Sunday, March 30, 2014
From the beginning -- from a hard-won origin hinted at throughout her stellar, inventive fifth solo album -- Beyoncé Knowles has been an immaculate example of a self-possessed artist. Not for her, ever, was the invariably shining spotlight a reason to lay her cards out or to expose her every idea and secret maneuver -- in the earliest videos she made with Destiny's Child, her control over your own impressions of her was paramount. She was already thinking beyond the bounds of her or any group; you could see that in her with little effort. There's always been the sense that she was deliberately hiding something, deliberately waiting, deliberately only letting you witness and hear and notice what was necessary in the moment. In the olden days when it seemed so much more acceptable to commodify this business, we called it quality control. It's reductive to pretend that Knowles is selling herself as a brand any more than Prince or the Beatles or Dusty Springfield were -- the selling wizardry has been and will continue to be in service of the music -- but it's also silly to pretend that her imagery, her persona, her determined full-scale self-presentation is irrelevant.
Knowles is really an old-fashioned entertainer in a very real sense, which is likely the key reason her records get more crossover attention than others in her genre, from Ciara to Dawn Richard to Kelela, who deserve it just as much. No, no, it's not the cult of personality, it's not her marriage -- post-Magna Carta, does anyone really believe Jay-Z is helping his wife out by making his requisite cameos on her singles? -- and it's only partially musical prowess. This is one brilliant record, but it didn't create Beyoncé the Untouchable, and none of her prior LPs, while they all featured incalculably perfect songs and moments, have been nearly this consistent or fearless. Nah, it's because of pure showmanship; like Prince, she does it all -- dancing, singing, producing, writing. Like the Beatles, she's allowed her feel for the eccentric to meld beautifully with her populism until she can release something genuinely weird and everyone joins up. As a performer, Knowles evokes direct memories of Gene Kelly; they both exhibit a profound level of tight control over their movements and voices that can come across sufficiently clearly and full-bodied as to be intimidating, yet they also are brilliant at producing the image of looseness, the humanity underneath the expertise. That control has fused finally with an audience's trust and this grand, enormous stage has room for a bold and singular risk, clad in black and issued with refreshing nonchalance on iTunes in the middle of the night.
Sexuality shouldn't be analyzed at length at the expense of the pure pop mastery in play here, but sex is a major matter at hand. This many years into an established superstardom, it's very crucial that Knowles doesn't need to have an outside world address or legitimize her sexual independence, that she'd be asserting it regardless. That's specifically addressed on this album, but it nevertheless is an event that at this moment in time, a person of her stature who happens to be a woman would create something as uncompromised and blunt in its sensuality as this -- would indeed encompass therein a direct assault upon a world of anti-woman, anti-feminist blindness and injustice by sheer art of subtle omission. She never addresses the idea that she is not permitted to express herself as a woman, never acknowledges the idea of shame or of subsuming herself to unequal partnership. There is simply no weight given to the opposition. In deliberately, artfully avoiding the political fallout of allowing young girls and women who buy this album to believe that they in fact are permitted to take ownership of their bodies and sexual inner lives, she creates one of the true political albums of this decade in America -- and a courageous victory in the culture war upon the individuality and expression of women. Beyoncé, without question, came -- unexpectedly -- at the perfect moment.
"Pretty Hurts" has been interpreted as a manifesto, a statement of purpose, but this would make it an act of preaching. Plenty of other pop stars, male and female, have gone that route. The reason this song sets the stage for this full-length embodiment of who Beyoncé is at this moment in time, and the perspicacious recognition of where her audience in this specific diagram, is that it is a personal venting: a collected, scathing, quite mournful wake-up call. It's musically adventurous enough but the voice in all its nuance registers all across a scale from command to pain to want. Knowles is just 32, but she is already savvy in regard to the demands placed upon women in her industry as well as probably most; "pageant the pain away" is an apt phrase in the craftily presented collection of large grievances in regard to plastic surgery, the pressure not to age, the pressure to "be happy." It's not that she's unaware this act of protest will resonate everywhere, it's that such an endpoint is incidental to her need to record it, indeed to record it without obvious radio-friendly flourish or structure. That's the first sign that this album is for her but we're welcome to be there, and far from constructing something (like so many successful rock bands) out of tone-deaf flaunting of the vagaries of fame, her sensibilities remain stirringly human.
That's clear enough from her presentation of sex all across the record. Fucking is addressed as a physical manifestation of desire and, more importantly, as fun; that's more radical than you probably think it is. Even Prince, wonderful as his songs about Nikki's castle full of the 1984 equivalent to HMWs and jacking u off with them were, tended to imply freakiness as an eternal player in some larger conflict of sex and God, sometimes even as a punchline rather than a warm facet of being alive and being in a (serious or not) relationship. Oh, like any great blues or rock singer, Knowles talks about her prowess a great deal and quite convincingly, and she's more than entitled to do so, but the orgasmic joy is something in which we participate, feeling -- like in the earliest rock & roll -- no need to dress up beautiful base needs with pretension or psychodrama. Despite the absolutely incompetent Jay-Z verse, "Drunk in Love" is the most blatant celebration of absolute want and absolute lust to be so enthusiastically co-opted by the mainstream in decades. The unashamed expression of power and desire on Beyoncé's part that is not presented solely for straight male pleasure, valid as that may be, is so important. It's not just lyrically or vocally that the track seems overtaken with steam; even the "pop" moment sets down a vague, adventurous backing track over which Knowles scats and pauses as much as she lets loose. But no, no one else probably ever has made "all night" and "surf-board" sound like the kinkiest of private dialogue.
The aptly titled "Blow" and nearly as aptly titled "Rocket" are more explicit yet than "Drunk in Love." The former is a tricky, intimate, filthy groove that seems to futz around with the inside of your head, its hook delightfully nasty and circular, suggestively rhythmic in its "keep me coming keep me going" insistence. What she does to stretch, sweeten, darken, thin out her voice here would be fascinating if you weren't too caught up in the song to think much about it intellectually. (I heard the song maybe half a dozen times before I noticed there's a horn in there somewhere.) Like so many of these songs, "Blow" seems to abruptly become something entirely different from the bridge onward, and in clashing sweetened eagerness with winking perversion ("I can't waaait till I get home so you can tear that cherry out"), lush, pillowy bump and grind with minimalistic funk, the track seems to compress an LP's worth of ideas into five minutes. "Rocket" is a bit more direct, a pure Princely slow-jam, but Beyoncé's vocal command of each moment in it recalls him less than Marvin Gaye, especially in her relationship to the arrangement and the playful, jazz-derived way she slides through it on her own rhythm. Sarah Vaughn didn't sing about being a "bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad girl," but if she had... And more than once, with her soft laughs, her low-key intonation asking if you wanna touch it, her "hard. rock. steady. rock." and post-orgasmic "damn," and on the peak, babe, time just cuts out and quits.
Both "Blow" and "Rocket" could, unlike "Drunk in Love," be about sex between anyone -- casual partners, forty-year marrieds, teenagers, good friends, newlyweds, or people who would get in big trouble if anyone found out they were doing this -- but Beyoncé arguably gets at harder truths when it specifically addresses marriage. "Jealous" is perhaps the least musically effective cut on the first half of an admittedly front-loaded record (the first ten cuts are noticeably superior to most of the back third) due to its slightly overwrought "keeping your promise" hook, but lyrically it may be the most accomplished piece of them all, full of telling and troubling details. It's a justified rant of real adult pain that addresses the potential imbalances and chaotic interludes of a long-term emotional and sexual partnership, the agony of cooking a meal for someone naked and waiting for them to show up when they don't. The marriage or relationship it talks about sounds unhealthy, badly one-sided, but it could be nothing more than a moment -- what matters is that it captures this pain flawlessly. Some of the same could be said for the urgent "Mine," immediately timeless despite another weak moment (the "good girl" bit), which makes a big deal out of the little things, says we should be married, and lets it all out enough to admit that the woman laying herself bare isn't feeling like herself "since the baby." This conversational tone, these wisps of detail, are the background that fuels romance, sex, confessional, heartbreak, the substance so often missing from pop music dialogue.
But the towering "No Angel" is the more heartening example of Scenes from a Marriage narrative; interestingly gathering up a highly modern trap sound but also the '90s dance pop you might've heard a lot at the mall a decade and a half ago, its monosyllabic sensuality is significant because it captures a moment of raw, unexpected connection and the turning point in an idiosyncratic, unusual relationship -- which you'll probably agree, most relationships are. It's the document of a pair whose crimes, indulgences, kinks (that's the implication) are equal and are only now discovering it. Knowles slams the door and demands "Tell me I'm a problem" but when the truth sits in an ugly lump before her comes the revelation: "I love you even more than who I thought you were before." It's as startling and sexy as those fireworks in To Catch a Thief, when Grace Kelly wonders: "Ever had a better offer in your whole life? One with everything?"
As mentioned, Beyoncé peaks early, but its conclusion isn't a major downturn. "XO" is the album's darkest-night melodramatic peak, "Superpower" is a conventional slow-burn soul track (the best moment is provided by an ingratiating series of "doot doot doot doot doot doot"s) but that's something. The power ballad "Heaven" raises itself above other power ballads mostly by virtue of being sung by Beyoncé. "Blue" is a step up, a good strong melody that -- thanks to a guest spot from the singer's daughter -- invites comparisons to Stevie Wonder's untouchable "Isn't She Lovely" and is perfect for her voice. These cuts are all fine and would have fit in nicely on Beyoncé's previous efforts without much change, and if the entire album was in their league it would still be worth hearing.
Beyoncé is more than worth hearing, though, it's a treasure, and three of its strangest, wildest songs exemplify a level of ingenuity seldom heard in such quantity and with such assurance, and even more seldom to result in such massive popularity. Though he has many collaborators, the heretofore-mysterious Boots is a credited producer on all three, and if he is indeed (with Knowles) the link across them, he can be looked upon as edging closer to avant garde in pop than anyone since perhaps Missy Elliott (whose frequent associate Timbaland also worked on one of these tacks). Besides boasting one of Beyoncé's best-ever hooks (which doesn't appear until 2:50 in), "Partition" is another act of sexual assertion matched here with a club song -- brutal beat, astounding vocal workout, bzzz bzzz bzzz bzzz bzz, and so horny he want to fuuuh. Heyyy Ms. Carter, indeed.
The trap lift "***Flawless" is better yet, the album's most gigantically uncompromising series of "what the fuck" stunts, with sped-up voice manipulation and twin key phrases: "bow down bitches," of course, and the sneering, perfect "don't think I'm just his little wife." That it takes time to include -- on a mainstream pop album, remember -- a lengthy, brilliant, stirring speech on feminism by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during the instrumental break is a sign not just that we are living in a welcome new cultural moment but that Knowles has every intention to contribute to it, to live and operate within a revolution of hearts and minds. In some ways, rather than anything Knowles does, it's the climax and key to the record, rendering it a selfless decision on her part to step aside in such a way.
But "Haunted" is ultimately the album's greatest moment, and Knowles' most original and breathtaking track to date. It's the sort of creation that seems intriguing at first blush but becomes more staggering, more fascinating the more carefully one listens to it. Opening as calmly possessed spoken word (the intensity of a repeated "9 to 5 just to stay alive" steely in its purpose), this quickly shifts to nocturnal, hazy club music somewhat in the vein of (far lesser talents) the Weeknd and AraabMuzik. Knowles stirs dance with paranoia here, and she and Boots even let the song become completely stagnant, cloudy, strange when the beat falls away -- she even goes so far as to smirk that she's not gonna make any money off this. "Oh, well."
The song doesn't stop being magically shapeless when the chorus and hook arrive after three full minutes -- here comes "my wicked tongue," then the beat again -- it just turns into a metallic monster, stunningly vital and confident despite its madness, and such an impression is deliberate, underscored by how it loosens up just a bit at the end and starts to flash when she coos and drops her robotic fervor. It's a masterfully bizarre recording from one of the world's biggest stars, and to have it positioned not merely as the second song on a blockbuster album but placed between the populist, impression-making "Pretty Hurts" and the instant hit "Drunk in Love" can be regarded as a grand proclamation that Beyoncé Knowles, even though she's one of the key cultural figures of her era, is led by nothing save her own tastes and impulses -- which makes her potentially one of the defining American artists of the coming decade.
[This was released in December 2013, after I was too far into compiling my year-end '13 stuff to even listen to it more than once, which made things especially hard when I knew almost right away it would have made my already overcrowded top ten for last year. So for cataloging purposes, the incorrect year sits at the top of this post and it will be eligible for my lists and things at the end of 2014. If this drives you crazy, feel free to send harshly worded letters of complaint to my home.]