Last Friday, when Beyoncé released the brilliantly unpolished video for her new song “7/11,” I was working on putting together my Best Albums of 2014 list. Which is to say that “7/11” — and really, the entire Beyoncé: Platinum Edition, released yesterday — felt like a well-timed taunt, a sly reminder that, for me, at least, no record released this year came close to the game-changing visual album Beyoncé dropped at the tail end of 2013. Beyoncé’s mid-December release date was most likely an attempt to capitalize on the holiday sales bump, but as a bonus, it also confounded music critics who by December 12 thought they had their year-end lists tied up with a neat little bow. Some squeezed it onto their lists last year, but the album was still fresh enough that these rankings didn’t feel definitive. All the better. Beyoncé is meant to hover somewhere above the pageantry of the year-end list. Beyoncé is anti-pageantry by definition. I think it will only benefit its slippery legacy to exist outside the world of neat, numerical rankings. So much so that as 2014 draws to a close, it’s tempting to want to give it a contentious objector vote in protest against a year of lackluster releases. “Albums sucked this year,” a friend of mine said this weekend when asked his favorite release of 2014. “I pick Beyoncé.”
Beyoncé: Platinum Edition isn’t quite as exciting as the rumored and ultimately debunked Beyoncé: Volume 2, but I’m not complaining. Most artistic statements are best left without a sequel, and I for one am still spooked by the cataclysmic drop-off in quality between Volumes 1 and 2 of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. Better to leave us with the imperfect perfection of Beyoncé, dreaming that the mythical Nicki Minaj collaboration “DONK” will someday drop like the H-bomb that mercifully brings an armistice in the Great Butt Wars of 2014. Until then, let’s take a closer look at the spoils of the Platinum Edition (two new songs and a few remixes that have already been making the rounds) and, in honor of year-end pageantry, subject them to a highly scientific rating system.
“7/11”: I thought this track was a bit of a throwaway until the video dropped — which I don’t consider a weakness in the song so much as a natural embodiment of the Visual Album Experience. Beyoncé’s overall aim was to dismantle the idea of Queen Bey as this untouchable perfectionist, bringing her down to earth while at the same time asserting in every frame that she is at least a little bit fresher than you. The “7/11” video captures this beautifully: It’s aspirational chilling, carefully curated fun, a GoPro feminist utopia. (Fun “7/11” game: Drink every time you see a man ducking out of the frame!) The whole thing is such a glorious ode to goofing off with your ladies that it almost feels like an extended coda to “***Flawless.” Were I important enough to have signed a Beyoncé NDA, I would have advocated putting this one on the actual album in place of what I think is Beyoncé’s weakest track (FORGIVE ME, FRANK), “Superpower.” I don’t know much about what 2015 holds, but I can guarantee that emergency-room doctors will report an increase in spinning-while-my-foot-up-related injuries. This is the Trap Hokey-Pokey. I can’t wait to fall down to it in a hotel. 8/10 Surfborts
“Flawless (Remix)” featuring Nicki Minaj: Look, I don’t have the polling data handy, but I’m willing to bet that over the past 12 months, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of young women who call themselves feminists, and that this is almost entirely due to Beyoncé. And no, contrary to popular belief, this was not because of some viral-era voodoo that took place when everybody reblogged that image of Beyoncé standing in front of the word FEMINIST at the VMAs; it was because of her ingenious idea to include in the original version of “***Flawless” a clear, concise, and marvelously demystifying definition of that too-often-misunderstood word. Thanks to Beyoncé, somewhere in America, a seventh-grader is right now being asked what the word feminist means, and instead of saying “an angry woman who hates men,” she is answering in a memorized intonation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words: “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Because of the profound, sneaky brilliance of the Adichie sample, I will always prefer the original version of “***Flawless,” but the remix with Nicki Minaj is as close a runner-up as possible. This is a song that practices what it preaches: Two boss-ass women dismantling the myth of female competition by bringing out the best in each other. I’ve said it before, but one of my favorite musical moments of 2014 comes around the 2:26 mark, when Bey photo-bombs Nicki’s verse to do her best “Monster” accent. Shine on, you crazy di-monds. 8.5/10 Surfborts
“Drunk in Love (Remix)” featuring Kanye West and Jay Z: Okay, this one is a mess. I think I speak for everyone on Earth when I say we did not need to invite a third party onto “Drunk in Love.” (Future had the good sense to keep his remix a solo affair.) Kanye barges onto this track like Kramer, spouting off nonsense like someone far too turnt to realize he is interrupting a moment of private intimacy between his friends. I have a theory that right before recording this, Jay got Kanye really wasted on purpose in hopes that he would come up with something even more egregious than Jay’s now-infamous “your breasteses is my breakfast” verse. Thus, Yeezy begins this surreal ode to marital bliss and female sexual agency: “Now the drummer comin’ / I’m par-um-pa-pum-pummin’ all on your stomach.” Mission accomplished, Hov! 2/10 Surfborts
“Ring Off”: The second new song. Musically, this one isn’t anything special — in the tradition of slightly too-cheesy-for-the-record Beyoncé deluxe-edition cuts, à la “Schoolin’ Life.” But a closer listen to the lyrics reveals this to be one of the most candidly personal songs Beyoncé’s ever released: It’s a grittily triumphant song about her mother’s decision to divorce Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, after 33 years of marriage. “Ring Off” is a bittersweet ode to starting over, but also an empathic acknowledgement of her mother’s pain: “In the mirror you would stare, and say a prayer/Like, ‘I wish he said I’m beautiful’ / ‘I wish it didn’t hurt at all.’” I’d also put this one on the original edition (maybe swapping out “XO,” a good song that feels too Beyoncé 1.0 to flow with the rest of the album), if only because it’s provides such a poignant parallel to “Pretty Hurts” — the daughter growing wise enough to comfort and advise her mother. 7/10 Surfborts
“Blow (Remix)” featuring Pharrell Williams: I cannot think of any situation in which you’d listen to this instead of the original. It just feels like a poorly assembled cut-and-paste job; I laugh every single time at the 1:05 mark, when Pharrell makes this little Ewok noise to remind us that he is on the track. It only gets worse from there: His lead vocal is awkward, labored, and even a little off-key. Something I hadn’t really considered until hearing this remix is that — in spite of his presence in the allegedly sexy “Blurred Lines” video — Pharrell’s recent resurgence has felt oddly desexualized. Which means that after hearing him moan the word blow on this inexplicable remix, I need to purify myself by eating an entire pack of (Wild Berry) Skittles. Sorry, bae. 3/10 Surfborts
“Standing on the Sun”: A pretty lackluster finale; the “Flawless” Remix should have been sequenced last. This reggae-inflected tune was originally from her H&M add campaign, and it feels a little to Early Bey to make sense in this context. I bet Rihanna would have had the sense to pass on this one? Let us pray for “Cherry.” 5/10 Surfborts