Today Beyonce surprised the world by releasing a 17-track visual album on iTunes. If you’re wondering what a visual album is, it means she’s made a video for every single track. The album is my favourite Beyonce material ever and is a wake up call not only for pop stars, but also artists in practically every genre of underground electronic music. There are a few perfectly formed ballads, some silky R&B, and one cute house number—but the stand out tracks are pure street.
Being a follower of Beyonce on Facebook and Instagram, all year I’ve seen pictures of her living it up on the beaches of Brazil, or the rollercoasters of Coney Island – but I had no idea she was shooting videos for new material at the same time as she was conducting her brilliant Mrs Carter World Tour.
The videos are directed by a bunch of people including Hype Williams, Melinda Matsoukas, Pierre Debusschere, Jonas Akerland, @lilinternet, Ricky Saiz, Jake Nava (Single Ladies) and the notorious Terry Richardson. All the vids are slick and intoxicating but otherwise swing between beautiful and playful, to rich and sumptuous, or sick and twisted. The costumes and locations and cameos are superb. In one video, Beyonce’s sister Solange joins her as they ride on pimped out bikes outside a club called Blow. In another, she’s flanked by her old bandmates Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowlands – as well as Pharrel Williams among others – as they confront a line of riot police.
Indeed, production credits go to Pharrell, as well as Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean and Jay-Z (who features on one track but there are also glimpses of him on others). I love underground street beats and the music is the best I’ve heard. Though a lot of dubstep is terrible, particularly in the US, her stuff is pure drama. There are also flashes of Chi-town drill and London grime. But suffice to say it’s dark and dirty and not at all like what you hear on mainstream radio.
Beyonce says in a short explanatory clip that the imagery is a mix of her life and her fantasies. Some of the more sexual or gangsta stuff would probably fall in the latter category, and I couldn’t help wondering if it would be appropriate for Beyonce’s legions of very young fans to see these videos. Probably not, but then they are no more sexualised than Madonna was, or than Miley has been lately. And Beyonce’s music is much better. Her voice is much better. Her videos are much better. Her message is much better. Shit, the others don’t even have a message.
Beyonce as a Grown Woman is a living embodiment of girl power. A couple of years ago she fired her life-long manager, who happened to be her father, in a bid to gain total independence. She now manages every facet of her life and brand. Her current live show, which I caught in Auckland in October, and which has just hit the milestone of 100 performances, is a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, I think this new body of work is flawless.
I can’t pick favourite tracks at this point – it’s a smorgasboard of dopeness and my head and heart has been blown by her awesomeness. But I have to say, the short-lived synths on “No Angel” are to die for, and the beats on “Partition” are incredible. Certain tracks bring to mind the best of Kanye’s recent album, Yezus – but his angry/defensive rapping made some of the tracks a hard listen. For Beyonce fans and underground music aficionados, her album is all good.