The production of the record, firmly in that Weeknd and Frank Ocean world of dark, post-dubstep tinted future R&B, is revolutionary really only because it’s Beyonce, one of the biggest stars in the world, employing it, kissing goodbye to sonic safety and guaranteed hits. There are no real bangers here, but for once that’s not a disappointment cushioned by wafty ballads. Instead the low-key, moody production throws the spotlight on the words and the images brought to play by Beyonce as serious album artist, encompassing bulimia, post-natal depression, the fears and insecurities of marriage and motherhood, and lots and lots of sex.
It seems like she’s got off to an inauspicious start with ‘Pretty Hurts’, in which she appears to fall victim to the Aguilera Principle, in which an eye-meltingly beautiful celebrity becomes convinced they can relate to the body image issues of the masses. She fails to understand that the result comes off like a City banker lecturing you on the need for spiritual rather than material wealth. “It’s the soul that needs the surgery”? Do bugger off, Beyonce. Ah, but hold on! The synth-stabbed, crisp clarity of the track is miles better than the wallowy shlock such sentiments often inspire, but it’s the accompanying video that saves the day, in which Beyonce primps and preens for a beauty pageant (hosted, brilliantly, by Harvey Keitel). Asked as to her aspirations in life, she chokes onstage as she comes to an epiphany and eventually stumbles out the answer: “to be happy”. It’s more affecting than it sounds on paper, and the moment where she smashes seven shades of shit out of all her trophies is genuinely powerful. Its power is buttressed rather than undermined by its ferocious flipside, the track previously known as ‘Bow Down’, now beefed up and renamed ‘Flawless’. Its video finds Beyonce flaunting her supremacy, crowing defiantly “I woke up like this / We flawless… ladies, tell ‘em” while pulling comically manic faces, grabbing some scalding hair-irons of the beauty standard in her fists and owning what she’s earned. The clip is bookended by footage of a very young Beyonce and her first band, Girl’s Tyme, on a musical talent show – she got where she is by working hard. Contradictory? Possibly. Brilliant? Most definitely. The sample of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking on the socialisation of girls at a TED talk spells it out in giant letters for the confused: YES OF COURSE I AM A FEMINIST, YOU IDIOT, while the harsh, grating and rampant production underlines the point with vehemence.
Talking of rampant, this is also Beyonce’s frankest and raunchiest album. She’s definitely keen to demonstrate that a married mother is still very much the “sexual being” which Adichie argues girls are encouraged not to be, from rolling around the kitchen floor with Jay-Z on ‘Drunk In Love’, to the sonorous come-on and chilly charged beats of ‘Haunted’: “my wicked tongue… where will it be?”, not to mention the “Monica Lewinsky’d” gown in the back of that limo in ‘Partition’. Most gleefully brazen of all, though, is the soft-focus disco-tinged romp ‘Blow’, an ode to… well, she’s not talking about gardening or bakery when she says “I can’t wait for you to come home so you can turn that cherry out”, let’s put it that way.
Some joyous shagging songs, though, are paltry excitement beside that of seeing an artist of such fame, long held as iconic without enough genuinely exciting music to back it up, reach her full throttle of awesomeness. The video for ‘Ghost’ sums it up best,
Beyonce glaring and writhing defiantly as she speak-sings “I’m climbing up the wall ’cause all the shit I hear is boring/All the shit I do is boring/All these record labels boring”. Let’s hope Beyonce keeps finding new ways to amuse herself – there could be some very interesting times ahead. — Emily Mackay, NME