Mystery in the digital age is a form of art, and Beyoncé has perfected the craft.
In a world where anything and everything newsworthy is tweeted, blogged and Instagrammed within milliseconds, one of the most famous pop stars in the world dropped an entire record, complete with 17 music videos, on iTunes at midnight on Friday without any warning.
Sure, there were tiny clues over the past year — the title “XO” was being floated around as a rumored single title, a brief snippet of a “Grown Woman” video made the rounds, she was spotted filming in various locations around the world — but it all seemed less like there was an album forming and more like a mismanaged campaign and foolery behind-the-scenes.
We were so mad about it, too: A legendary Super Bowl performance. A multi-million dollar Pepsi endorsement deal. Interviews. Magazine covers. Fashion spreads. A global tour. And yet, nothing. No new music, save for a few snippets in Pepsi ads and H&M commercials. Producers dodged questions. Fans began to doubt her decision to part ways professionally with her father. A report came out in July that Beyoncé had scrapped over 50 tracks for her upcoming record, claiming she was “still trying to figure out” a new direction.
We were all wrong. So damn wrong.
As it turns out, BEYONCÉ was brewing behind-the-scenes the whole time, slowly being crafted to completion by December 13. And, perhaps as a reaction to the increasingly loud, over-the-top antics of 2013 — Miley‘s twerking, Katy‘s golden PRISM truck, Gaga‘s Koons balls and nude forest romps with Marina Abramovic — she fell back and remained silent, allowing the other girls to make their noise, wait, and then drop.
To be fair, BEYONCÉ isn’t the first album to be released without a stitch of traditional promo: Her husband Jay Z did nearly the same with Magna Carta Holy Grail earlier this year, as did David Bowie with his surprise comeback, The Next Day. It’s part of a new wave of thinking; something to combat the sorry state of affairs in the music industry: The endless hype, the record label demands, the need for “hits,” the promo performances dominated by GIF-able shticks, radio’s increasingly insularity. That’s not to say that Beyoncé isn’t prone to hype herself: In a lot of ways, she is the Queen of Stunts. The baby bump reveal, anyone? But this album is different: It’s almost as though Beyoncé made the music she wanted to make, and fuck what the industry had to say about it. Can you even fathom that in 2013?
After a while, the shock of the album’s release will fade away, and we’ll be left with the final product.
But is it actually good? Well, yes. Yes, it is.
“Radio says speed it up, I just go slower,” Beyoncé brags in the opening of “Partition” (“Yoncé”), which probably serves as the best explanation of this album’s rebellious edge. Unlike the radio-friendly servings on B’Day and I Am…Sasha Fierce, BEYONCÉ largely floats across moody, future-leaning R&B pulsations, similar to acts making waves below the radar like Dawn Richard, Tinashe, Cassie and Jhene Aiko. It’s a sound that, frankly, I never thought I’d hear coming from a mainstream pop star like Beyoncé.
To achieve her sound, Bey enlisted a massive troupe of collaborators, which range from hipster delights to pop’s most trusted power players: There’s Charlift‘s Caroline Polachek, go-to songwriting sensation Sia, Drake and Noah “40” Shebib, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, James Fauntleroy, Timbaland, Hit-Boy, Ryan Tedder, Frank Ocean — and yes, even baby Blue Ivy. It’s a staggering roster, making the secrecy of this project all the more impressive.
And then, there’s Boots. Who is Boots, exactly? That’s what the world wants to know. He contributed four original songs to the record, including “Blue” and “Haunted,” and co-produced 85% of the album. And yet, no one has any idea who Boots is (yet), adding to the overall mystery of this release. He’s got a Twitter and a Soundcloud, and Sam Smith shouted him out as a friend on Friday. Other than that, nothing. Jay? Kanye? Dev Hynes? Diplo? Michelle Williams? Your guess is as good as mine.
Without question, BEYONCÉ is the most introspective and intimate album Beyoncé’s ever recorded: She’s got questions. She’s got fears. She’s dubious of her label. She’s talking back to critics. She’s lonely. She’s asserting herself. She’s (still) dangerously in love. And, uh, she’s really horny too.
Indeed, BEYONCÉ is Beyoncé’s filthiest record to date. The sheer lack of fucks she has to give while straight-up singing about fucking is profound. “Blow”? “Rocket”? “Partition”? It’s all about getting down, straight up. Science, or maybe just experience over time, might have something to do with that: Post-baby, 32-year-old Beyoncé is truly feeling herself right now, having reached an age where (according to popular mythology!) women reach their sexual peak. To be fair, Madonna did the same thing at 34 with Erotica — and at times, this album certainly feels like Bey’s very own version of that sexual awakening. Don’t get it twisted: She’s always had her sexual side, but Bey is fully freaking without pretense now, and she wants you to know that — ACHOO! — her body is looking sicker than ever. (The lip biting, pant tightening steaminess of clips like “Partition” alone sort of makes Miley’s VMA performance look like a middle school talent show we all pretended to be scandalized by, no?)
And while she still hasn’t said much of anything about the record, Bey made it known from the start that BEYONCÉ is a visual album: “I see music. It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion,” she explained in “Self-Titled,” the lone explanatory clip Beyoncé left on her Facebook the night that the album dropped. Thus, a video for every single song — even two, in some cases.
And so, to respect the format she wants fans to experience the record, I’m going track-by-track with both the songs and videos. Now, somebody say “Hayyyy, Miss Carter…”