BEYONCÉ: BEYONCÉ (2013)
1) Pretty Hurts; 2) Ghost/Haunted; 3) Drunk In Love; 4) Blow; 5) No Angel; 6) Partition; 7) Jealous; 8) Rocket; 9) Mine; 10) XO; 11) Flawless; 12) Superpower; 13) Heaven; 14) Blue.
Here is a question. If the first three or four albums released by an entertainer like Beyoncé, despite having their «moments», never really made you believe in the entertainer as «artist», what would it take, then, to trigger that belief? Would it be downright impossible, or might there ever be a chance of her sliding into a different, more respectable paradigm? After all, people have managed to escape the machine before, or, at least, operate with their head slightly sticking out of the window. And now, with the money made and the fanbase established and the name in lights all over the world, why not go for a small push-up of your reputation among the «highbrows»? Not a bad idea at all — but how?..
Clearly, this was a subject of deep worry for Mrs. Carter herself, and she embarked on the task with plenty of verve. The self-titled record — «rebooting the franchise!» — came out without a single warning, unexpected and unpublicized, dropped as a package of 14 audio tracks and 17 accompanying videos on iTunes and sending a perfectly predicted shockwave through the fanbase. Physical copies of the album then arrived in an unusually minimalistic shape (the Kazimir Malevich Estate probably settled out of court), with none of the glamor that usually surrounds such releases (to be fair, there is plenty of glamor in some of the accompanying videos, but I guess the day we get to see Beyoncé without makeup is the day that her crypt is excavated by archaeologists, and it wouldn't be a pretty sight anyway). And, most importantly, the songs were almost «artsy» in their stubborn refusal to be dominated by dance grooves — dark, soul-probing exercises in emotional expression of the everyday cares, troubles, worries, comforts, and orgasms of a grown woman: wife, mother, and superstar all in one.
So we should all «buy» it, right? The final act of humanization, in which the blue-haired fairy comes down from the sky and gives Pinocchio his well-deserved emotions chip? Having already sat through a whole sack of five-star reviews beginning with constructions like «who would have thought that...» and exclamations like «HOLY COW!» and statements like «finally, Beyoncé comes up with an album worthy of her talent» and suchlike, and, more importantly, having patiently endured three complete listens to the record, I still would not want to be too hasty about that. Miracles do not happen, and the whole enterprise, to me, smacks of just another well-calculated move — «we got the average Joes hooked up, now let us conquer the demanding critics». Well, congratulations, Mrs. Bey, you and your team got really smart this time: save for a few renegade dissenters, well within the statistical margin of error, congrats on a decisive victory.
In fact, I wouldn't mind joining the saluting crowds as well — the only problem is that, three listens into the record, I still cannot remember a single tune. Removing the hot dance grooves also means removing the hooks, and removing the hooks means that the album is fueled exclusively by «soul» and «atmosphere», yet where are the musical innovations that make the «atmosphere» even marginally interesting? All I hear is same-old same-old: same programmed drums, same electronics, same adult contemporary sonic backgrounds, sometimes interspersed with same lonesome romantic piano pop melodies. «Sonically experimental», Pitchfork called this record, but where are these «experiments»? Oh, that's right, the proper context was «her most sonically experimental to date». This puts stuff in a different light. Maybe twenty years ago this kind of record, minus the benefits of cutting-edge production à la 2013, might have been called «experimental» — as it stands, its only braveness is in that it does, indeed, sound significantly different from the lady's previous albums. Different, for sure; but better? Not certain.
As far as my opinion is concerned, it is not with the music that Mrs. Carter has managed to sway the critics (who, as a rule, do not even begin to discuss the actual music, and I can empathize, since there is very little to be discussed in the first place), but with the attitude. For that, she must be given credit. Briefly stated, there are few records in the world that manage to share lines like "each day I feel so blessed to be looking at you / 'cause when you open your eyes, I feel alive" (explicitly addressed to her daughter) and "daddy what you gon' do with all this ass up in your face?" (explicitly addressed to her husband), fortunately, not within the same song, or she'd probably have child protective service on her back in an instant.
Actually, some do, but very, very few make an active point of it. Beyoncé essentially comes across as a sort of concept album — an «honest» glimpse into the life of someone who has to combine several distinct personalities, not in an artificial Sasha Fierce-like way, but out of pure necessity. First, there remains the glamorous star personality (ʽFlawlessʼ); second, there is the lady of the family, committed to behaving like an angel in the spirit and like a slut in the body; third, there is the responsible loving mother; fourth, there's all sorts of interactions between the three (ʽPartitionʼ, which fuses the public star with the private slut and feels no remorse). I'd be lying through my teeth if I said that this whole concept were completely fake, primitive, and devoid of interest. I'd also be improperly insinuating if I said that Beyoncé's almost «salivating» depiction of sexual scenes with her husband (ʽRocketʼ is the quintessential example, but it's really all over the place) betrays an unhealthy fixation and should rather have been left in their bedroom — I mean, it's a world of free choice, and if you invite me in your bedroom, it'd probably be impolite to refuse the invitation. I'd probably even fall into the perennial trap if I started doubting the album's feminist stance — since almost every second song here can be interpreted both as an anthem to the equality of the sexes or to sexual objectification of woman, that'd just lure us into another round of the never-ending, long-boring discussion.
All this, yes, and much more, but in the end, all it really does is distract us away from the musical qualities of the album. And the good musical qualities, as far as I can tell, are limited to a tiny handful of non-trivial vocal modulations (usually on the ballads: ʽHauntedʼ, ʽHeavenʼ, and ʽBlueʼ all have their moments), which are still heavily set back by unimaginative arrangements (usually confined to ideas like «okay, let's make the synth loops on ʽHauntedʼ sound real dark, bass-heavy, and distorted, it's a sound that's been used fifty billion times already, but we do need to focus on "dark", right?»). Say what you will, but Beyoncé is simply not enough interesting either as an «artist» or as a «human being» to save it all just on the strength of conceptuality and atmosphere. She is nowhere near «proverbially dumb», of course, but neither is she some sort of modern day Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, or even Lauryn Hill. In pitching for this sort of maturity, she overstepped her boundaries, and made a record which, while striving to be «respectable», has ultimately landed in the area of «dull». As entertainment, this does not even begin holding a candle to B'Day; as «serious art», I have a hard time understanding why I should be spending my time trying to digest it as such.
Naturally, for someone whose musical world does not extend far beyond the likes of Beyoncé, The Black Album might be a spiritual revelation — more power to you if it helps you become a better human being, or solve your conjugal sex problems, or whatever else. But it'd be even better if it helped such people understand that there might be a better musical world out there somewhere: like Amazon.com says, «if you liked this album, you might also like...» — not making any suggestions here, of course, just a small hint at the reason for which I am giving the album quite a violent thumbs down here. And this does not negate the fact that she does have a very cute, adorable daughter, or that having wild sex with Jay-Z cannot serve as a basis for writing exciting songs. It can! It just didn't, that's all.
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