Todd Takes On… Yoncé

It’s the battle of apostrophes versus accent agous, y’all.

It has taken me all of these days since Ms. Beyoné Giselle Knowles-Carter decided to drop her “visual album” on us. While I think it’s audacious as hell act that I have to applaud, I have to agree with my dear friend Andrea Swanson wrote for The Current; only someone in her position and her clout could pull this off. Audacious? Of course, and brava to her and her colleagues for keeping this on lock till it dropped on Friday.  Ground Breaking? Not really in the fact that, again, she is one of the few artists that has the clout to pull this off.

But is it any good? Well we have to look at it two way; the album itself, and then the 17 videos that make up the “visual album.”

Right then: Album First.

I’m of two minds on this album. First off, it’s the rawest album that she has put out in her solo career, in terms of sound and content. It’s grittier in sound and tone (and I mean that as a compliment: it’s refreshing to see her less concerned about sounding so perfect, even though are times that she sounds like she’s undersinging). It’s also her most adventurous going from chilly electro to full on disco to gangster (for her). And it says something that her collaborators are all on their A game with some surprising choices from duetting with Drake (on the deliciously chilly “Mine”) to Frank Ocean (on the fantastic “Superpower”, which makes you want more of these two together because they have that same sonic electrical charge I get when I hear Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – and yes Mr. Ocean would be Miss Terrell in this case) to go along with those with her husband and daughter.

As for the content: I have absolutely no problem with her getting her freak on, especially because she does it in a way that’s artful and playful. While “Drunk In Love” is explicit about the love she and Jay-Z have it’s only a so-so track (even though you can tell the two of them are having a blast together). Stronger by far are the delicious retro-disco beat of “Blow” and the slinkiness of “Partition” which extol the virtues of cunnilingus and sex in the limousine respectively, while “Rocket” might just be the female equivalent of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Even better is when she steps away from the perfectness of her life in “Jealous” and “Mine” which hint at some of the strife she has gone through and the heartbreaking “Heaven” about her child miscarrage; both of which allow her a rawness of delivery that we haven’t seen from her in a while.

If there’s any… I don’t want to say misstep because it all works as a piece when taken in one fell swoop (especially the “visual album” – more on that in a moment), but there is a slight disconnect when examining two of the standout tracks. “***Flawless” is a rallying anthem of accepting yourself complete with the meme-worthy chorus..

and a sample from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists.

While I love the message of the song (and I really love the fact that she sampled Ms. Adichie’s speech), it suffers from the same issue I had with Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way;” it’s easy to accept yourself and preach self love when you look like Bey or Gaga. This also ties into another standout on Beyoncé’s album, the fantastic “Pretty Hurts.” While she sings lyrics like “perfection is a disease of a nation” and taking on the notion of being “pretty” she ends the song on a really surprising note:
When you’re alone all by yourself
And you’re lying in your bed
Reflection stares right into you
Are you happy with yourself?
It’s just a way to masquerade
The illusion has been shed
Are you happy with yourself?
It’s hard to reconcile the woman who preaches self love to the woman who knows that she’s in a place to preach self love because she is coming from a place of societal beauty. This isn’t meant to be a take down; both songs are quite brilliant (especially “Pretty Hurts” which she co-wrote with Sia and is the one track that shows off the majesty of her voice) but it does raise an interesting question. Again this isn’t meant to be a takedown, because I can easily declare this as her best solo album.
And now… The Visual Album
Frankly, the best way to enjoy the album is to watch all of the videos in sequential order, back to back, and let the sum total effect wash over you. Each video is loaded with haunting images (for “Mine” she evokes some of the classical statue that Jay-Z referenced on Magna Carta Holy Grail). She even manages pay a few surprising nods and winks from Madonna (specifically “Justify My Love” in “Haunted”) to Marilyn Monroe (specifically The Prince And The Showgirl in “Partition”) to George Michael (in “Yoncé” she pulls the trick that George Michael did in “Freedom 90” by having the lyrics delivered by a trio of models – in this case Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and Joan Smalls who has drag-queen lip syncing skills). Frankly the best way to experience the album is to watch all the videos, in order, in one fell swoop.
UPDATE: My l’étoile colleague Jon Hunt posed his review, and I agree with most of it.

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