[Originally published December 16, 2012]
opinion by PETER TABAKIS
The year ends as it began, with surprise and celebration. Back in January, David Bowie and Justin Timberlake stunned fans twice over by declaring their long hiatuses had ended, and that new albums would arrive in a matter of weeks. Thus an unlikely duo ushered in 2013’s most exhilarating trend. And as with so many marketing trends, Steve Jobs got there first. Like the announcement of an Apple product, the time between a noteworthy album’s first mention in the media and the moment it was made available to listeners shortened dramatically this year. Daft Punk and Kanye West gave fans a couple of months to anticipate their new (and, in both cases, incredible) LPs. During game five of the NBA Finals in June, a three-minute commercial from Samsung heralded “the next big thing”: Jay Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail. Just three weeks later, on July 7, came the album’s wide release, but one million Samsung device users received the album via Android app – free and three days early, on, yes, Independence Day.
Some artists took this trend to its logical conclusion: no wait at all. In early February, My Bloody Valentine released their first original music in over two decades by posting it to their web site, ready to be downloaded. Advance notice came via a Facebook post: “We are preparing to go live with the new album/website this evening.” The site promptly crashed. Jai Paul, the Pixies, Death Grips, and Burial all followed suit, debuting new material out of the blue.
Beyoncé Knowles is not one to be upstaged. When she made her own Apple-style announcement in the early morning last Friday, what awaited us on iTunes was nothing short of groundbreaking: a so-called “visual album” of 14 audio tracks and, the true prize, 17 videos (which by the math ought to make this a video compilation with 14 accompanying audio files, but whatever). Why would an artist of Beyoncé’s prominence resort to such a tremendous logistical stunt? She answers, in a video manifesto posted to her Facebook page:
I feel like right now people experience music differently… Now people only listen to a few segments of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in a whole album. It’s all about the single and the hype… I just want this to come out when it’s ready, and from me to my fans.
By forcing us to purchase her self-titled fifth LP in its entirety on iTunes (at least for the moment), Beyoncé is using the very instrument that’s destroying the album, in order to compel us to sit still for once and listen to hers. It’s a stroke of genius. And for sixteen bucks, it’s also a steal.
Beyoncé’s 4 downplayed radio-ready singles in favor of tracks intended to form a cohesive whole. It didn’t exactly work, but the album was terrific nevertheless. BEYONCÉ contains even fewer potential chart-toppers (the magnificent power ballad “XO” and album highlight “Drunk In Love” aside). And yet it achieves the superb unity of mood and sound Mrs. Carter was grasping for with her 2011 release. You’d never know a lengthy roster of songwriters, co-producers, additional producers, and lesser collaborators all had their hands in its creation without reading the credits.
BEYONCÉ’s electronic R&B songs typically hold to a steady mid-tempo rhythm, with two relatively brisk exceptions – the disco-thumping “Blow” and the stuttering “Flawless.” The topic at hand is regularly sex at its most explicit (“Partition” at last shines a light on back-of-the-limo coitus), though some expressions of female empowerment (“Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless”) and a closing ode to maternal love (“Blue”) make their way in as well. Remarkably, this thematic mix of filthy and wholesome never seems disconcerting or jarring.
Without question, the ideal method of experiencing BEYONCÉ is to view it. For me, the album – with its paucity of immediate sonic hooks – only sank in after binge-watching its excellent videos a few times. It’s impossible to hear BEYONCÉ without imagining Knowles making laps around a fabulous roller rink, or taking a ride on Coney Island’s iconic rollercoaster, or striding through the hallway of a supernatural hotel. This audio-visual symbiosis, of course, is the very reason these videos were shot and included in the first place.
BEYONCÉ provides a corrective to the year’s glut of pop tedium. By the time Bangerz, Prism, and ARTPOP were released in full, we’d already been beaten to a pulp by the ceaseless blitz of their promotional campaigns. The albums themselves seemed like afterthoughts, to the extent they had been thought of at all. Beyoncé waited for the last moment to unveil 2013′s finest pop album. It arrived too late to enter our top ten lists, but just in time to own the year. [A-]