You know Beyoncé as a feminist pop culture icon with a great marketing strategy. But she's also a great artist. A look at how Beyoncé stacks up in her catalog.
Written by Tim Finney (@skykicking).
R&B makes a welcome home for big voices, but what does it mean to be "big"?
Clearly, it's not just about hitting the high notes, as any close listen to Whitney's "I Have Nothing" makes plain: the diva also needs to exercise razor sharp restraint and control, to demonstrate her disciplined command over her own impulses. When Whitney declares "I won't hold it back again, this passion inside," her performance imagines a surge of intensity behind the floodwall of her own technique, climaxing in a chorus in which she unlooses the full force of her feeling without restraint.
Such control comes with its own baggage. The singer has at her command an entire orchestra of her own emotions, from trembling desire to aching loss, ready to be deployed and integrated into a majestic whole. Arguably too integrated, at times: since at least the mid-'80s, R&B's finest anthems frequently have been talking cures, offering the promise of realizing every impulse in its rightful place. This is the double-edged sword which "I Have Nothing" exemplifies: while Whitney's performance flawlessly encapsulates the song's message of loss-of-self in love, the perfect unity of message and delivery implies a completeness of ego which the song's lyrics disavow.
No popular singer is doing more with vocals than Beyoncé is today.
Those skeptical of contemporary R&B usually shake their heads at such self-awareness, preferring the seemingly unmediated, ragged soulfulness of the singer who appears not to know exactly what it is they are unleashing. This is a false dichotomy, of course: to a large extent the story of vocals (and especially female vocals) in modern R&B is one of striving to find ways to use technique to suggest its absence, to perform the role of the diva so well that it ceases to seem like a performance. It's this striving that Beyoncé makes the central theme of her fifth, self-titled album, unveiled to the world in a surprise internet-only release last week. Much of the chatter around Beyoncé to date has focused on its marketing and release strategy, but as a body of work the album is more fascinating for how it seeks to come to terms with every facet of the singer's career to date, and, more broadly, with the challenges and rewards of R&B's obsession with vocal technique.
Beyoncé has always proudly repped for R&B's tradition of command-and-control emoting, executing sharp turns from shouts to whispers with surgical precision. Maybe it's this perfect professionalism—together with her pop success, celebrity marriage and general air of thoroughly winning at life—that makes her vocal performances easy to pass over without comment when we talk about Beyoncé. Or maybe it's that Beyoncé is so big that she's long since ceased to be considered an "R&B artist". As Katy Perry's success proves, for today's pop star a good singing voice is no more than one selling point amongst many, and not even a necessary one. Either way, the relative lack of attention paid to Beyoncé's singing is ironic, given that no popular singer is doing more with vocals than she is today.
From the start, Beyoncé's work has been characterised by thoughtful, expressive singing (even on second-rate material, most notably the soft-focus balladry that clotted up the back half of her debut, Dangerously in Love). But from her second album onwards, she has seemed increasingly discontent with the prospect of simply servicing the requirements of her chosen genre through appropriate vocalising. That album—the rowdy, party-centric B'Day—was chock-full of vocal excess, every song filled-to-bursting with growls and hollers (most memorably on the nearly-unhinged "Ring the Alarm") that make the album as exhausting for the listeners as it is rewarding, the singer almost claustrophobically present in every moment. It was, for better and worse, too R&B, pushing each performance to athletic extremes that fall just short of the cartoonish.
The uneven follow-up I Am… Sasha Fierce U-turned on B'Day's sense of unity with a series of carefully staged set pieces, from sweetly earnest balladry ("Broken Hearted Girl") to some of the vocalist's most guttural, gutter-al performances to date (in particular the raucous "Diva"). The decision to split the album along this stylistic faultline, however cynically minded towards multiple-market saturation it might have been, also expressed a certain restlessness with the confines of genre. Her response was to inhabit as many stylistic twists as possible; the flaw in the plan was that too many of these twists (in particular on the ballad-heavy disc I Am…) were twists into performative conservatism.
Beyoncé offered a corrective with 2011's 4, which synthesised both prior albums' impulses into a consistent celebration of her capacity to bring it to the table, regardless of the particular style inhabited: the "it" in question being an unrivalled combination of intensity and craft-as-naturalism: witness how "Love On Top" captures so "effortlessly" the thrill of love with an astonishing run of chorus key changes. On 4, Beyoncé sounded once again fully reconciled to a host genre which she wore not as a costume, but as an extension of her vocal persona, confident that she could expand the fabric of her material to match her ambitions through sheer effort and dexterity.
If the album title is apt, it's less because the songs are more autobiographical this time (though frequently they are), than because Beyoncé dominates the material more thoroughly than ever before.
On Beyoncé, the singer turns the screw yet again, de-emphasising the demands of genre, and placing the existing idiosyncrasies of her singing style (or styles) under a microscope, blowing them up to a large scale until they become the form within which she operates. The two-songs-in-one "Yoncé"/"Partition" exemplifies this trick, offering an extended meditation on trash-talking swagger (in two different characters) that takes on the feel of an epic long before it passes the five minute mark. If the album title is apt, it's less because the songs are more autobiographical this time (though frequently they are), than because Beyoncé dominates the material more thoroughly than ever before. If 4 found the singer able to use her talent to bring a fresh vividness and intensity to familiar R&B manoeuvrers, its follow-up demands that those maneuvers subordinate themselves to the singer's charisma.
Or perhaps that should be charismas, plural, given the fact that you'd need a detailed chart to map out the assortment of characters and dialects on display here, from the intoxicating-asthmatic rasp of "No Angel" to the muscular snarls of "Flawless" to the serenity of "Blue" (that rarity, a love song to a baby that escapes being cloying). This irreducible surplus of personality is a novelty within today's pop world, where the carnivalesque spectacle is employed mainly to complement an otherwise straightforward and relatable persona.
By contrast, even when Beyoncé seems to be laying herself bare, she's really offering a studied simulation of the confessional: throughout Beyoncé, she draws for a conversational, talk-over-the-beat vocal style whenever she wants to convey unmediated spontaneity or truth-telling, from the bleary reverie of "Drunk In Love": "We woke up in the kitchen saying 'How the hell did this shit happen?' Oh baby…" to the rueful admission of "Jealous": "I know that I'm being hateful but that ain't nothin'." It is, of course, all hyper-mediated. But we should applaud Beyoncé for giving every fuck about how to come across as if she gives none, for being so intimately aware of how to deploy R&B's armory of mannerisms to capture such finely tuned emotional nuances through subtle shifts of inflection.
In each pose, the singer inhabits her character absolutely, frequently crowding out song structure in the process. Even the relatively classicist, D'Angelo-esque sex romp slow jam "Rocket" gradually disintegrates into a loosely interwoven patchwork of faux-improvised exclamations and exhalations as Beyoncé determinedly roots out every possible voluptuous vocal angle on the song's preoccupations. More dramatically, "Ghost" is a collision of opposites, ambient wash and apocalyptic dubstep percussion, enervated spoken word and eerie high vocal loops, less a song than a transfixing eye-hole glimpse into another, entirely separate world the singer could inhabit if she chose. "Ghost" subsides into "Haunted," by turns languorously undersung and operatic, with contemplative piano chords ambushed by an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of rhythmic effects.
In each pose, the singer inhabits her character absolutely.
Piano is a recurrent feature on the album, used to simulate a self-reflexive tone fully as much as Beyoncé's intermittent run-on vocals. But it's always quickly subsumed within glancing, beat-heavy arrangements, as if to prove that such insight can be only fleeting at best. The surround-sound modernity of these topographical arrangements recalls Diddy and Dirty Money's Last Train To Paris, except that the sonics tend to wind themselves around Beyoncé's proffered characters with a narrative hyper-intensity, mutating in tandem with the singer's shifting vocal lines. In such moments the album, while never ostentatiously seeking to abandon genre convention, nonetheless feels perverse, bent out of shape and top-heavy with the weight of its own character.
The occasional well-intentioned backwards step (the heavy-handed future concert staple "Pretty Hurts") or deftly executed sop to someone else's idea of a good time (the filthy but frothy disco ditty "Blow") keep the album from being the perfect polymorphous riot it sometimes hints at. But Beyoncé's point is well made even as she sinuously drifts back towards common ground: "XO" offers a wide-screen power-ballad reminiscent of "Halo," only crossed with a celebratory, bumping Caribbean groove. And as if similarly inspired by Jamaican greats like Tanya Stephens, Beyoncé offers the kind of sky-scraping chorus she has otherwise studiously avoided here, in an ever-so-subtly exhausted, depleted throaty croak that only she could concoct—like she's singing the song at the end of a spiritual marathon that she ran alongside you. Did she really? Those beholden to the jargon of authenticity can debate the evidence, while she invents you and her and the marathon and the runners all of out nothing but her own voice and force of persuasion. That's big.