Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beyonce - Beyonce

I've always thought of Beyonce as more Johnny Cash than Bob Dylan. You know, Johnny was never going to be a critical darling, but no Bob Dylan biopic is gonna win an Oscar. Dylan wrote the songs; Johnny was the star. Both are certainly all-time Hall-of-Fame musicians, but they fall into distinct roles.

This self-titled album is certainly an attempt at more substance. She's not going the full Bob Dylan, likely because she recognizes her need for songwriting help (and there's a lot of credits on this record) - still the production has a serious tone, a noticeable attempt to do something more profound from the very beginning. Beyonce is one of the biggest stars in the world, which already makes an attempt at concept album so much more difficult - perhaps the best thing I could say is that Beyonce is better than I would have expected a Beyonce concept album would be.

My problem comes primarily in the lyrical content. They're good songs, well written, with interesting instrumental tracks and creative production decisions. At the same time, the lyrics are probably more indicative of Beyonce as a person when we only really know Beyonce as a persona. The opening track, "Pretty Hurts" talks about the perils of our beauty-obsessed culture, but they feel incredibly odd coming from one of the most beautiful women in the world. Maybe Beyonce is saying she's not really one of the most beautiful women in the world, that it's all an act - but it's still what we know about her, because it's the image she's (or her management and PR staff) worked fifteen years to instill in us.

This theme recurs throughout the album and I'm more than willing to give Beyonce space to express herself more personally - ironically, her persona has certainly left that option open to herself. We've seen her becoming a more well-rounded, responsible global citizen over time. She speaks out. She treats herself and people around her with respect. We've seen her, as classily as possible, become a mother, a wife, an adult. At the same time, she still has to provide her audience with something familiar (I'm sort of intrigued about the next album - I think Beyonce can go just about anywhere from here).

A good metaphor for this is the hit single, "Drunk in Love," I read someone say (probably Rembert Browne from Grantland) that "Crazy in Love" was Beyonce singing about how great it was she got to have sex with Jay-Z, while "Drunk in Love" in an example of how her star has eclipsed his and she's now singing about how great it is for Jay-Z to be with her. She's able to both assert herself as a person and also subvert the stereotype of the hip-hop girlfriend (which she's already done, in some sense, by becoming THE hip-hop wife).

I haven't really had much experience with Beyonce beyond the songs that get released as singles, so it's more a surprise just how sexualized and stereo-typically R&B a lot of the lyrics on the album are. A song like "Blow" is exactly what you expect it to be - but even here there is a good measure of feminist commentary on the sexualization of urban music culture. (It also makes me wonder why Pharrell's contributions are always on tracks with such overt sexuality - such a departure from the persona he presents in public. Strange.) A song like "Partition," though, is just a tad uncomfortable - it might potentially be a commentary on celebrity and expectations, but I am so absolutely out of my depth there to make any judgements.

I really like the track, "No Angel," very creative choices in a lot of areas. It typifies, I think, what's best about this album: it's so much more about what the songs say about the world outside the song than the song itself (even though the songs themselves are pretty good). We get this picture that Beyonce has tamed the beast, so to speak, bringing Jay-Z into a more refined adult life. Of course, the the infamous elevator video of last year, we know there's a little more drama in the family than they've wanted to let on. To me this seems one way for Beyonce to let the world know they are just a normal couple, despite the very extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in.

The second half of the album has a little more reminder of just how talented Beyonce is as a vocalist. The absence of real singing on the first few tracks, while interesting, feels like withholding in some sense. Maybe that's part of the message, but a song like "Rocket*" really allows her to exercise the pipes. "Mine" feels more like a Drake tune than one featuring Drake, but the hook is pretty darn catchy. "Blue" and "Superpower" and great, and "Heaven" just haunts you. It's a spare, simple track encapsulating all of the best parts of the album. It's tough to pick a favorite song, but this one definitely sticks with you - and could likely be another single if she wants to release it.

?Obviously "XO" is the song everyone knows, for good reason. The production isn't up to the same level as the rest of the album, but the writing is top-notch. Still, it's indicative of this overall impression that Beyonce's not really putting everything she has into the album (although, by the end of the six minute "Rocket" you almost forget about this). As much as Beyonce reveals more about her than we've seen before, there's still some small measure of orchestrated messaging here. It's like 10% ingenuous - not enough to identify easily, but enough to feel. There's just not permission (at least for me) to really let go and believe in the authenticity.

In the end, though, the album is just a bit too repetitive. So many of the tracks are similar - covering similar topics, themes, production choices. It's a well done album, but it seems more a pivot, allowing Beyonce to do something different (and, frankly, whatever the heck she wants) in the future. There's a much better chance her next album wins the Grammy. I don't think this one has much chance outside a sort of career achievement recognition, which Beyonce still seems too young and vibrant to get quite yet.

Still, it is a real album. It's very good. It's inventive and distinct. You can't pick out any one track that's obviously better or designed to be a single. This is definitely Beyonce exploring her independence and personality in ways she's never really done before. She incorporates her history (lots of clips from her younger performing days) along with a real push to give women a voice in hip-hop they've not had before. A win here would be well deserved, but this whole album points to something better down the road.

*Miguel co-wrote the song and you can really feel his influence throughout. I'd love to see them do an album together - he seems to know exactly how to write for her, plus it would give him space to sing as well. Ironically, the next best track on Beyonce is "Superpower," with Frank Ocean. Frank got all the press for his debut a few years back, when really Miguel put out the best R&B album of the year. More shades of that competition here.

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