Review Summary: hold on to me
when beyoncé unexpectedly releases a "personal album" in a year filled with questionable stabs at confessional records, what does it mean" when said album is an "immersive experience" comprising seventeen music videos, what does it mean" does it mean that she has succumbed to the myopic self-centeredness of unthinkably huge celebrity that her strange, solipsistic HBO special hinted at" does it mean that the so-called "immersive album" is going to be the future of popular music" does it mean that beyoncé is taking the spotlight away from independent artists who have been spontaneously releasing music onto soundcloud and bandcamp for years"
nah! it means that beyoncé released a record that feels truly personal and vulnerable. it means that beyoncé collaborated with a large cadre of directors to create a body of work that is visually stunning and emotionally resonant. beyoncé
is really fucking good, and while that's not "all that matters" -- that statement is nearly always a gross oversimplification -- it is what makes constantly returning to this curious album enjoyable and rewarding. the record sounds incredible, its amalgamation of styles impressively convincing. there's an alluring, cool sheen to this whole work that renders it effortlessly cohesive. but compartmentalize each song, and a whole collection of sounds reveals itself, its sum often less satisfying than the final mix. "pretty hurts" is the motivational pop that sia has been writing for years now -- and which has become rather rote at this point (mega-hits like "titanium" notwithstanding...or are they emblematic of that tiredness") -- but the song's production flourishes create nuance amid the bombast. "it's the soul that needs a surgery," beyoncé sings, further evincing her ability to take potentially trite lyrics and turn them into something affirming and/or beautiful. even ryan tedder's usual schlock is elevated in "xo" by a gorgeously imperfect vocal, cracks and gasps intact.
are these superficially "human" touches just window-dressing, carefully calibrated moments to make us, the audience, feel as if we are being honestly spoken to" maybe. if so, they're masterfully effective. the one-two punch of "heaven" and "blue" that ends the album is hugely cathartic, like an extended and necessary epilogue after the playful ferocity of "***flawless". following an acceptance of death with a celebration of life isn't innovative so much as logically powerful. it's rebirth after the colorful, multifaceted, complex life that was weaved in great detail before, a life of privilege ("haunted" is a welcome navigation of this) as well as the requisite career hard knocks (the aforementioned "***flawless" and "pretty hurts"). also: a life of really great sex.
that sexuality! it's messy, it's funny, it's hot as hell. "partition", "drunk in love", "blow", and "rocket" are all endlessly quotable -- and the internet has truly seen this to exhausted completion -- but they're hardly just sultry meme factories. (although "surfboard" certainly comes close to being one.) they're real! they feel so real! oh, sure, they read fantastically -- skittles, cherries, monica lewinsky, ...ass -- but they feel grounded and deeply felt. "partition" and "rocket", in particular, feel almost liberatory, in their luxuriance and luxuriousness. throughout, there's a mood of liberating honesty here that can be indelible and borderline uncomfortable in the same moment. "mine" is probably as exposed and honest as beyoncé has ever been on record; its delicate opening section is nothing short of sublime. the song hinges on knowing "who you belong to" -- "you're mine, all mine" -- presented simultaneously as an inevitability, a power play, a generous gesture of love.
indeed, at its dizzying zenith, beyoncé
is a loaded fusion of generosity and self-empowerment. or perhaps, more accurately, it finds self-empowerment in generosity. the video to "superpower", one of the many songs on this album that rewards repeated and close listening, is an understatedly moving enigma that imbues its simple refrains with stirring complexity. it's an endlessly attractive idea: "a subtle power / a tough love", as a unifying and collective force. love that extends from beyoncé to her partner, to destiny's child, to her collaborators, and maybe, just maybe
, to her audience. it's absolutely romantic, maybe even simplistic, but never, ever naïve. she's been. as it goes: "i thought the world would revolve / without us, without us, without us / but nothing i know could slow us down / couldn't slow us down."