Imagine you’re a candy writer. It’s mid-December, and you’re looking over your schedule: Halloween has come and gone, so the big candies have already come out; the next line of Dum Dums isn’t slated to hit until the second week in January. You can relax. Per deadline, you reflect on the year that was and turn in your lists for best candies of the year.
Then, without warning, Hasboro releases a brand new gummy animal. Gummy sloths, let’s say. As soon as it’s released, people want to know how the candy is. You and the rest of the candy critic world are thrown for a loop, called up in the candy-writing off-season.
Bad as that analogy is, that’s something like how it was for music critics last Thursday, when Beyoncé released her self-titled “visual” album out of nowhere. To complicate matters further, “Beyoncé” is not only unavoidable (because it’s Beyoncé), but it’s also one of the year’s best pop albums, a release that stands to shake a few top ten lists up in the eleventh hour.
Paradoxically, the album’s greatness is due in part to its eschewing of pop norms. By releasing the album without the usual run-up of singles and including a music video for every track, all songs are equally weighted. There’s no sense of this-has-to-work resource-overload on some tracks and the converse “bottle episode” lack for others. On “Beyoncé,” the singer is the rare pop auteur, making the album she wants to make because she actually can. As she puts it on the album’s first great song and most memorable music video, “Haunted”: “Soul not for sale. Probably won’t make no money off this. Oh well.”
So far as radio hits go, the Ryan Tedder co-written “XO,” is the only sure-fire single on the album. Not that other cuts aren’t good enough, but most contenders are too risqué by far. It’s an interesting bent after the album-initial “Pretty Hurts,” which tears at the veil of feminine beauty standards, but the album ultimately chases a different kind of female empowerment. “Blow” pairs the newly revived funk sound ℅ Pharell with suggestive metaphors that are sure to make Blue Ivy grow shades of red someday. “Partition” explores one-percenter raunch, mixed with the odd Clinton-era sex euphemism. Others, like the “Untitled”-riffing “Rocket” aren’t nearly as coy. The first lines: “Let me sit this ass on you / show you how I feel.” These tracks are appropriately sleek and sexy for their subject, never awkward or embarrassing (for the right setting).
As fun as the album can be, it’s a testament to Beyoncé’s range that it can be just as affecting and somber. Even if you were to v-chip the album, there’s still plenty here worth listening to. Slower tracks like “Heaven” and “Blue” are intimate in a decidedly different sense, displaying Beyoncé’s soulful vocals and songwriting rather than her sex appeal. Drake pops in on “Mine” to make a case for the good girls he turned bad on “Just Hold On We’re Going Home.”
The album stumbles when it tries to walk the line between the two extremes. Over spare electronic beats, “No Angel” has the singer trying to maintain a whispered, fast-clip falsetto for verses and choruses at a time. It sounds like she never quite catches up with the song as it’s penned, one of the album’s weakest writing efforts anyway. “Jealous” suffers a similar tempo malady, but vocally sounds like a random cut off the next Rihanna album. It also sports the album’s flimsiest hook: ” I’m jealous / If you’re keeping your promise, I’m keeping mine.”
But don’t let the missteps dissuade you. In a year that saw new albums from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, “Beyoncé” is right up there with JT’s “20/20 Experience, Vol. 1″ as one of 2013’s most essential pop albums. Forget about an early Christmas or late Hanukkah gift, “Beyoncé” arrived at just the right time for pop fans: as soon as it was ready.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.