Album Review: Beyonce, ‘Beyonce’
In the lead-up to the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilian national soccer team, led by volatile dribbling wizard Garrincha, faced the Italian club team Fiorentina in an exhibition match. The eventual world champion Brazilians won 4-0, but it was the last of those four goals that ensured the match’s place in posterity. Late in the game, Garrincha received the ball downfield and dribbled effortlessly past three consecutive defenders and the hapless Italian goalkeeper, leaving nothing between him and an empty net. Though he could have casually walked the ball past the goal line, Garrincha seemed bored by the prospect, and instead stopped and waited for the nearest Italian defender to catch back up to him, just so he could have the pleasure of dribbling past him again before scoring.
Beyonce pulled off a similar coup late last Thursday night when she released a terrific self-titled “visual album” – containing 14 songs, each with an accompanying video – straight to iTunes with zero advance warning or fanfare. The record is expected to easily top the weekly album chart despite being released midway through the stanza, and according to Apple, the album had already sold more than 800,000 digital copies by Monday morning. Not only does “Beyonce” rank as the year’s most accomplished and engaging mainstream pop album by a rather laughable margin, but its calculatedly shrugged-off release strategy can’t help but read as an imperious kiss-off toward the singer’s competitors for the 2013 crown — Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and even her husband Jay Z — all of whom worked up gallons of sweat and employed every eyeball-grabbing trick in the book to move their product, only to be upstaged by Beyonce’s abrupt digital data-dump.
“I’ve been climbing up the walls, ’cause all this shit I hear is boring,” she sings on the album’s second track, by way of explanation. “All these record labels, boring.”
Of course, like Radiohead’s “name-your-price” release of “In Rainbows” in 2007, this is the sort of trick that can only be pulled off by an artist who has already spent decades tirelessly feeding the publicity machine, and it’s unlikely Beyonce’s December surprise will “change the music business” any more than Radiohead’s did. It’s also unlikely that Beyonce’s motivations were nearly as unsporting as Garrincha’s. Yet competition is Beyonce’s lifeblood, and coming off of the commercially disappointing “4,” it’s easy to see this as a gauntlet thrown down. Far more personal, confessional, and flat-out filthy than anything the singer has released in the past, “Beyonce” offers some striking windows into the star’s personal life, while audio archival snippets from her early years shuttling between beauty contests and kiddie singing competitions are sprinkled throughout, hinting at the lifetime of rigorously maintained perfection and pageantry to which much of this record is a reaction.
For all the power of her voice and otherworldliness of her physical beauty, Beyonce has rarely come across like a flesh-and-blood figure on record. Her fifth solo album goes to great lengths to correct this shortcoming, swapping out her signature inspirational bromides for genuine personal insight; her coy teases for forthright carnality. This is an album full of drunken kitchen hook-ups, Instagram-instigated suspicions, bouts of postpartum depression and sex-stained blouses — worlds away from the high-concept dissembling of “I Am…Sasha Fierce” or the soft-focus, self-directed documentary treatment she gave herself on this year’s HBO curio “Life Is But a Dream.”