For those who went to bed at a sensible hour last night -- with your “Best of 2013” listicles locked and loaded -- you likely awoke this Friday the 13th morning to a discover a strange, unfamiliar new world where Beyoncé dropped an entire new album overnight.
Simply titled Beyoncé, the so-called "visual album," her fifth LP as a solo artist, was released exclusively on iTunes to the surprise of practically everyone, and consists of 14 new songs coupled with 17 new music videos directed by a wide variety of directors, among them Hype Williams, Terry Richardson and LILINTERNET.
You can see 30-second previews of the videos below:
As these megapop albums tend to go, Beyoncé includes a bunch of big-name guest spots from her husband Jay Z ("Drunk In Love"), Frank Ocean ("Superpower"), Drake ("Mine"), and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("***Flawless").
And despite Beyoncé's sleek, almost-restrained electronic template to these songs, the record actually showcases a small battery producers: Pharrell, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Noah "40" Shebib, The-Dream, Hit Boy, Terius Nash, Boots, and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek on “No Angel.” Even Blue Ivy -- Beyoncé and Jay Z’s now two-year-old daughter -- makes a “featured artist” appearance on the song “Blue.”
Members of the Soundcheck team, thoroughly geeked-out by the sudden pre-Christmas gift of new jams from Beyoncé, gave the record a first spin and have these knee-jerk reactions.
There are a handful of things I'm looking for in a Beyoncé album: 1) The ballad that is going to make me love being a lady, whether I'm heartbroken or madly in love; 2) The jam that is going to make everybody scream and run to the dance floor -- your "Crazy In Love," your "Single Ladies"; 3) The jam I'm going to dance to alone in my room at home; and 4) The genius surprise- à la "Countdown." At first listen, I hear these tracks filling those rolls: 1) "Pretty Hurts" and "Jealous"; 2) "Blow"? 3) "Partition"; 4) I think the videos are going to satisfy me here. Truly a visual delight. (Julie Whitaker)
Favorite Song: "Blow"
The most surprising part of Beyoncé, is not how it was so suddenly unleashed, but its cohesion. Typically these towering monolithic albums from enormous megastars tend to feel a little all over the place from song to song -- if not within the same song (looking at you, “Countdown”) -- often as a result of patching together a bunch of tracks with the fingerprints of a billion different producers and guest verses. So, considering how many producers are attached to Beyoncé, the album shows admirable restraint.
So singular is the musical vision -- focusing mostly on Bey's voice over relatively minimal production built around icy keyboards and chopped-up sequencers, serrated electronic dance beats, and a deep, gut-rumbling sub-bass. In fact, it’s actually difficult to locate the true “hit single” -- although you could certainly make your case for the synth pop anthem “Pretty Hurts,” the slinky 90’s R&B jam “Blow” or the sexy gospel ballad “Jealous.” The record strikes one dark, alluring mood and remarkably sticks with it throughout all 14 songs. Which is why I love it so much. But if you’re still searching for that next feel-good song, look no further than the arena-full-of-fans shout-along track, "XO." (Michael Katzif)
Favorite Song: "Pretty Hurts"
Beyoncé’s high-energy jams like “Countdown” and “Love On Top” have kept me going on many a long run. (Thanks B!) I’m not hearing many up-tempo playlist contenders on this new album -- although you’d better bet that “Blow” is going to show up in many an exercise class. But what I am hearing are introspective, “unperfect” tracks that show a vulnerable side of Beyonce; one that’s more in line with the R&B that’s made waves in the past few years from artists like Miguel and Frank Ocean (who happens to appear on the album). (Katie Bishop)
Favorite Song: "XO"
Okay, I dropped everything to listen -- just like Beyoncé and her team wanted us to. I'm more than halfway through and so far I say, "meh." Nothing wrong with it -- in fact I like the approximation of dark-hued indie electronic rock in "Haunted" -- but leadoff track "Pretty Hurts" is a strong, empowering message delivered in a workaday pop format. Even the duets with Jay Z and Drake sound like business as usual. Where will the hits come from? Oh, just reached "XO." Maybe... (John Schaefer)
Favorite Song: "XO"