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December 13, 2013 7:50 pm
Until its unannounced release on Friday, Beyoncé’s fifth album was beset by delays and rumours. Gossip suggested the singer had rejected 50 songs for it, nixing her label’s plans for a spring release, which would have coincided with her “Mrs Carter” world tour, and then an autumn appearance, when it would have gone head to head against new records from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
The album’s sudden arrival on iTunes therefore has a reckless quality, as though an exasperated Beyoncé has got fed up and decided to wash her hands of the whole project. “All the shit I do is boring/All these record labels boring,” she sings on “Haunted”. No doubt the “boring” record label would have loved to promote the album properly with advance publicity and a lead single; you know, all those dull things run-of-the-mill pop stars have to do. Has the self-styled “Queen Bey” suffered a regal fit of pique?
Well, sort of. But it’s not so much a diva tantrum as the logical consequence of hip-hop’s one-upmanship – which is to declare oneself bigger than the music industry itself. Thus the Canadian rapper Drake brags on his latest album of making radio-unfriendly songs with no choruses “but they still play it though”. And it’s why Beyoncé drawls on “Partition” that “Radio say speed it up, I just go slower”. Fittingly, the album’s least singalong moment, “Mine”, features a guest turn from Drake, rapping a monotonous refrain that grates against Beyoncé’s more expressive singing.
There are no obvious singles on Beyoncé – an imperious act in an age when album sales are tanking. What’s more, each track comes with its own video, an extraordinarily lavish package. “Probably won’t make no money of this, oh well,” the singer sighs. Yet the album doesn’t sound like an egotistical folly. Instead it comes across as a labour of love.
Marriage is a central theme, from the unabashed eroticism of “Blow” to the gnawing doubts of “Jealous”. Jay-Z – Beyoncé’s husband – turns up on “Drunk in Love” amid thumping bass and a mood of carnal delirium, making a disturbing self-comparison to rapist Mike Tyson and wife-beater Ike Turner. But his role is paralleled, even cancelled out, by an appearance from Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, delivering a speech about feminism on “Flawless” in which Beyoncé demands, over a chopped-up Jay-Z sample: “Don’t think I’m just his little wife”.
The messages are mixed and so is the music. “No Angel” is breathily voiced indie-R&B of a downtown variety that Beyoncé’s little sister Solange might make. Meanwhile “Jealous” is a conventional power ballad like those that have made Beyoncé’s previous albums uneven. This one continues the pattern, but its unevenness results from an intriguing dynamic – that between invincibility and vulnerability, the latter register one that Beyoncé has never convincingly pulled off until now.
‘Beyoncé’ is released by Columbia
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