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Jody Rosen on Beyoncé: Close to a Masterpiece

Beyoncé, the magnificent fourteen-song, seventeen-video “visual album” that was released last week, will endure, as art, long after we’ve stopped bugging out about the commerce. Still, you can’t help but marvel at Beyoncé’s music industry ambush: At her surprise midnight iTunes airdrop, at her gangbusters 600,000-plus first week sales, at how she stole in, at the last minute, to snatch 2013 from everyone else, yanking the rug out from under Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Britney Spears and Kanye West and Justin Timberlake, and, oh yeah, Jay Z, who appears on one great song on the new record, and who — as that song and several others make clear — shares with Beyoncé a prodigiously road-tested king-size bed.

Earlier this year, Jay Z unveiled his own blockbuster album, amid fanfare about his game-changing #newrules; we’ve seen wildly hyped rollouts of albums by West, Cyrus, Gaga, and others. But with her shock-and-awe assault, Beyoncé has made them all look like amateurs. A Beyoncé video is a thing that can scramble your senses, overload your mental circuitry; I’m still trying to process Beyoncé’s sneer at the 4:37 mark of the “Drunk in Love” clip. But seventeen Beyoncé videos? The sheer stupefying onslaught of sound and spectacle — of rhythm and melody and singing and hoofing and clothes and hairstyles and makeup and, it must be said, lingering close-ups of the singer’s booty — leaves you without much in your head, besides an overwhelming sense of Beyoncé's indomitability. To paraphrase the poet: Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé just made seventeen of the best videos of all time.

We know, of course, that Beyoncé is a fierce competitor. From the first Destiny’s Child records to the present, her songs have depicted romance, success, life itself, as battles — as merciless tests of skill and will. In the video for “Pretty Hurts,” the first song on Beyoncé, she plays a beauty pageant contestant; elsewhere we see real-life footage of the star as a “hip-hop rappin’” child competitor on Star Search. In “Superpower,” an incandescent ballad with a guest appearance by Frank Ocean, Beyoncé likens herself to a bear and a shark. Who can doubt that she smelled the blood in the water this fall, when one diva after another served up disappointing records? In “Ghost,” one of the album’s bonus videos, she offers this curt piece of music criticism: “I’m climbing up the walls ‘cause all this shit I hear is boring.”

But Beyoncé has more on her mind than outselling Katy Perry. This album is awfully close to a masterpiece, and should stop cold those cranks who have dismissed Beyoncé as “merely” a pop star, all surface, no depth. It’s a showpiece for Beyoncé’s fearsome musicianship and, yes, for her ideas; it will take a long time to finish sorting through the barrage of sensations and signifiers that ricochet through these songs. It’s not just a collection of songs but, verily, an album, in the classic high-rock-era conceptual sense. The songs are carefully sequenced, from “Pretty Hurts” to the bustling “Grown Woman,” and they unfurl a story, a journey from innocence to experience, from self-doubt to self-determination. That story flickers into focus if you watch the videos, and Beyoncé is a reminder that we are living in a new golden age of music video — that for Beyoncé, as for Michael Jackson and Madonna, music is an audiovisual medium.

Not that the songs on Beyoncé don’t stand up qua songs. There are just a couple of baggy moments. The piano ballad “Heaven” is a bit pallid; “Blue,” Beyoncé’s ode to her daughter Blue Ivy, is sweet, but never assembles into much of anything.

The rest of the album, though, is strong; often, it’s spectacular. Beyoncé’s previous release, 4 (2011), had an earth-toned hue, with Afro-beat horns and retro-soul flourishes. Beyoncé is a far sleeker and more shimmery affair. The production is streaked with electronic pulses and groans; there are surging choruses bolstered by hefty beats, borrowings from trap and screw music, and songs that find a sweet spot between nostalgia trip and future shock, like the blipping neo-disco anthem “Blow,” produced by Pharrell, and “Rocket,” a teasingly slow and salacious Prince-style ballad.

As always, Beyoncé’s voice commands attention. She’s a bold, charismatic singer, and an alluringly strange one; the new album holds showpieces for her wide vocal range and for the music that she finds, and makes, in unexpected places. She flexes her falsetto in “No Angel” and dips into a sultry lower register in “Supernatural.” She unleashes ballads with the force of one of her heroes, Barbra Streisand, and she skitters through the syncopations, pitched somewhere between singing and rapping, which she, more than any other musician, has retrained our ears to hear as run-of-the-mill pop. In several songs, Beyoncé just plain raps, and does it awfully well. In “Drunk in Love,” she even out-raps her husband, drawling double-entendres — “I fill the tub up halfway then ride it with my surfboard … Grainin' on that wood” — in the thick Texas twang than she reserves for her more lowdown moments.

There are a lot of those on Beyoncé. It’s a very sexy album, smutty even — although it seems odd construe the carnal activities of a happily married couple as “smut.” (The technical term, I believe, is “keeping it hot.”) You’ll recall the scenes of sexy domesticity from “Countdown” (2011): “All up in the kitchen in my heels / dinnertime.” The saucy “Drunk in Love” picks up where that song left off, viz., “We woke up in the kitchen saying / How the hell did this shit happen?” (The lyric raises questions: Does any actual food preparation take place in the Carter-Knowles kitchen? Maybe Bey and Jay should probably just slide a four-poster up against the Frigidaire and call it a day?) Elsewhere we find the couple groping in the back of a limo, an episode that climaxes, as it were, with a “Monica Lewinksy-ed” stain on Beyoncé’s gown. And then there’s “Rocket,” which begins, “Let me sit this ass on you” — a lyric that has edged ahead of “I read the news today, oh boy,” in my personal tally of Greatest Opening Lines. Outside of country music, there are few places in pop where marriage is discussed at all, and whatever else Beyoncé is doing, she is making one of the best-ever pop-culture cases for conjugal bliss. The songs are explicit, for sure, but they embrace spiritual and emotional satisfactions, too — you know, those added-bonus feelings that come from great sex with someone you love. It is grown woman’s music indeed.

The music is mature in another, more surprising way: politics. Beyoncé has always sung about big questions — about love and money and race and, especially, about women’s bodies and minds and power, in songs whose meaning is hard to pin down. (Term paper assignment: write 2,500 words on the conflation of romance and finance in Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”) On the new album, she’s still digging into those heady topics. In “Pretty Hurts,” she sings: “Mama said, you’re a pretty girl / What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter.”

Beyoncé, of course, argues that the stuff in a girl’s head matters plenty. A skeptic could point out that that’s an easy point to make, and that the bromide is belied by a “visual album” which parades pretty girl glamour to the point that your eyeballs melt onto your laptop keyboard. But Beyoncé is deeper than her past work; it pushes past self-esteem platitudes to deliver a more pointed and emphatic message. The album’s centerpiece — the “text” that Beyologists will be poring over for years to come — is “***Flawless,” a trap-pop song with pitch-shifted vocals and beats that skitter and thud over depth-sounder bass. The video has shades of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” capturing Beyoncé in a punk rock half-drag-king getup, wearing flannel and ripped denim, and slam dancing with skinheads in a basement. This is Beyoncé in her ferocious imperial mode, growling commands and demanding supplication. (“Bow down, bitches!” she barks.) But 1:25 into the song, the singer yields the floor to another woman, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a sampled except from a TED talk.

Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don't teach boys the same?
 We raise girls to see each other as competitors.
 Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing.
 But for the attention of men. 
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. 
Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

It’s unusual to cede valuable pop song real estate to a statement like that; it’s no small thing for the most famous African-American woman in the world— maybe the most famous woman, period — to embrace the motto “We should all be feminists,” the title of Adichie’s talk. I can’t imagine Beyoncé of 2001 or even 2011 self-identifying as a feminist, and I wonder: Is this a sign of broader cultural shifts? Or is the singer moving the culture herself? With Beyoncé, it can be hard to determine how the flow of influence runs. In any case, she offers her own gloss on Adichie’s message in the song’s key lyric, a boast about effortless beauty, inner and outer, that doubles as a mantra of enlightenment: “I woke up like this, I woke up like this.” Actually, that line does triple duty: Beyoncé intones it again, this time as a slogan of sisterhood, a pep-talk exhortation to women everywhere. “We flawless,” Beyoncé sings. “Ladies, tell ‘em: ‘I woke up like this, I woke up like this.’”