irresistible groove. A definite highlight.
Beyonce goes all 90s Mariah Carey on this mid-tempo track, which sees the singer sticking to the theme of love and sex. It's so-so if we're being honest.
This wakes us right up, though. "Give me something!" Beyonce roars throatily as the beat kicks in, a dipping, swirling R&B instrumental, courtesy of Timbaland. Bey rides it perfectly, cockily riffing on how she's the best out there. The second half of the song kicks it up ANOTHER notch and features choice lines such as "he Monica Lewinsky'd all over my gown" as it crescendos into a synth-filled, unashamed banger. Co-written by Justin Timberlake, we bet he wished he'd kept this one for himself.
"I cooked this meal for you naked, so where the hell you at?" Beyonce demands on this power ballad about a relationship torn in half by dishonesty. It falls slightly flat though, lacking the bite we've heard in the first half of the album.
This is an almost EXACT copy of D'Angelo's seminal soul groove, 'How Does It Feel?'. The instrumentation, the tempo - everything. It's quite bizarre - we don't know what else to say about it. It's not bad by any means, though.
'Mine' featuring Drake
Drake has lent his secret weapons - Sampha and producer Noah "40" Shebib - to Bey for this track, which begins with Beyonce wondering if her and her lover have taken it "too far" over a smattering of delicate piano. Sampha's distinct vocals are heard all too momentarily, as the beat half kicks in under Drake distortedly announcing that "this is a song for the good girls". The track slowly builds until there's a massive contrast between Beyonce's calm, understated verses and Drake's high-octane, percussion hammering choruses. It's pretty damn good.
This is a stonking pop/R&B song, with sparkling production and a massive chorus. Other than that, it's slightly hollow and not too memorable compared to the other material we've heard.
'***Flawless' featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Formerly 'Bow Down', this was slated when it was released on Soundcloud a few months ago, but it makes a lot more sense now we hear it in album guise. It's a fun, dizzying, swaggering beat over which Beyonce demands for us to "bow down bitches", and why shouldn't we? The latter half of the song features an excerpt from African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk, which was called "We should all be feminists". That'll shut everyone up who criticises Bey for not representing the ladies, then.
'Superpower' featuring Frank Ocean
Another track courtesy of Pharrell, 'Superpower' is epic - low tempo, but mesmerising thanks to its intriguing instrumentation; layers of vocal samples merged with soaring strings. Frank Ocean's contribution is short but his presence is very much felt in the thought provoking lyrics, which he co-wrote.
Surprisingly, and welcomingly, there's only one low tempo, piano led ballad on 'Beyonce' and this is it. The lyrics deal with the loss of a loved one, made all the more poignant after the singer revealed she had suffered a miscarriage in an interview earlier in 2013.
'Blue' featuring Blue Ivy
"When I look in your eyes, I feel alive," Beyonce sings in this ode to her two year old daughter, and it's hard for it not to warm your heart slightly. Tripping piano, swirling synths and melodic guitar trickle over a gentle reggae influenced beat. Whilst it may not seem an obvious choice for a closer, it makes sense for the record to end on an important note - and what's more important to Bey than her daughter?
It's almost refreshing to listen to an album that has had zero promotion, as you have no expectations you would like met. This makes listening to Beyonce a rather interesting experience, and one that ultimately works to its favour - the singer is very clever indeed.
Beyonce is a concise, clear cut and throroughly impressive body of work. If we had any critcism about her last effort, 4, it would be that it was slightly all over the place. This isn't the case with Beyonce - the sound (modern R&B gilded with classic touches) and the themes (nostalgia, feminism) run strongly throughout each and every song on the album.
Beyonce yet again stays effortlessly relevant by working with new and exciting producers but not pushing her boundaries too much. For example, she'll never go in the direction of EDM because it's the new "thing", and that alone is worth respect.
There are a couple of songs that miss the mark, but none disastrously so, and the many highlights are truely excellent. Beyonce doesn't mess you around - it's not a grower, and we're so happy that's not the case. It slaps you in the face and demands your attention from first listen, and it's clear what tunes are the real standouts from the word go. That should be the case with every pop album.
Beyonce is an album that knows what it's about, and it smacks of confidence - it's an artist on top of their game.
More about: Beyoncé