Surprise! You sleep, Beyoncé grinds. Last night on iTunes, the 32-year-old pop superstar released her strongest album in seven years without anyone having any idea it was coming, Santa style. The self-titled Beyoncé comes bundled with 17 videos from directors Hype Williams, Jonas Åkerlund, Terry Richardson and more. (Cameos in these include actor Harvey Keitel, sister Solange, models Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman, Kelly Rowland, Jay Z, baby Blue Ivy and many others.) Many critics and Beyhive diehards have considered Miss Carter the new millennial Michael Jackson for a while now. And though she always seems to shoulder everything without breaking a sweat, her 4 album from two years back shared more in common with M.J.’s unimpressive Invincible than Thriller.
Turns out, this Houston rocket was just a little creatively bored. “I’m climbing up the walls ’cause all the sh*t I hear is boring/All the sh*t I do is boring/All these record labels boring,” she spits spoken-word style on “Haunted.” Many Beyoncé tracks (“Haunted” included) open with samples of childhood highs that recall the promo picture of her “Bow Down” single: tweenage Bey surrounded by dozens of trophies. But here when she says “perfection is so…,” you can almost hear the shrug in her shoulders. And when she starts to chant repeatedly about “people working nine-to-five just to stay alive” and wondering “how come,” she connects the boredom of mega-stardom to the everyday world-weariness we’re all used to.
Beyoncé mainly features futuristic, sometimes tribal, mid-tempo tracks from songwriters and producers Timbaland, Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, The-Dream, Hit-Boy and others. Many songs shift midway through, abandoning original ideas for altogether different grooves like Donna Summer disco classics of old or Timberlake’s recent 20/20 Experience records. Sex is blatantly on the table too, in a way that may put Miss Carter’s sterling role model reputation at risk. Tsk, tsk.
“Blow” follows the Jay Z collaboration “Drunk in Love,” but it’s not another drug metaphor (i.e., cocaine instead of alcohol). Over the most M.J.-breezy pop on the whole album, Beyoncé croons, “Can you lick the Skittles?/It’s the sweetest in the middle/Pink is the flavor/Solve the riddle.” By the end, she starts pleading, “I want you to turn that cherry out.” Squarely in sex kitten Janet Jackson or Madonna territory, it’s not exactly for the Girl Scouts. Then the French sweet nothings start.
But “Blow” isn’t alone. “Partition” makes mention of a lover who “Monica Lewinskyed all on my gown” in a limousine. But before she even makes that point, she spills lyrics over Timbaland’s deep Roland 808-reminiscent bass drums in a confident flow expected of someone who sleeps with Shawn Carter on a nightly basis. As a singing rapper, she’s still way more precious than ferocious. But lines like “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker/Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor” will make listeners smile. (Beyoncé won’t battle Nicki Minaj anytime soon; Janelle Monáe maybe.)
Later, Beyoncé asks her love to “rock it till water falls” on “Rocket.” Timbaland’s slinky-smooth, Prince-like groove dominates as Beyoncé purrs come-ons like “reach into the bottom of my fountain” and “whatcha gonna do with all this ass all up in your face?” The pop and hiss of old-school vinyl can literally be heard right before the bridge begins. It’s the elegant sexiness of a good girl going bad, or more accurately, role-playing badness. “Rocket” is a highlight on an album full of more stellar moments than anything she’s done since 2006’s B’Day.
Jay Z, Drake, Frank Ocean and, most surprisingly, Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie guest appear all over the record’s 14 tracks. Jay Z emcees about sliding panties to the side on “Drunk in Love” before segueing into an intoxicated Ike Turner “eat the cake, Anna Mae” rant. “Mine,” like many Beyoncé grooves, qualifies as moody, and Drake sounds right at home. Coming in like poet Ursula Rucker closing out a Roots album, Nigerian novelist Adichie talks a lot of feminism and girl power on “***Flawless.” (Yes, asterisks.) But the strongest collab by far is the Frank Ocean gem, “Superpower.”
Beyoncé believes being in a relationship trumps the single life, or to quote her directly, “When the palm of my two hands hold each other/That feels different/From when your hands are in mine.” And that’s fine. But for “Superpower,” producer Pharrell Williams brings Ocean’s top-flight Channel Orange atmospherics to bear. There are all kinds of beautiful “do do do do do”s and rolling-drum intros to the verses. And before the end, you’ve programmed their moving ballad in a repeat-forever loop. You’ll welcome the rest of Beyoncé back sometime around Christmas before you shake the “Superpower” hypnotics (especially once you start gorging on the Warriors-looking video, guesting Destiny’s Child and other surprises).
So hold all those “best of” lists. Beyoncé just dropped a secret, bombshell comeback album with two weeks to go before 2014. Where pop stars are concerned, Beyoncé easily bests the latest from both Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, rivaling Justin Timberlake with a fraction of the media blitz (so far). Now that’s a superpower.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.