Album review: Beyoncé, can you handle this?

Beyoncé drops a line early on her fifth solo album: “I probably won’t make no money off this… oh well”.

This hypothesis was quickly disproved in the early hours of Dec. 13 when the album’s unexpected digital release broke sales records and generated an unprecedented buzz from music lovers around the planet.

Beyoncé was dubbed a “visual album”, featuring 17 music videos that could only be purchased in its entirety.

Boasting a lengthy track list and an elite lineup of producers and features (Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Timbaland, Hit Boy, The-Dream, Miguel and Justin Timberlake, just to name a few), Beyoncé had a lot to live up to - and she succeeded. The woman famous for pushing the envelope did it again, conquering the artistic dilemma posed by the high-volume world of digital music where listeners often speed through songs in seconds with the simple click of a button.

Beyoncé succeeds because as a more daring, revealing and focused piece of work than any of the artist’s previous albums. She explores unchartered subject territory, yet her music still maintains the captivating and empowering aspects that fans have grown to love.

There are no fillers - Beyoncé includes each track with intent and purpose, opting for artistic integrity over radio-friendliness. It achieves the cohesiveness that was missing from her previous album, 4. “No Angel” showcases Beyoncé’s falsetto and “Rocket” is a smooth slow jam influenced by R&B legend D’Angelo. Both are a far cry from the algorithm of a successful pop song and are refreshing because of this.

Feminism is a strong theme in Beyoncé, obvious on “Flawless”, an anthem with aggressive lyrics like “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife”. Beyoncé explores society’s fixation on superficial beauty on “Pretty Hurts” and advocates for freedom and confidence in the expression of sexuality on “Partition”, “Blow” and “Drunk In Love”.

While some critics view Beyoncé’s bold, raunchy lyrics and promiscuous visuals as an offensive publicity stunt, she maintains that her goal was to break the fourth wall by taking an honest approach to this project. This lyrical vulnerability extends beyond the subject of sex, giving the album a relatable human quality rarely found in someone of such high universal prominence. In “On Jealous”, for example, Beyoncé sings about insecurity and paranoia in a relationship. “Mine” is a sonic journey that begins as a conscious-streaming ballad about marital doubts and postpartum depression that energetically evolves in complexity with the help of Drake.

The visionary and diverse films that make up the visual aspect of the album secure Beyoncé the status of a true artist. Terry Richardson’s video for “XO” is fluorescent and lively, whereas the video for “No Angel” shows the gritty streets of Houston’s fourth ward. “Ghost” and “Haunted” are stunning feasts for the eyes, overflowing with motifs and symbolism of a darker nature.

There are also plenty of celebrity appearances: Beyoncé prowls around dark alleys with Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and Joan Smalls in “Yoncé” and reunites with Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland in “Superpower”.

Beyoncé gives listeners access to other – more personal – sides of herself, never seen before due to her notorious privacy. There are candid moments playfully rapping with husband Jay Z on “Drunk In Love”, playing with her daughter on “Blue” and dancing around a childhood bedroom on “Grown Woman”.

The visuals effectively develop the subjects and themes of the music.

“Heaven” is a heartbreaking ballad about the miscarriage Knowles underwent a few years ago. The video accentuates the overwhelming emotion of the song, which shows moments of the artist with a young woman, presumably her child had she survived to term and grown up.

It’s moments like these that ensure that the songs are not reducible to forgettable melodies and hooks.

Rather, they are timeless sensory experiences. And what better world to experience than that of Queen Bey?

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