In the wee hours of the morning last week, with no warning or promotion, Beyoncé ruined the productivity of a nation by releasing a 14-song, 17-video visual album titled Beyoncé on iTunes.
The collective freak-out was astonishing—reactions ranged from tears to clothes rending to actual shitting of pants, and with a record this good, all of them were appropriate responses. I couldn't throw my money at her fast enough.
We've spent most of this year watching pop artists jockey for who can be the most shocking and irreverent, with most of them failing miserably. Miley Cyrus's golden grill and pathetic attempts at twerking, Katy Perry's ridiculously racist costuming at the American Music Awards, and Lady Gaga shoving her ArtPop down our throats as a pathway to artistic respectability are no match for Beyoncé's explosion of dance, costuming, ballet, and fire. Instead of big talk and heavy promotion about her unique approach to music, she just throws down intensely beautiful shit and drops the mic. She's not hanging out with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic for street cred; instead, she's making mini-movies with Jonas Akerlund about some kind of sexy, demented hotel where TVs flash brain scans, elderly women in white capes hold hairless cats, and goth twins wearing circus-tent-inspired jumpsuits slink around corners. With Beyoncé, it's more of a do as I say and do as I do.
While she's always been gracious in interviews, Beyoncé is a giant middle finger to her critics. There's even a part in the video for "Blow" when she bends herself over a bar, lifts a leg in the air, and makes her entire body look like a middle finger. She's criticized for being too safe, too bougie, and too beauty-queen-ish, but in my circles, she's mostly criticized for not being feminist enough. How can a woman with so much power default to her husband, Jay Z, so often, or produce songs like "Cater 2 U"? When she was on the cover of Ms. magazine in June as a "fierce feminist," the feminist blog world had a collective seizure, convulsing over all the ways they could prove her wrong. And Beyoncé let people speculate about her feminism or lack thereof without saying a word—until she produced the song "Flawless."
"Flawless" is an anthem, no doubt, but it's also a definitive answer to any claims about where she stands as a woman and an artist when it comes to feminism. The song leaked this summer as "Bow Down" (which we should all be doing anyway), but it didn't include the snippet of a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urging all women to be feminists. Now it does. The lyrics give a sly nod to any detractors who were pissed off that she called her upcoming tour "The Mrs. Carter Show," or anyone who claimed she wasn't a real feminist role model: "I took some time to live my life/But don't think that I'm just his little wife/Don't get it twisted/It's my shit/Bow down, bitches." I was on my knees and genuflecting before the first verse ended.
And it's not just that she's claiming her feminism—she's specifically claiming black feminism, which is an important distinction to make, since the mainstream feminist movement largely ignores women of color. Her feminism is informed by her race, and since a large portion of her fans are black women, it's like she made an album just for us. This is a fully realized Beyoncé, saying you can be a feminist and wear high heels, be devoted to your family, wear a freakum dress and Day-Glo spandex, and still come to feminism on your own terms despite what some uppity white bastards think you should be doing. Generally pretty private, Bey lets us into her world through the videos, showing us her carefree, dancing-drunk-on-a-beach side, playing soccer with kids in Brazil, riding the Cyclone at Coney Island with a giant blinking bow on her head, spinning her daughter around on a beach, and enjoying her life and success, all the while claiming every inch of it as feminism.
I'd never purchased an entire Bey album—I'm more of a "Run the World (Girls)" here, "Get Me Bodied" there listener, preferring her danceable upbeat tunes to her more maudlin love songs, so I'm super surprised that I find every song on this album worthwhile, or at least not boring. Beyoncé did the impossible by reviving the concept of the full-length release and making albums appealing again; you can piecemeal the songs, but it's a more immersive experience to listen to them in order, which is doubly true for the videos. She worked with veteran directors Jonas Akerlund, Hype Williams, and Ricky Saiz to create sweeping, breathtaking works of art (and a few incredibly sexy, sweaty, ass-slapping ones, too).
And whoa, Beyoncé isn't shy about telling you exactly how, when, and where she likes it. As a nation, how did we ever care so much about JLo's butt when Beyoncé's butt was just walking around unnoticed? She is on fire, busting out lyrics like "I want you to turn the cherry out" in "Blow," wearing a leather bustier with pierced nipples and getting licked by models in "Yoncé," writhing around in bathtubs in "Rocket," and basically serving her jewel-encrusted ass on a platter in "Partition." The entire middle part of this album could be the soundtrack to a porno, and I'll be shocked if the videos aren't on heavy rotation at RPlace, but somehow your grandma would still be able to listen to it and say, "Oh yeah, I remember those days," before telling you a wildly uncomfortable story about her having sex of any kind.
This album is surprising, but still in line with the traditional Beyoncé sound. The biggest trick Beyoncé ever played was making you think you could pin her down.