The pop album’s taken a beating by technology. It used to be that progression in the field enabled the furthering of music, facilitated creative evolution – but today’s digital culture has dissected the catalogues of pop’s greatest into compressed files, into bite-size samples. Ashes riding the westerlies, scattered shorn of the past’s sleeves-and-credits context.
‘Beyoncé’ defiantly rebels against type. The visual side of this project is just one way of encouraging a deeper exploration of the themes circulating the singer’s fifth studio collection. The presentation of videos for every album track is nothing new – Liars and Beck are just two acts to have done the same previously, for the albums ‘Drum’s Not Dead’ and ‘The Information’ respectively – but Beyoncé’s high-budget clips comprise something akin to a modern Moonwalker, albeit mercifully without any attempt to bind them narratively.
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But it’s not just this contemporary, multimedia aspect that guarantees ‘Beyoncé’ is an album to enjoy from its opening comments on aspirations to its closing sample of Blue Ivy (who earns a ‘featuring’ credit) speaking to her mummy – sorry, her mommy. It’s also a brilliant record on its own, exclusively-in-your-ears terms. Produced and penned by what can only be considered a dream team of talents including Timbaland, The-Dream, Noah ‘40’ Shebib, Pharrell Williams and newcomer Boots – whose maximal minimalism lends ‘Beyoncé’ much of its textural appeal, low-end bumps balanced with bright top lines – it’s the sort of set that bottles lightning and proceeds to split every one of its billions of atoms.
Tracks like ‘Drunk In Love’ – featuring Jay Z, who’s a lot more fired up here than he sounded when guesting on Drake’s ‘Nothing Was The Same’ (review), drawing a parallel between himself and Ike Turner and ‘complaining’ about breasts in his breakfast – and ‘Flawless’ are very much of their time, this time. Their production is spiked enough to intoxicate listeners by the millions, and on the latter Beyoncé channels her feminist attitude in strikingly aggressive fashion: “Bow down, bitches,” she commands, before stating, “Don’t think I’m just his little wife… Don’t get it twisted.” At no point, despite the abundance of contributors, is this anything other than a Beyoncé Knowles album. Her personality pervades every second.
Elsewhere, there are more retro-flavoured arrangements. ‘Rocket’ is an explicit slow jam with more than a passing resemblance to a Prince (in his funky prime) track, a co-writer credit for Miguel coming as little surprise based on the sound showcased. ‘Blow’ is comparably throwback of tone, but with a more distinct disco edge – it’s one of two numbers featuring writing from Pharrell, the other being the sauntering-of-swing Frank Ocean-starring ‘Superpower’, a doo-wop anthem to blissful monogamy.
When Beyoncé truly unleashes her vocals on ballad-tempo moments ‘Heaven’ and ‘Jealous’, she immediately casts long shadows over singers who might have tried to shift her from the top table of pop during her maternity leave. Her power and control is breathtaking. The further she gets from the Destiny’s Child days, the clearer it becomes just why it was Beyoncé, over Kelly and Michelle, who truly conquered the global stage. Whatever the track, whatever the mood, Beyoncé can adapt to it. On ‘Mine’ she’s right by your ear, a relative whisper; next, come ‘XO’, she’s piloting one of the more affecting love-themed songs to have navigated pop’s turbulence this side of Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’.
While ‘Beyoncé’ does feature darkness – there are references to a period of postnatal depression – and some quite brazen descriptions of sexual shenanigans (keep it in your pants, #lads), it’s also very much an album of love. Less about love – anyone can sing songs about love. Hollow words, spoken coldly. More that this is made from the position of being besotted – with husband (‘Drunk In Love’), with daughter (listen to ‘Blue’ and gently melt), with life. Frequently, the pure joy of being in this situation is heard in Beyoncé’s voice. It’s infectious stuff, too – play this record on the journey home to your partner and who knows what might happen when you step through the door.
So, let the guitar bores keep their ‘real music’, because they’re missing the point entirely. It’s not albums like ‘BE’, or whatever the new one from Jake Bugg is called, which will ensure the survival of the album format, recycling as they do the past with scant appreciation for 21st century audiences. It’s musicians like those who’ve shaped this collection who hold the album’s future in their hands, musicians who can breach their supposed comfort zones while retaining both self-confidence and quality control. Musicians who can reflect trends and take the mirrored images for themselves, changed and unique yet familiar enough to click instantly; who can see beyond the expected, embrace cultural and technological possibilities, and realise the extraordinary.
‘Beyoncé’ is one of the best damn albums of 2013, basically, however you’re looking at it: as an R&B record, a pop set, an electro collection. Whatever your tastes, you can’t question the quality here – it’s just so easy to hear, to feel, whether you’ve a dozen LPs in your personal collection or several thousand, whatever your own frame of reference. Bloody shame, then, that it came out too late to factor in Clash’s top 40 of the year.
Words: Mike Diver
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‘Drunk In Love’
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