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Jody Rosen’s Snap Judgments on Beyoncé’s Surprise New Album

Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album, which airdropped overnight onto iTunes, is impressive first and foremost as a feat of Loose Lips Sink Ships information management. How exactly, in an age of wildfire social-media gossip, did Team Beyoncé pull off the stealth release of a fourteen-song, seventeen-video behemoth, whose production credits include not just the entire Knowles-Carter clan — Bey and Jay and baby Blue, who gets a “featuring” production credit on the album’s closing ballad — but a roll call of additional boldface names? Timbaland, Pharrell, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Miguel, Sia, Frank Ocean, The-Dream, Ryan Tedder, Hit-Boy, the list goes on. When you add up all the handlers, gophers, personal assistants, masseuses, best boys, key grips, etc., involved in the production of this “video album,” the numbers climb into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, and it's staggering to imagine how many lawyers, how many nondisclosure agreements, it took to keep the thing under wraps. I mean, the video for “Mine,” an eerily stark ballad with a rap by Drake, was directed by Terry Richardson — and even that little creep didn’t let it slip as he was trying to lure a teenage model back to his loft. The NSA could learn a thing or two about leak proofing from Beyoncé.

Beyoncé is obviously a coup on another front. It arrived with a press release touting its surprise unveiling as a relief from the usual multi-week-long PR-blitz rollouts of major albums. Of course, the shock release is merely another form of publicity stunt, and a savvy one, especially coming on the heels of disappointing diva-pop blockbusters by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears. Beyoncé gets to play the I’m-all-about-the-music card. (PR? Moi?) If her album sales are weak — I’m guessing they’ll be strong, but in any case, if the sales are weak — she has a built-in excuse: I dumped this record on the Internet, how could it have sold well?

But what about the music? I’ll have a full review next week, after I’ve had a chance to absorb it. (A Beyoncé album — especially a Beyoncé album with a 1.2:1 videos-to-songs ratio — is a thing that can overload the senses.) My overall feeling, after a couple of listens: on balance, a very fine record. Here are few snap-judgment reactions.

“Pretty Hurts”
It was co-written by Sia Furler, and it sounds like it: minor chords, booming drums, a vibe of thunderclapping melodrama. The chorus is big, the kind of robust black-Streisand tune that Beyoncé was born to sing. (Think “Halo.”) As for the words: It’s a “statement song,” about, you know, our obsession with good looks, how it’s what's inside that counts, “Perfection is a disease of a nation … You can’t fix what you can’t see/It’s the soul that needs surgery,” etc. — all a little rich coming from gorgeous Beyoncé Knowles.

“Ghost”
Quoth B.: “Soul not for sale/Probably won’t make no money off this/Oh well.” Now that’s a humblebrag. There isn’t much of a song here — it’s not even included on the audio album — but the video has its moments, mostly involving billowing fabric.

“Haunted”
Creepy mood piece. Want to like it — but where’s the hook?

“Drunk in Love” (featuring Jay Z)
Instantly appealing record that ranks with the best Bey-Jay collaborations. Skittering, blaring production from Detail. (The synths are echt-Timbaland, who gets a credit on the song, too.) It’s a song about, um, the connubial bedchamber. Beyoncé sings about “her surfboard,” which is a euphemism for an erotic act that you and I have never experienced. Jay’s rap is goofy but not embarrassing. Grade: A.

“Blow”
Beatific neo-disco anthem, written and produced by Pharrell. Sounds like a hit. It’s about oral sex — his and hers varieties. Fun video, with a bright Day-Glo palate, set in a roller rink. Beyoncé and her sister Solange are also shown tooling around on souped-up low-rider bicycles. Fun.

“No Angel”
A very pretty showcase for Beyoncé’s falsetto, with production that’s admirably barely there: a few chiming synths, some percussive thumps, but mostly just bass. The video, shot in the singer’s hometown of Houston, is glamorously down-at-heel, a bit poverty-porn-y for my taste: moody shots of public-housing residents, rappers, hardscrabble streets, etc. Beyoncé is pictured on the sidewalk in front of a tumbledown house, wearing a mink. I believe the term of art is “ghetto fabulous.”

“Yoncé”
“Yoncé all on this mouth like liquor,” she crows. Non-audio-album track. A rap, of sorts. In the video, Beyoncé and a bunch of other beautiful women dance and writhe on what looks like Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. What’s not to like?

“Partition”
The sexy-sex songs on this album are sounding awfully good. “It took 45 minutes to get all dressed up/And we ain’t even gonna make it to this club,” Beyoncé sings. The beat, by Timbaland, twitches and shimmers. Excellent.

“Jealous”
Or, How Beyoncé Got Her Groove Back. I want more of a melody from a wronged-woman’s-revenge anthem, but I suspect it’s a grower. I like the part about Beyoncé breaking the “freakum dress out my closet.”

“Rocket”
Yum: a sumptuous old-fashioned soul ballad, goes down like a profiterole.

“Mine” (featuring Drake)
I’m a bit bored by this; may well improve with further listens. Drake raps something or other about a “good girl” — I’m pretty sick of hearing from Drake on the relative goodness and badness of his girls.

“XO”
Anthemic Big Pop: you know, one of those songs with cavernous widescreen sound and a chorus tailor-made for an Olympics opening ceremony. It sounds like a Ryan Tedder song — and yet, I like it. Curious. Additional production by Hit-Boy.

“Flawless"
Beyoncé shit-talks over a trap-ish beat. Includes sampled excerpts of “We Should All Be Feminists,” a speech by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not certain that Beyoncé would have self-identified as a feminist five years ago.

“Superpower” (featuring Frank Ocean)
Some nice singing here, but I’m not feeling this ballad, produced by Pharrell. A bit wan.

“Heaven”
Pallid ballad, Part II. Zzzzzzzz.

“Blue” (featuring Blue Ivy)
Out with a wimper! Third consecutive dullsville ballad, this one named for the Knowles-Carter heiress. Video was shot in Rio; Blue Ivy makes an adorable cameo.