Beyonce ‘Beyonce' (Columbia)
First things first: Contrary to what you may have heard the last few days, dropping an unpromoted 14-track digital album accompanied by a staggering 17 music videos on Taylor Swift's birthday is not the future of the music industry. It's the kind of thing you do when you've achieved pretty much everything worth achieving in said industry and immediate album sales constitute only a sliver of your family's net worth. In other words, “Beyonce” is only going to work for the few Beyonces of the world who already have an enormous, partially Internet-savvy fan base that will buy 430,000 copies of a surprise digital record over a long weekend.
And while “Beyonce”' succeeds as a lot of things — a tour through the many distinct personalities of the artist, a throwback to pop's very lewd '90s, and an arms race of arena fodder — the most important is as a feminist manifesto, and an especially black one at that.
Women of all colors love Beyonce because she represents a broad range of female empowerment, but there's a top layer of references here that'll be lost on most people other than black women.
For instance, as blogger Alexander Hardy pointed out Friday, context clues in “Drunk in Love,” the album's obligatory Jay Z collaboration, make it clear that Jay's alluding to the film “What's Love Got To Do With It.” Tumblr teenagers — a largely white crowd touring culture through Wi-Fi — went nuts over the lyric, which they heard as “eat the cake / anime” when it's really “eat the cake / Anna Mae,” a reference to Tina Turner, the subject of the film. Similarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's spoken word bridge in the middle of “Flawless” hinges on her distinctly African lilt, which beautifully avoids the hard A's and smoothes out all the X's into S's.
But there's plenty of room in Beyonce's big tent, and this record — and its many accompany music videos — expands it by chasing a dumbfounding range of sounds. Two minutes into “Haunted,” for example, we get locked into a dark groove that could easily have surfaced in the middle of a Burial EP. Mere minutes later, “Blow” goes 1970s roller-rink pastel, chugging along on a bubbly guitar riff completed by the record's best, most lascivious hook: “When you eat my Skittles it's the sweetest in the middle.”
I was most struck by how dirty “Beyonce” was on the first listen. There's a run of tracks in the middle, from “Blow” to “Rocket,” that makes the Mrs. Carter who drew from the satisfaction of monogamy on 2011's terrific “4” sound like quite the prude. It shouldn't be a surprise that Timbaland and Justin Timberlake show up in the credits a couple times each here.
Quick interlude: “Rocket” is absolutely, 100 percent D'Angelo homage, circa “Voodoo,” and it sounds like Beyonce just got fed up with waiting on his next record and decided to record her own stuff like it. If that's not flexing your industry muscle, I don't know what is.
Another thing worth marveling over: It's a trophy case of hip-hop and R&B songwriters and producers on par with Kanye West's “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and Drake's “Take Care.” Timbaland, The-Dream, Drake and his chief collaborator Noah “40” Shebib, J.T., Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Miguel and Hit Boy all show up. The many characters here prevent the record from achieving a consensus on one big artistic statement (or even really sounding truly cohesive, like “4” and 2006's “B'Day” do) but that's small change next to Beyonce's larger campaign to install herself as the avatar of popular modern womanhood.