Given that this year brought us many exciting debuts, alongside Yeezus, Overgrown and I’ll grudgingly say Magna Carta, it’s certainly been a huge challenge to stand out in 2013. Fortunately, this is a task which means absolutely nothing to King Bey. On the 13th of December, she sent the internet into frenzy by releasing a secret self-titled visual album, complete with 17 videos. Lauren Zuniga once said in a poem that hearing the word hetero-normative was like being handed a corkscrew after years of opening the bottle with teeth; BEYONCÉ is my corkscrew, as a feminist and as a lover of music.
The album starts out with ‘Pretty Hurts’, a beautiful treatise on the dark underbelly of a societal obsession with aesthetic beauty as a point of intersection for race, gender and class. Pageant contestants don sashes representing various ‘ghettos’ around the US while Beyoncé laments the commodification of beauty and the internalised double standards which perpetuate insecurities. This sets the autobiographical tone of an album which brings the world the Beyoncé of her summer documentary, ‘Life is but a Dream’, who is increasingly keen to explore her artistic freedom.
All the hallmarks of the Beyoncé that we know and love are present. There’s a mix of the thumping sub-bass beats and haunting refrains, reminiscent of Sasha Fierce’s I Am…, all packaged in a minimalist masterpiece. There are the trademark Beyoncé dance routines. Moreover, anybody who’s conversant in Bey will know that she doesn’t shy away from experimenting with scales as she does with awe-inspiring results in the bridge of ‘Rocket’ (it definitely needed a mention).
Beyoncé isn’t kidding when she calls the album visual; the story of the music is inextricably linked with the videos. Moving beyond the tendency to violently clear tables and shelves of anything which seems vaguely organised, the videos provide a subtext to lyrics which may be lost on cursory listeners. They also make the album exactly what it should be every time you listen to it: an event.
Beyoncé deals with themes which resonate with women across the world; the typical love, heartbreak and motherhood are there, but more importantly she grapples with self-expression, sexuality and gender. In ‘Ghost’, she talks about her boredom with the mechanical nature of what music has become while completely abandoning traditional form and delivering a stream of consciousness, something which might seem at home on a TV on the Radio record. In ‘Blow’, ‘Haunted’ and four other songs, she deals explicitly with sexuality, a stark contrast to the suppression of female pleasure in popular culture. The pink riddle works well to shred any expectations of coyness and timidity very early on. The sample in ‘Partition’ – from a French version of the cult classic The Big Lebowski – ends with a line which translates to “Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love”.
Herein lays the crux of this album. In an interview with GQ, Beyoncé declared herself a feminist, opening a debate which was deeply critical of her ‘brand’ of feminism. This is Bey’s answer to that response. ‘***Flawless’, which is definitely a standout track, samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on why everybody should be a feminist. There’s a detailed explanation of the means by which the gender role ascribed to women are necessarily proscriptive and Beyoncé is firm in pointing out that motherhood does not define her entire identity as being just a wife.
BEYONCÉ bridges the artistic ingenuity of Beyoncé with a critique of society which hits home for most of us. The music is moving, reflective and confrontational all at once. Is it any wonder that in less than three days it broke the iTunes record for most albums sold in the first week? Having listened to this album compulsively since I got it, I’m sure of two things: one, 2013 has been a turning point for popular music. Two, Queen Bey still has it.