Beyoncé: Sex, Hype And The Modern Diva
"Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe, je veux dire l'activité physique, le coït, tu aimes ça? Tu ne t'intéresses pas au sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe mais c'est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent."
Don't understand? Don't matter. Let the visuals speak for themselves:
Let's backtrack. If you haven't been on the Internet or in contact with any music-loving human beings in the past 48 hours or so, newsflash: Beyoncé released her fifth studio album, titled simply "Beyoncé," at midnight on Friday the 13th with no warning, no preview singles, no music videos, no promotional work except for the 100+ date tour she's currently on. (Oh yeah, she recorded the whole damn thing in secret while she was pregnant and had a baby and was on tour and played the Super Bowl and was busy making enough money to never think about any of her multiple bank accounts ever again and then… and then…)
It'd be a gutsier move if you know, she weren't Beyoncé, but it's precisely because she is who she is that the move worked at all. And perhaps all the Internet swooning and crying over this album could be chalked up to hysterics… if it weren't for the fact that this music shouldn't have come from an artist as mainstream as Beyoncé, and if it weren't for the fact that this music is shamelessly freakin' good.
There are plenty of people who are going to think that this album is "too much," whether in song length or in its sexual content or its explicit female empowerment message, but if you're one of those people, may I kindly suggest exiting this page and going to watch the mindless pretty of Katy Perry's AMAs performance.
Just kidding. There's nothing inherently wrong with Perry's "Prism," or Britney's "Britney Jean," or Gaga's "Artpop," or even Miley's "Bangerz" because, in the end, they're all viable commercial products of our very commercial pop industry
(and the women involved have delivered some of the past couple of decades' most catchy, if not downright iconic, tunes)
but if you want something to chew on, so to speak, from your pop music, "Beyoncé" is bubblegum with bite, swag without irony, sexuality beyond the cis male dimension,
and oh, this shit is fantastic for dancing too.
ALSO READ: Beyoncé At The Staples Center: Review
There are 14 songs on "Beyoncé," but that's only one half of the album. The other half is comprised of 17 music videos, and if it's possible, do listen to the album for the first time with the videos, in order.
Normally, that kind of stuff doesn't matter. But Beyoncé wasn't out to make a "conventional" pop album: she's combining video and audio in a downloadable art installation, and while it might be tempting to ignore half of the album's digital offerings, you'd be remiss to do so.
So, about those tunes:
1. "Pretty Hurts"
We've all heard plenty of heartfelt ballads about just being yourself and the like, but rarely has the reality of body image distortion been brought to such, well, reality.
The song by itself is stirring, but combined with the beauty pageant visuals of the video, Bey's full-throated take on the pains people will take to fall in line with mainstream media representations comes off less like sappy "Why can't we all just get along?" sentiments and serves as a carrier of actual anger and frustration. And sure, it might be "easy" for someone as conventionally beautiful as Beyoncé to say these things, but that doesn't somehow invalidate the intense pressure and scrutiny that come with being a female body under a spotlight.
Real talk: this shouldn't be a Beyoncé song. It's all sorts of weird in terms of its atmosphere, and features Bey riffing about the idea of the album in a commercial context: "Soul not for sale / Probably won't make no money off this, oh well / Reap what you sow / Perfection is so… mm." It's also produced by a dude named Boots, whose existence can only be corroborated by a Rapgenius page. Now that's underground.
Originally two separate tracks, "Ghost Around" and "I'm On To You," the first half of the song is a jagged rap eyeroll/stream of consciousness about the current commercial-thinking of the record industry, bookended by a young Beyoncé winning a talent show and a gorgeous breakdown wrapped up in a spectral "Around, around, around, around" vocal that finally shudders into the aforementioned riff. The video follows the song's ethereal vibe, but all things considered, it's a relatively straightforward visual offering.
The second half of "Haunted" is an unhinged audio-visual spiral. The entire song sounds like something you might find if you were switching between stations in Night Vale, but when the song deftly explodes in its second half (dat bass), it gets frrrreaky. That freakiness gets taken up to 11 in the song's video, which is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the music video legend who won a Grammy for Madonna's "Ray of Light" and also did "Paparazzi" and "Telephone" (featuring Bey, no less) for Gaga.
3. "Drunk on Love" ft. Jay-Z
This is probably the most straightforward song of the album: Bey's buzzed and it's going straight to her loins. This is the stereotypical club song flipped on its sex divide: ladies, get down, get down, get down tonight. Let beach-soaked Beyoncé be your dance floor spirit guide.
Jay-Z raps here, but this really isn't his song. He and Bey might be the most powerful couple in contemporary music, but put them side by side on a track like this and yeah, just smile and nod, Jay.
Don't let the new!Daft Punk staccato in the background fool you: this song is FILTHY, and that's awesome. Punctuated by moans and sliding on grimy synths, "Blow" is an oral sex anthem that manages to be not demeaning AND fun! So many songs treat sex as this serious be all/end all defining act of a relationship, or as something to be coveted/claimed from another person, but "Blow" lays out the act as what it should, and certainly can, be: as a two-way pleasure exchange.
If you can't find the sex in the song, then sure, it's actually about Skittles and cherries… ya know.
The video's a lot of fun too. Anybody else feel like lacing up and heading to their nearest roller rink?
5. "No Angel"
This is one of those songs that truly benefits from its video. On its own, it's perhaps a whispered paean to someone who's clearly bad news but is all the more alluring for it. And to that, Bey says, "I know I drive you crazy, but would you rather that I be a machine / Who doesn't notice when you late or when you're lying"; the perfect response for anyone who's ever been labeled "crazy" simply for showing actual passionate emotion.
But combined with the visuals, the song takes on a whole different tone. This is a love letter to Houston, the singer's hometown (if you couldn't tell by now), and shines a light on everything, from the glitter to the supposed grime, of the city.
Aside: props to Caroline Polachek of indie pop duo Chairlift, who produced the song and apparently found out about its use the same time everyone else did. Helluva surprise.
OH BOY. Split into "Yoncé" and "Partition," this song practically pushes its way out of speakers or headphones, as the bass pops, then trickles away into the audio abyss, and repeat.
"Yoncé" is a song for women whom A$AP Rocky might describe as his "f*cking problem." "I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker": this is the kind of braggadocio that's par for the course for male artists, but which still isn't really taken up by the ladies in the field, at least without putting down other women ("Doncha wish your girlfriend was hot like me"… not so much). Here's to hoping that changes. In the mean time, you can get down to this tune while watching Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Joan Smalls, and Bey herself pose so fierce, it hurts/Tyra probably cried when she watched that video.
But "Partition" is another beast. Framed as Beyoncé's fantasy, this video practically steams on the screen as she takes on a variety of fantasy images, but instead of letting them define her, she embodies them and switches between them with ease. Yeah, this is a song about having sex in a limo, but it's also "Whatever You Like" transposed from material wooing to physical connection. Now that's hot.
Beyoncé picks up the mantle of the wronged woman, but instead of sounding totally vengeful (no digging keys into the sides of anybody's little four wheel drives), she's reflective about the relationship, trying to corral her jealousy with her acknowledgement that she has a choice with staying in the relationship.
This is a slow jam that's smoother than smooth, it's ice smooth. It's baby making music, intimacy merged with trust, which comes across in the song's video.
So yeah, "Rocket" will make anybody who happens to be in the listener's vicinity also feel the urge to make babies, or barring that, simply hold their partners close and tell them how much they soooooo love them, totally unironically and with no purpose other than to just show their appreciation and affection.
Seriously though, the song rocks on and on (ha) but it never feels dragged on. It keeps building and building, crescendoing, cresting, and then ebbing away without fading in intensity. Can I keep writing sex metaphors? Anything is possible, when this song is playing in the background.
Lyrics highlight: "Hell yeah you the shit / That's why you're my equivalent" -- /slow clap/
More shoutouts to Instagram. Guess that's Bey's social media of choice, mm?
9. "Mine" ft. Drake
The opening of "Mine" is so real. Everybody knows about Blue Ivy, so for Beyoncé to actually sing "I'm not feeling like myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it?" seems like a peek behind the curtain. The entire opening refrain is starkly beautiful, reinforced by the swirling modern dance/art elements in the song's video.
But when the breakdown comes in, heralded by Drake's fuzzy hook, the song (and concurrently, the video) spirals into something significantly darker, not just in tone but in the lyrical desperation for contact and possession. "F*ck what they say, you're mine you're mine" -- objectively, it's such an extreme statement, but if you've ever been in or wanted a formal relationship with someone, you know this feeling, this knife twist right between the ribs, all too acutely.
Aside: Drake holds his own here, though his lyrics are almost directly in opposition with the rest of the album... can't win it all, eh. Still, probably the best guest feature on the album.
Shot at Coney Island, "XO" is so goddamn joyous, coming across like a Florence song with all the dramatic macabre flourishes stripped out. It's nothing particularly inventive as a song, but come on, you could totally imagine it being used in a video montage of inspiring moments, no?
Aside: this is probably the only Terry Richardson project that doesn't come across as insidiously skeevy. Coney Island, never forget.
11. "***Flawless" ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
We've heard this song before, but not quite like this. Perhaps the most obviously feminist song on the album, "Flawless" is gurrrrl power with teeth, true anger beneath the "bad bitch" posturing.
From the opening and ending referencing Girl's Tyme (Destiny's Child before Destiny's Child) to the much lauded TEDxEuston talk by African feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche to Beyoncé's deliberate deployment of the word "bitch" to her fluttering hands and faux-startled eyes as she sings "I woke up like this," "Flawless" deals in everything that's still, indeed, flawed about current gender/sex relations in the world.
Beyoncé knows exactly what sleeping beast she's poking with this tune, but she pokes away anyway, and with a sense of humor about it too.
12. "Superpower" ft. Frank Ocean
"Superpower" is probably one of the weirdest sounding songs on the album, but beneath the waltz beat and Bey's smoky vocals, there's a real message of unity through love in the song, which is only reinforced by its revolutionary video.
Is this a little contradictory coming from someone like Beyoncé? Yes, but plenty of big artists play the revolutionary card, so instead of dinging her on that point, round of applause for showing people how diversity in media can and should be.
Aside: Bey's makeup and hair in the video… bless.
Don't listen to this song if you've lost someone in your life recently. Just straight up don't.
The album, as an album, wouldn't suffer with the loss of this tune, but in case you need another reminder that the woman can sing, here it is.
14. "Blue" ft. Blue Ivy
What a perfect way for Beyoncé to end one of her most intimate offerings yet. "Come on baby, won't you hold onto me, hold onto me" -- you don't have to be a parent to feel the strength of that attachment, and say what you will about Bey herself, she clearly loves the little girl who calls her "Been-sy-ay."
Man, Blue Ivy. That girl's gonna have more song credits in her name by the time she's 10 than most artists ever will.
15. "Grown Woman" (Bonus Video)
It's worth downloading the album in full for this gem. '90s video game graphics + Beyoncé home videos + some amazing cameos + that song = new pregame jam, anyone?
A few closing thoughts about "Beyoncé":
F*CK HYPE, GET MONEY
Touching back on some of the other big pop releases of the year, let's take a look at how they came about. Lady Gaga kept heralding "Artpop" as the music manifesto of this century; Perry and Britney both called their new albums their most personal yet; Miley "scandalized" the nation with her metaphorical flipping off of the people who sexualized her even as they wrung their hands over her former child star image.
In every case, there was a slew of publicity for every album, and as such, the hype for each release was considerable. "Roar" was a huge hit, but Perry knew she had to deliver on the massive past success of "Teenage Dream" so she plundered every current popular genre for her new album. Britney could probably release an album of mic checks and still sell a million copies, but let's be real, "Britney Jean" is no "Blackout." "Bangerz" is listenable, and "Wrecking Ball" is actually kind of a pop masterpiece, but her provocations don't magically elevate the rest of the album.
And "Artpop"… I loved "The Fame Monster" as much as the next person, but when you spend so much time and money building up an album that's supposed to irrevocably change the world forever, there's no way you can actually meet that challenge, no matter how far up you'd previously pushed the bar.
Aside from the music, out of all those extremely visible female artists, only Miley has gone out of her way to define herself as a feminist, or someone who actively seeks to empower women. Millions of people, for better or worse, look up to musical icons as aspirational figures, so for someone like Beyoncé to not just say that she's a feminist but to imbue her surprise release, which is already noteworthy for the no frills, no spin nature of its release, with feminist terminology and bold representations of female sexuality, is a message worth taking seriously.
And honestly, any songs that people of all sexes and genders can dance to without worrying about demeaning lyrical content or insipid one-sided romantic pandering are far and few. Hell yes it's possible to get down without putting anyone else down. Which leads to…
WOC SEXUALITY WITHIN, WITHOUT OBJECTIFICATION
A lot of women of color in the world are perceived as these passive victims of oppression and repression. Aw, those poor Middle Eastern women in their veils, or the beleaguered mothers of random exotic shantytowns, how deep their plight resonates with the good-hearted activists of the Global North! And even in the good ole U.S.A., there's the sad situation of single black females, all those absent father and victim and objectification narratives, otherness taking form in both sex and skin color.
Like fellow mainstream pop provocateur M.I.A., and in the footsteps of other boundary-smashing artists before and around her (Angel Haze and Grace Jones immediately come to mind), Beyoncé says: for this to be the defining trait of a group of people is absolute bullshit. So she takes those who have historically had marginalized sexuality and lets it bloom in full.
If you're uncomfortable with it, consider how an "appropriate" realization of sexuality is for anybody else in the world, and then consider the fact that there is no way that Beyoncé would ever let someone exploit her sexuality, and if you think Beyoncé, of all people, has no control over her image, then who are you foolin'.
Actress Rashida Jones recently published an article in Glamour lambasting modern pop stars for showing off so much skin, saying that they're the victims of an industry using female bodies to line the pockets of largely white male music executives. And sure, there's an argument to be made that female sexual objectification has serious ramifications, but this is a problem within society as a whole, and not one that will not be somehow solved by making female pop stars (and only them) cover up.
Additionally, a frank assessment of sexuality à la "Beyoncé," which celebrates and uncovers the female form, all within the knowing definitions and framing by one of the most powerful women in the world, does infinitely more to demystify and educate people about female sexuality than a screed against showing skin, which falls too uncomfortably close to slut shaming.
You don't have to be a groovin' sexual lay-day to enjoy this album, but to dismiss the album on either point (sexuality or femininity) is to both understate Beyoncé's influence on modern music and her influence as an icon both above and defined by otherness in relation to the social/cultural "norm."
Though she's been open about her beliefs before, "Beyoncé" is as explicit of a personal manifesto as it gets. The fact that it's also a damn good modern R&B/pop album is just the cherry ;) on top.
Read more of NT's album reviews here.