Written by | Kenneth D. Capers
On Thursday, March 27th, while avidly watching the latest scintillating episode of Scandal along with a whole horde of other Gladiators here in the states, Beyoncé presumably reposed somewhere in a posh hotel suite in Lisbon, Spain relishing the accomplishment of finishing the last show of her year-long concert tour to sold-out arenas worldwide.
And what a year it has been for Mrs. Carter. In that same span of time, while Sasha Fierce took center stage at 132 shows, Bey co-wrote, collaborated, recorded and executive produced a whole catalogue of new raunchy, sexy, reflective, danceable, haunting and autobiographic music, plus clandestinely filmed 15 provocative music videos. And to add insult to injury for those who want her to permanently go sit down, the Texas tornado capped it off with a bonus video, “Grown Woman.” Just in case anyone had any doubt about how Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter identifies herself, she responds “I’m a grown woman and can do whatever I want.” So, there.
In those same 12 months, the hardest working woman in the music business also squeezed in a half-time Superbowl performance.
Apparently, multi-tasking is just how the Queen Bey rolls. She juggles young motherhood (as Bey notes, at the beginning of this gauntlet marathon of a year, Blue Ivy wasn’t walking yet), has epic marathon sex with her fellow superstar husband (I wonder did they ever wake up the baby?) and makes history releasing a hybrid visual album without the traditional publicity fanfare, meaning no prerequisite and prolonged media blitz to promote the project and torture anyone not living under a rock (side-eye Katy Perry).
Since the latest work, Beyoncé, hit iTunes in December, there has been a media furor, marked by platinum sales, accolades (talented, brilliant, empowering role model – recall Michelle Obama complimented her as such for daughters Sasha and Malia) and scorching criticism (narcissistic, faux feminist, and materialistic hack). It seems no middle ground exists. Hate her or love her.
Whatever the case, the reactions to Beyoncé are often just as interesting as she is herself. Undoubtedly the album, Beyoncé, will be a defining moment in her career, marking her growth as an artist and a woman, finding that one strong voice and infusing it completely into the music. Of all her releases, this eponymous masterpiece is a diary and a love letter (XO) to the fans and heated advice to her haters (Flawless) who suggest she is controlled and a puppet of Jay-Z and the music industry as well as a bad role model who needs to put some clothes on.
In reviewing the album and the videos, which I found are not one and the same thing at all, the evocative video images threaten to overpower the songs’ craftsmanship. The complex layering of the music ranges from nasty, head nodding bass lines that drive the musical narrative to light haunting motif, and always Bey’s lyrical delivery, soft and hard, strong and quiet, soaring and light. To do full service to this experimental and visually exhaustive album (which I doubt any other artist has the clout, imagination, or finances to do), this review follows suit and operates as an album compendium, exploring at length and exhaustively every nook and cranny of Beyoncé.
While informing us she’s a sexual being, drunk in love, and a grown woman, Bey successfully manages a fine balancing act. Between unapologetically doing her seductress/temptress act (which we all know so well already) showcasing her voluptuous Sophia Loren/Raquel Welch-like curves, the singing beauty also exposes her fresh faced cover girl ingénue self, sometimes hidden underneath the makeup and stage trappings. Sure, Beyoncé can work the pole and do moves strippers would envy. At the same time, the usually private person reveals herself as an approachable woman who feels like a friend. The thematic thread which holds this project together is the conflict of the perceived exterior versus the actual interior self.
Underneath the sex kitten image, the come hither lyrics and rife sexual metaphors, Beyoncé lyrically dismisses materialism, perfection and beauty in favor of imperfection and realness. That stance may be hard for critics to swallow since so much of Beyoncé’s work here is sexually provocative, but her musical response rejects that the two are mutually exclusive and unable to co-exist. Her sexualized self exists as one piece in a fuller spectrum of identities and roles, she, and by extension all women, inhabit.
As a video artist, Bey navigates a tight rope gracefully in this project with no net below — going all in — critics be damned, with some substantive awareness of the politics of representation. Arguably her brand of feminism and female empowerment isn’t academic feminists’ flavor. However, if feminism allows everyone a voice, surely a recording artist isn’t co-opting the movement or derailing it. Even if Bey’s thoughts are naïve starter-kit feminism, I say give her time. She strikes me as inquisitive and curious about the world and eager to learn.
(Somebody buy her a collection of bell hooks books. I think she’d read them.)
At her core, I think Bey is growing but also stubborn. Beyoncé’s image, for some, is reduced to her voluptuous, often scantily clad body. And for those choices, critics have aggressively deemed her an empty-headed, overexposed, sexualized object complicit in her commodification. Bey, rather than apologize for it, has in some ways dug her heels in, going further erotically in Beyoncé than she ever had before – (Blow, Partition, Rocket, Drunk in Love).
Ultimately, beauty operates like a lightning rod and Beyoncé is a prime example. On the one hand, traditionally ‘beautiful’ translates as perfection (whether self-proclaimed or not) and results in those who worship and glorify it. On the other, ‘pretty’ hurts and often warps into hatred of those who supposedly possess it, not to mention the self -loathing from those who covet it. In penning and choosing these songs, it’s clear Bey thinks a lot about these issues.
Beyoncé is her lyrical sing along interpretation of all her facets and faces, perfectly made up or scrubbed fresh and make-up free.
The song/ In this quiet anthem and girl empowerment song the hook is “perfection is the disease of a nation/pretty hurts, an infection – trying to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see/it’s the soul that needs a surgery.” The song begins a capella as a quiet reflection, climaxes at angry denunciation and ends in quiet affirmation.
The video/ The video manages to be eye candy but soulful reflection, as Ms. Third Ward does some pretty good acting as confused beauty pageant contestant, showing her uncertainty and isolation. The visuals provide the narrative thread of the naïve applicant trying to find her way in a hostile, soul-killing setting of backstage diva histrionics, anorexia, and plastic surgery. The best moment happens when the pageant MC (a Harvey Keitel cameo) asks the nervous contestant, “What is your aspiration in life?” Her hesitant but thoughtful answer, “Wow, that’s a good question…my aspiration in life would be to be happy.”
Song &Video/ This entry is really a prelude to “Haunted” and is not listed on the album as a separate song, but has its own video which seamlessly segues into “Haunted.” Beyoncé is face forward in the camera, chanting to a mechanical beat with a ghostly hook “what goes up, goes around,” leading to more intense and foreboding images of Beyoncé, crouched, kneeling and staring through the lens at the viewer matched by music equally and increasingly insistent and disturbing.
The song/ Pulsating and atmospheric, this song is like a 70’s acid trip from Donna Summers or Diana Ross but with musical teeth and foreboding lyrics all enveloped in a beat bound to dominate the club in remixes — not an autobiographical note in it.
The Video/ One of the nastiest club beats ever, intersecting tableaus of deviancy, carnival, thugs, dominatrix, dead presidents, and evocative Grace Jones look-a-like images in various open-doored suites are revealed as Beyoncé saunters down the hall way. Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising if some bern escorts showed up on the set of this video, it’d be a good fit. And that’s not including the opening, somewhere in a European villa, perhaps Monaco where Beyoncé arrives driving a vintage sports car, sporting edgy couture, with designer luggage at a fantastical resort. In one of the many arresting looks of this collection, she is finger waved, smoky-eyed, red lipped, in patent leather stiletto Mary Janes. “Haunted” contains a collage of nightmarish yet beautiful images which are hard to decipher and somewhat reminiscent of Madonna’s video “Justify My Love” with way more depth, jarring images and kaleidoscope fun-house asylum overtones. Is Bey the proprietor or just a guest? Your guess is as good as mine.
Drunk in Love
The Song/ Arguably the most notorious cut on the album, this iconic video mesmerizes with hooks about what the French call jouissance. And if that sounds sexy, it is. The song has an ebb and flow to it as it builds and explodes as Bey questions why she “can’t keep my fingers off it” exulting in ‘surfboarding.’
The Video/ For all the controversy around the lyrics, the video is rather tame and pared down compared to a video like “Haunted.” Shot in black and white, there’s the beach, the roaring tide rolling in, and Beyoncé in see through black negligee singing to and about her man, while getting wet in the surf. Jay-Z self-compliments his wife’s lyrics and his performance and curve. Marriage never looked or sounded so hot.
The Song/ This bouncy beat is destined to be a favorite, full of catchy synthesized cool R&B funk, early 80’s style. This is the irresistible dance song full of seductive lyrics and naughty hooks about Skittles, pink, cherries and tasting the middle which will have some running to the floor to gyrate along. For those who like Beyoncé tarted up and in all her splendor, this is the song for you. She oozes sex appeal and coos along to hooks like “You like it wet and so do I.” It’s worth noting her vocals here are smooth, controlled, and beautifully clear. Critics will be gnashing their teeth, self-flagellating in monkish cells to resist this siren song of honeyed vocals and sexual innuendo. (One of my favorite cuts)
The Video/ High school roller rink days never looked like this, unless it’s Bey style. The images are bleeding Technicolor (If it looks like Hype Williams cinematography that’s because it is; he’s the director). Bey rolls up with crew on low-riding bicycles, struts in and eventually seductively rolls around the rink, and at some point she and her dancers perform provocative gyrating choreography on roller skates in skintight shorts, crop tops and spandex leotards. It’s visual overload of the very best kind. Bey adorned with the school-girl sexy ponytails and a lollipop navigates sexy on wheels. Yes, it’s an orgiastic wet dream of a video in saturated colors and a bridge to Cherry which has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The Song/ There’s always that one cut you just don’t like. This is mine. In a raspy falsetto, Beyoncé sings presumably about herself to someone just like her. Musically, a hollowed out bass line is juxtaposed against the high note vocals. For me, it just doesn’t work
The Video/ An homage to her Houston Roots, the video is shot documentary style in the streets of Houston, peopled by local icons Slim Thug, Scarface, Kirko Bangs and everyday residents. Perhaps the only part of the video that doesn’t fit, despite its intention is Beyoncé, posted up in front of a dilapidated, shuttered, paint worn house, decked out in heels, faux fur, and tight spandex swim suits. For all the suggestion this is where she’s from, Bey is shot in isolation, never interacting with the people presumably she identifies with – the video is interesting to watch but somehow rings false. After all, isn’t Bey from an upper middle-class background? Not sure what she was doing here. (Can’t like everything, right?)
The Song/ For anyone missing Sasha Fierce(ness), this one’s for you. Bey morphs into Yoncé, an equally edgy but perhaps cooler persona. The sickest beats are on this cut. It’s a head banging, ass-shaking masterpiece for riding in the car or twerking on a dance floor. The song lyrics are the kind that get Bey in trouble with critics – all about her body and how good it is to be Yoncé.
The Video/ Featuring models Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and Joan Smalls who serve as acolytes or hot vestal virgins revolving around the Queen Bey in a sexy hive of hot flesh, tight spandex, lips and grills, this video is probably the most expected. Although there is no choreography, it is most like the Gautier braggadocio imagery and fashion we know so well from “Put a Ring on It” and Sasha Fierce.
The Song/ A doubled, even tripled bass line mashed up against intoxicated vocals open this cut, hands down the most captivating and lowdown dirty beats that get the listener before the narrative words really full sink in. Beyoncé sings/talks her way through this song really only giving full voice on the hook, “take all of me/I just want to be the girl you like/the kind of girl you like is right here with me.”
The Video/ While the song is sultry, the video is smoldering HOT. The visual representation of Beyoncé in the backseat with Jay-Z in tandem with the lyric, “Driver, put the partition up please/I don’t need you to see Beyoncé on her knees” says it all really. This song has to be the sexiest, erotic ode to marriage ever…or wait a minute, was that “Drunk in Love?” I think “Partition” wins because the visuals here are the performance of desire, with tableaus of strip club choreography and an unforgettable image of Beyoncé posted on a divan, nearly nude, hair akimbo, doing it all for her man. As the video closes, Bey is back to classy wife at the breakfast table, regarding her spouse quietly.
The Song/ In what is becoming her signature musical style, this cut offers up another moody atmospheric vocal with contemplative lyrics matched to a compelling beat and layered musical bridges. She’s telling a story here and offering a glimpse into her relationship at some points. And if Bey can feel jealousy, vulnerability, and insecurity, we can feel better because she’s just like us…sort of.
The Video/ “Sometimes I want to walk in your shoes and do the kinds of thing you do” is reminiscent of “If I Were a Boy.” Except here, it’s more specific and focused, opening on Bey, the wife, waiting for her husband at a table set with an elaborate meal and candles but no spouse. In this video as with most on this album, it seems to me Bey is honing her acting skills. She shines in these short vignettes, encompassing complex emotions like a gifted silent screen actress who acts completely with her eyes and face.
The Song/ Unmistakably a Prince-inspired song, the hooks, phrasing and instrumentation recall “Scandalous” and “Adore” which is not a bad thing since Beyoncé, no slouch herself, takes over the genre and makes it all her own. This is the slow jam, baby maker.
The Video/ A black and white masterpiece of minimalism and every form of sexual imagery and symbolism one could pile into one video, Beyoncé appears in bra and panties, in bed with white sheets. The waterfalls, rocket imagery and rivers overflowing, keys in ignitions, pump nozzles in gas tanks drive home the sexual message.
The Song/ Another glimpse into Beyoncé’s personal life which could be her story or anyone’s really, this song is about commitment, taking the plunge, figuring it out and moving forward as a couple. The music is melancholy and resonating, a mid-tempo cut that builds to the insistent hook and talk of marriage, “let’s stop making a big deal out of the little things/ as long as you know who you belong to.” Drake stands in for Jay-Z (I guess she couldn’t get him to do this one?) as the male partner who resists and then surrenders to love, marriage, and family. His vocals, like hers, are unhurried and echo each other from mirrored and gendered partners’ opposed and mutual perspectives.
The Video/ Some videos do more to obscure the lyrics than help them. The video opens up with Beyoncé as a Madonna figure in a Pieta tableau, with full grown baby savior covered in white to suggest the marble of statuary? Then the video moves into modern dancers adorned in Grecian gowns dancing only to morph to the beach and modern clothes then to a couples, heads covered in white fabric, with mine and yours written on the sacks. And on and on…this is one better to listen to than to watch. It is high art in a way that goes awry and doesn’t really enhance the lyrics. It’s not a bad video but it is one where you end up trying to decode encrypted imagery in relationship to the words to the point you could almost forget the song.
The Song/ This is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s a simple but anthem-like love song with sweet lyrical hooks, “Kiss me before they turn the lights out/ in the darkest night I search through the crowd/Your face is all that I see/Baby, love me lights out/I love you like XO.” What’s not to love?
The Video/ XO is really a love letter to the fans, a big mushy hugs and kisses to the BeyHive who get her and support her. Watching this video, and knowing how Bey was touring the whole time, Bey thought of how to make a video that also felt like documentary footage of her just interacting with her fans, giving back some of the love they give to her. Plus, it’s Coney Island, at night so there’s all the wonder of Neon lights contrasted against midnight sky with all the sights and sounds of going to the fair. It’s a sweet video of Bey on the rollercoaster, in bumper cars, dancing with fans, watching street performers dance and children dance for her, just another spectator in the crowd. In my book, this video is unexpected and a standout.
The Song/ I think this might be the best song on the album. It is a direct proclamation – indignant, profane, clear, and a little bit pissed off. When you start telling people to “Bow down, bitches…”it’s pretty certain you aren’t playing around. No other song on the album has Beyoncé sneering directly into the camera confronting her haters directly. And I love it. Perhaps the best lyrics are “My mother taught me home training/ my father told me to love my haters/ my sister told me to speak my mind/ and my man makes me feel so damn fine.” And flawless, or perfection, means apparently looking anyway one wants to. Detractors will argue this contradicts the message of “Pretty Hurts” but that, in my view, is a willful decision to overlook Bey is not extolling perfect looks but everyone’s looks and learning not to be apologetic, however one looks. I gotta say, I loooove this song because it’s far more interesting to see a pop diva go off script and stand up for herself, rather than just mouthing typical non sequiturs in interviews and hopefully currying fan favor letting them know how grateful she is all the time.
The Video/ Shot in black and white, this video liberally adopts grunge and mosh-pit style flawlessly (no pun intended). Clad in plaid lumberjack, and torn, cut off jeans with plenty of Goth-like make up, Beyoncé sets the record straight on a couple of levels. “Not just his little wifey/this my shit!” I found myself, like in church, responding back, “yes! Say that!” The choreography in this video is worth a mention. I have never seen anything like it except in horror films. Beyoncé is like a possessed demon that gyrates her shoulders in impossible postures which I’ve only seen accomplished in film with special effects. This video, like the song, is a tour de force. The only thing missing is a middle finger flung at her critics. But Bey is still, even in defiant outrage, too classy for that.
The Song/ It sounds like a 1960’s doo-wop song slowed down from 45rpm to 33rpm, then mashed up with a hollow bass and marching band drum roll signaling something hybrid with the same steady vocals Beyoncé has perfected . Her voice penetrates through the music to focus on her instrument and how she uses it to give a full bodied-sound of quiet confidence. The lyric title is a metaphor for a song about love — triumphant, combative, and sure.
The Video/ The video is a clever reinterpretation of the battle dance/street gang video that Michael Jackson invented in “Beat It.” There’s no choreographed dance, just a deconstructed, stripped down marching forward, as those who would normally be cast in those roles (Pharrell, Michelle, Kelly, and Luke James are amongst her visually stunning army), join ranks and march forward with steely eyed Bey. The setting is dystopic and futuresque with riot gear, SWAT police, and a militaristic camouflage, glam chic Doc Marten wearing assemblage of fellow bad-asses following Bey’s lead. Yet the video and everything in it is a symbolic rendering of fighting for love and individualism in the face of authoritarian and conventional wisdom. Of all the videos, this one does best what images can do to lyrics: re-conceptualize, enhance and expand their meaning — perhaps my favorite video.
The Song/ A beautiful haunting ballad about loss and death, this one is simple and forthright. Bey’s vocals are resonating and beautiful.
The Video/ Beyoncé’s lead dancer, Ashley Everett, takes center stage as the actor and Bey’s best friend gone too soon in this beautiful video. Gorgeous Catholic imagery of churches, mausoleums, and tombs coupled with happy flashbacks of pivotal moments in the friendship comprise the video whole. If you have lost a loved one, you might be a bit teary-eyed at the end of this one – a lovely video for a haunting song.
The Song/ Can there be anything sweeter than a mother singing about the love of her life? I don’t think so. This is another sweet song, with warm vocals and lullaby pretty lyrics about Blue Ivy.
The Video/ Again, being a multi-tasker, Bey took full advantage of her Mrs. Carter World tour to take in the sights and create a video. In this case, the setting is the beach and a favela in Brazil. As with “XO,” this video felt like documentary footage and private home movies all done up in one neat bow. Knowing full well, everyone wanted to see Blue, Beyoncé briefly complies and gives us a video snapshot of her adorable toddler, who smiles directly into the camera and melts everyone’s heart who watches.
The BONUS video/ This is a fun song, a dance hit if Bey decides to push it that way, and a proclamation summary of the entire album’s point. Interestingly, the music is African and World music. Beyoncé shows she’s traveled to Africa too because she and two standout dancers tear it down in a way that would make any African watching break out in huge smiles. Mama Knowles makes an appearance as she and Bey post up like royal matriarch and matriarch in training. As with the whole project, Beyoncé looks back appreciatively while she revels in the wonder of the present. Opening footage of Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé as girls, dancing, singing, and being young meld into the current day where two beautiful grown women do their thing.
About the author…
Kenneth D. Capers is a writer and pop culture critic who lives in Atlanta.