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2013 has been a year of overblown promotional album roll-outs. Everyone from Kanye West and Jay Z to Daft Punk and Arcade Fire tried some novel new strategy to launch their new music into the universe. And right before its end (the year's end, not the universe's... we hope) the Queen, the King, Beyoncé threw both of her middle fingers up and dropped a brand new self-titled album out of thin air—at midnight, just in time to keep music writers up all night listening.
Beyoncé is a lot of things. It's an audio album with a longer, visual component. It's her most layered effort to date, with lyrics tackling motherhood, marriage, sexuality and self-empowerment. It's also her most sonically daring, gleaning influence from everything from Prince, David Bowie, Madonna, and The Velvet Rope.
Here, we take apart the audio portion of Beyoncé track-by-track.
"Pretty Hurts" What sounds like a classic Beyoncé female empowerment ballad cuts even deeper. Body image politics are not new to pop music (Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful"; Lily Allen's vitriolic "Hard Out Here"), but Bey lays out more of the minutia that effects all women ("blonde hair, flat chest/TV says bigger is better/South Beach, sugar-free/Vogue says, thinner is better"). The reveal that Tina Knowles was harder on B than we knew ("Mama said, 'you're a pretty girl/what's in your head doesn't matter'") drives the dejection even deeper. But it also functions as a preamble for an album about body-positivity and self-acceptance.
"Haunted" Half-penned by mystery-man writer and producer Boots, "Haunted" is part take-down of the music industry's failure to take risks, the sheep-like following of major stars paving the way. And then it turns into Bey's own, but more soulful, "Justify My Love." Lyrics like "kiss, bite, foreplay" might be standard salaciousness in R&B, but when Bey straight-up demands to be slapped (!), man, that makes "I'm In It" sound a little prude.
"Drunk In Love" f/ Jay Z They've been "Crazy in Love," but that euphoria has matured into woozy familiarity. As Bey continues to shed her conservative skin—we see those red cup pictures—she's offered up a view into her and her husband's playful, boozy intimacy. But that "I'm Ike/Turner, turn up" lyric has got to go, Jay. There are literally hundreds of other signifiers to use that don't invoke one of music's most harrowing instances spousal abuse. And you're vegan now, so you have vegetables at your disposal. How about, "I like/Turnips, turn up!"
"Blow" With the widespread disappointment that greeted The 20/20 Experience, it seemed like Justin Timberlake and Timbaland might have lost their ability to make their distinctive, infectious love-pop. "Blow" says otherwise. The two have reinvigorated the overused private-parts-as-candy trope by writing one of Bey's friskiest songs ever. Add some Pharrell production, which finds him ditching the skateboard for roller skates, and you have one of the smoothest pieces of filth of the year.
"No Angel" This is one of the darker bits of the album. Like an apparition singing over a lost Bowie-Prince collaboration, Bey delves how a couple's respective internal messiness can bring them closer together. Here, she employed one of baby sis Solange's buddies, Caroline Polachek of the band Chairlift, to write and produce. We can only hope this means potential live covers of the band's girl group-gleaned "Met Before."
"Partition" This is all you need to know: "Driver, roll up the partition, please/I don't need you seeing Yoncé on her knees/It took 45 minutes to get all dressed up/We ain't even gonna make it to this club/My mascara running, red lipstick smudged...He popped all my buttons/And he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinsky'd all on my gown."
"Jealous" Here's where Beyoncé takes a turn from its risqué center towards its softer side. This track is the grown-up sequel to "Freakum Dress." But instead of a flirty night out aiming to make your lover jealous, it's downtrodden and about reconnecting with old people in your life while combating your own jealousy.
"Rocket" All right, all right. Maybe we haven't left behind the toothsome aspect of the album, as Beyoncé opens up this song with the line, "Let me put this ass on you/and show you how I feel." So we've gotten back to the salacious side, but this is more sultry than the previous songs. Taking cues from D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," almost to the point of pop-facsimile, "Rocket" guides the album toward romance, empowerment, and motherhood.
"Mine" f/ Drake If you've ever wondered what it would sound like if Drake got on his Terius Nash and started writing songs for female singers, "Mine" is probably exactly what it would sound like. There's marital soul-searching. There's post-pregnancy paranoia. There's suppression of the emotional "big deals" for monetary "big deals." And it's devoid of the yacht rock vibes of Drake's other "good girl" song of the year, giving it extra power.
"XO" We've arrived at the album's romantic conclusion. "XO" is the most saccharine offering on the album. But after so much syrupy sexuality, it comes off a bit mawkish. At least it's just a tiny, unoffensive rainbow before a storm of self-love. It's probably the only skippable track on the album, unless sappy gang vocals are your thing.
"***Flawless" f/ Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche "Bow Down," the remix. After so many "Beyoncé Is Not A Feminist" think pieces after the original dropped back in March, Bey changes the narrative. By adding samples of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's TED Talk "We Should All Be Feminists." It features Adiche speaking on the forced aspirations of marriage onto women, but not onto men. The samples change the meaning of B's lines like "This my shit" from an indictment of her peers to an ownership of her own work.
"Superpower" f/ Frank Ocean Motown as interpreted through Frankie's intricate lens. And like a lot of what he writes, the lyrics are embedded with more meaning than can be read on the surface. What sounds like a love song is Beyoncé taking ownership of her politics and identity. It's serene and strong.
"Heaven" This one stings. After the birth of their daughter Blue Ivy, Jay released one-off single "Glory" about her. It revealed that Beyoncé had previously miscarried. Here, B expresses her love and sorrow for her unborn child. She discloses her coping mechanism, including using humor to mask her pain. Its "Heaven couldn't wait for you" chorus is both poetic and truly heartbreaking.
"Blue" f/ Blue Ivy There are layers to "Blue." It's more than just an uplifting moment after the despair of "Heaven." By ending the the audio album with a song about her dedication to her daughter, she's completely flipped the opening lyrics of "Pretty Hurts." There's no demand to adhere to beauty standards. It's the most straightforward expression of love on an album filled with the emotional complexities. It smashes the notion that "what's in [her] head doesn't matter." She has a lot in there and has delivered it in a tangled, lush package.