Dec 20, 2013

2013 in Culture: The Year in Pop Music & a Review of Beyonce

By Ian Cory

Near the beginning of the year, right around the time that the first teaser for The 20/20 Experience dropped, Josh sent me a text along the lines of “new albums from Justin Timberlake, Jay Z and Beyoncé in your first year as a music critic; you are incredibly lucky.” This was before we knew that the year would also feature a host of reunion records, a career defining release from Drake, the best metal album of the decade thus far, AND a Kanye West solo record that would completely dominate the discussion, but even then I could feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. Since then, these three albums have continued to feel linked to me. 20/20 Experience was the first really big album that I had to review in the year and as a result I took more liberties than I had up to that point, stretching out my usually musical analysis to include a larger assessment of Timberlake’s standing in the public eye. By the time Magna Carta Holy Grail had rolled around I was well in my groove, riding high on my Sunbather, Run The Jewels, and Yeezus reviews, and I felt comfortable putting Jay Z in his place for releasing a record far less interesting than what I thought he was capable of. Since then the promise of a Beyoncé record had slipped out of my mind, so caught up in the increasingly absurd promotional campaigns and my proportionally increasing excitement about end of the year content. And so, like the rest of the world, I was completely unprepared for Beyoncé’s self titled record appearing on iTunes complete with music videos for every track.

Such a huge record dropping immediately after everyone’s end of the year lists were finalized is equal parts infuriating and completely appropriate. Beyoncé, both the artist and the album, is completely unconcerned with minor power plays like getting featured on lists* or generating buzz. Beyoncé is above that. Beyoncé is beyond that. This album isn’t just part of the story of 2013, it is the entire story 2013 in miniature. The whole year we’ve watched artists both huge and small struggle with ways to recreate the “event” of an album release. Some pushed the normal promotional cycle to extravagant extremes, adding corporate partners and attacking their audience on every medium available (Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, Jay Z). Others kept their release cycle at a normal length but added a viral and visual flair (Arcade Fire, Queens Of The Stone Age), some cut out the wait and kept information at a minimum (Kanye West, Boards Of Canada, and again Jay Z). And finally there was the bizarre trinity of My Bloody Valentine, Death Grips and Beyoncé who ignored the hype machine and just released their records when they felt like it with no build up what so ever. The goal to recapture a certain magic that album releases used to have in the monoculture is present in all of these approaches, but oddly enough the more traditional routes only served to create buzz around the buzz itself instead the product it was attempting to hype. The biggest cultural moments of the year were all based around distinctly modern events, like albums being released on purely digital formats or a leaked verse from an album cast off taking over twitter.

Beyoncé doesn’t just cap off the long running release strategy narrative of the year, it also stands at the center of the year’s massive web of artists. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice a lot of familiar names in the credits. Justin Timberlake and Timbaland have writing and producing credits on multiple tracks, and also appeared all over Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. Another big name on that record was Pharrell, and he also put in work on Beyoncé as well as songs by Pusha T, Tyler The Creator, Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, who in turn contributed to Yeezus. Extrapolating further, Yeezus had production from Mike Dean (who also appeared on Magna Carta), Gesaffelstein and Travis Scott who both put out their own albums soon afterwards. Kanye himself also worked on Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name, which featured a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar. Lamar was the center of an early twitter controversy that put him in competition with two rappers that he worked with earlier in the year, A$AP Rocky and Drake, both of which released great albums of their own. Drake and his producer Noah 40 also contribute to a song on Beyoncé and one of the tracks on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same was originally going to be on Magna Carta Holy Grail. It was possible to make all of these connections before the album release, but Beyoncé does put in perspective just how interconnected pop music is.

But regardless of where Beyoncé stands in relation to the rest of the world, her album is entirely capable of standing on its own. And most importantly it is meant to stand as a capital ‘A’ album, not a vehicle for singles. On top of that, it's clear that Beyoncé’s intended for the album to be listened to in congress with its visual component.  The visual album is tough to review in a normal format because it isn’t made up of a singular narrative, but rather a series of standalone pieces. Because of this, I’m going to break from my usual format and review the record mostly track-by-track and video-by-video.

Pretty Hurts
Okay, so right from the get go Beyoncé isn’t fucking around. She’s long been the most visibly feminist pop star, but after a year where discussions about exploitation of race and gender came to the forefront, this is incredibly poignant. As a dude it's easy to watch a song/video like this and brush it off by saying “Beyoncé’s the most beautiful human being on the planet, what the fuck does she have to complain about?” but if anything, the fact that she feels the same insane pressure that the rest of the world does proves how screwed up our whole culture is. On top of this, the song is larger than life in the way that only Beyoncé can pull off, stacking harmonies and belting until the roof is blasted off into outer space. Of course, the actual politics of this song are trickier than they initially appear. While Beyoncé is clearly condemning the impossible standards she’s held to, and the video shows just how grueling the lifestyle needed to maintain those standards can be, she’s clearly a natural born competitor and will push herself to win no matter how fucked up the rules are. It’s some real Hunger Games shit. The video version’s decision to move the Harvey Kietel interlude from the intro to the middle of the song is brilliant. Pairing Beyoncé mustering the courage to declare her desire to be happy with images of her drowning in reverse was an incredibly powerful move.

“Ghosts” and “Yonce” aren’t listed or separated from the larger tracks that they precede on the non-visual version of the album and for good reason. Both serve more as rap interludes than fully developed songs. They’re tools to establish both a sonic and visual mood. On “Ghosts” that mood is decidedly grim, with Beyoncé struggling to escape from an array of white clothes while channeling Drake’s flow on “The Zone” by The Weeknd. I’m going to assume that both are probably drawing a mutual influence from Beyoncé’s native Houston, but the association with OVO is fitting considering “Ghosts” preoccupation with Beyoncé’s fears and insecurities. Again, it seems slightly ludicrous to imagine Beyoncé actually thinking that her record won’t sell, but for someone who often portrays herself as superhuman, this admission of weakness is incredibly disarming.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Jonas Akerlund, a former member of black metal progenitors Bathory and a video director for artists ranging from Rammstein to Lady Gaga, would craft the most gothic section of the record. Beyoncé glides through a lavish mansion, passing by rooms filled with homage’s to every brand of horror imaginable. This one is all about contrast. The bright and well lit hallway and the unnerving dark images in each of the rooms splintering off from it. The lyrics subject (Beyoncé’s devotion to her man...) and the actual words used to express that sentiment (...described as a spectral and supernatural force). I’m sure that some folks will try and construe the security cam footage as being an NSA metaphor, but it’s probably better to look at it as a reference to the Paranormal Activity movies. The song itself is nowhere near as big of an anthem as “Pretty Hurts” and it isn’t trying to be. Like the video/song before it, “Haunted” is all about sustaining the sullen mood. I can’t think of a pop album that has stayed this dark for this long.

Drunk In Love (feat. Jay Z)
Beyoncé stumbles across the beach holding one of the trophies she used as a bludgeon in the “Pretty Hurts” video. Although the trophy quickly vanishes from the video, its minor inclusion is incredibly telling. It’s no coincidence that Beyoncé decided to bring back that visual prop in the only song on the record that has a verse from Jay Z. It suggests that anyone trying to peg the trophy wife narrative on their marriage has the situation upside down. Beyoncé loves Jay Z, and she loves being married to the man commonly thought to be one of the best rappers alive. Not that there’s much proof of that in his verse here. But watch the way Beyoncé looks at him while he’s spitting. Nothing but pride and love for both the man and his music. Oh, and “Surfboard”.

Beyoncé and Solange pull up on bikes bumping “I Been On” and then make their way into a roller rink. Given how many times I heard Destiny’s Child on roller rink trips in summer camp, this is a very “full circle” kind of moment. “Blow” is a collaboration with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, another hero of the summer camp sing-along, and boy does it show. The song has all the hallmarks of the “future-classy” style that JT and Timbaland used on The 20/20 Experience. The chord progression is slick and jazz influenced and remains muted underneath the heavily harmonized vocal melodies. Things get even more Timberlake-esque when Beyoncé jumps on top of a car while Timbaland beat boxes and trades lines. The video’s got a whole lot of neon, which fits this sound just as well as JT’s formal wear, which speaks both the flexibility of the songwriting as well as the strength of Beyoncé’s visuals. Also, with Queen B rocking a Wonder Woman t-shirt on the rink, Gal Gadot has some big shoes to fill.

No Angels
A visual ode to Beyoncé’s Houston roots. I’m kind of ashamed at how many of these local heroes I don’t recognize. The Texas rap world has largely eluded me, which is frankly kind of silly considering how much the rest of the scene (A$AP Rocky and Drake in particular) has been referencing it as of late. The song itself is airy and light, Beyoncé holding onto every breath and spacing her words far apart in the hook. At a volume barely louder than a whisper, she assures Jay that she isn’t the Miss Perfect she’s often portrayed as. Considering that Jay Z’s “On The Run” focused so much on how his rough upbringing made him an odd fit for Bey, her decision to use the Houston footage for this song is telling. A lot of this record seems to be about establishing her hood credentials and shattering the clean pop image she’s been pigeon holed with as of late.

Another short rap interlude, this one much more playful and confident than “Ghosts.” We’ve officially entered the sexy zone.

Beyoncé and a faceless Jay Z romp through Paris’s nightlife, blowing cigar smoke and slowly losing garments. There’s a whole bunch of different recognizably French things being referenced, from the breakfast in Versailles to the racy burlesque in the video’s second half. In both cases we watch Beyoncé through Hova’s eyes, the camera hovering just over his shoulder or replacing him entirely as he reads a newspaper. Thus, though we are watching Beyoncé at her most sexual, we never forget whom it is that she’s truly dancing for. The lyrics play a similarly complex game. If you were to drop into the middle of the song you would be forgiven for thinking she’s being submissive, but the opening verse shows that she’s completely in control of both her and her partner’s lusts. Musically, Timbo’s stamp is much less pronounced than on “Blow,” which is probably a result of resident Beyoncé hit maker The-Dream being involved as well.

Up until this track, the Hova/Yonce marriage has been painted as nothing but positive. “Jealous” with its “all dressed up and no one to dine with” vibes are the first to show the cracks. Considering how insanely busy both of these artists have been in 2013 its kind of stunning that the two got to spend anytime together at all. This song is all about that distance, where Beyoncé finds herself drinking alone at home while Jay pulls another late night at the studio and winds up wondering about what could have been with an old flame from Texas. The song isn’t much to write home about. Although it's clearly aiming to be a stadium sized power ballad, the vocal melody feels a bit too grounded, which is something I never thought I’d say about a Beyoncé song. Still, the video’s worth a watch solely for the shots of New Yorkers losing their shit as Beyoncé walks past.

As far as opening lines go “Let me put this ass on you/Show you how I feel” has got to be near the top of the pile for the year. The rest of the song follows suite, laying down a tasteful 12/8 shuffle for Beyoncé to riff her heart out over. Timberlake has some credits on this, as does Miguel, and you can definitely make out some flourishes that are reminiscent of both, but at its core this one is all Beyoncé all the time. The video is equally reverential to her, staying so close to her body that her features appear more like vast landscapes. Her voice leaps, gasps and staggers, adding a dynamic element to what could have been a fairly standard sex romp in lesser hands. The swirl of limbs and sheets is almost as extreme as Steve McQueen’s Shame in the way that it decontextualizes otherwise recognizably sexual imagery. Sadly things don’t stay as artful and eventually we’re treated to clips of rockets taking off and drills going through wood. Still, even when it gets a bit heavy handed, there’s no arguing that this isn’t a refreshingly mature and open exploration of female sexuality that doubles as a hell of an engaging listen.

Mine (feat. Drake)
This is the third track on the album thus far that starts with an intro that never repeats, but unlike the previous two, “Mine” isn’t separated into two videos. In the first chunk Beyoncé sits in a mock Pietá pose while singing about her depression in the wake of Blue Ivy’s birth (!) and hints that she and Jay were apparently thinking of breaking up (!!!!??!??!). Eventually she dons a mask and the core of the song gets started. Again we are on the beach, and again we’re seeing a clever subversion of traditional pop gender roles. Notice how the female dancers are lost in a whirl of flowing clothing while the male dancers’ are shirtless and faceless? This is flipping the usual script when it comes to objectification in music videos. If you think that’s a bit of a stretch, make note of the way that the women, including Beyoncé, are adorned with the word “Mine” while the men wear “Yours.” Even over a typically subdued Noah 40 beat, Beyoncé is not submitting to anyone but herself.

There’s a great clip from the making of Beyoncé’s last full length 4 where she mentions “hipsters are going to love this one” in reference to “Countdown.” It’s pretty easy to imagine a similar sentiment being shared during the making of “XO.” Beyoncé wanders through Coney Island, dancing with the people, riding the Cyclone, waving to adoring fans on the Ferris wheel and generally making me extremely homesick. I would compare her to Margaery Tyrell winning over the hearts of the downtrodden in King’s Landing, but that metaphor falls apart the minute you have to consider Jay Z as Joffery. Also, Beyoncé seems to genuinely love doing this kind of stuff. She’s simply born to be a celebrity and an idol, to stand out in a crowd and then draw that crowd in. The song itself is perfectly suited to the glorious Coney Island summer sunset, the chorus exploding in the sort of surge that M83 has had a monopoly on for the last few years. And man is that video pretty. Wait, what? Terry Richardson directed this? GOD DAMN IT.

What originally started off as a strange tangent into trap music preceding “I Been On” has been completely transformed into something truly transcendent. It starts simply, though still cleverly enough with Beyoncé reestablishing her supremacy over the newer generation of female pop stars, but then things really take off. Instead of the fleet of guest verses from Houston rappers that made up the original, the song segues into a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche laying down some fucking knowledge while a mosh pit rages in slow motion. It is impossible to overstate how daring something like this is on a megawatt pop record, and it is equally difficult to overstate how insanely cool it actually sounds and looks.

Another Jonas Akerlund directed video, this one places Beyoncé at the forefront of a riot that looks like a cross between the climax of The Dark Knight Rises and that Punk Rock Gala that happened earlier this year. Having watched her drink wine by herself in an expensive NYC apartment and seduce Jay Z over breakfast in one of the largest monuments to excess ever constructed by the human race, seeing her surrounded with romanticized revolutionary imagery seems kind of weird. Would Beyoncé really be on the side of the anarchists if push came to shove? Would the anarchists really let her lead them? Would Pharrell even show up? I’d imagine I probably wouldn’t be worrying about this stuff as much if the song was better.

This is it. Of all the types of songs that we tend to hear from Beyoncé there are two that will always stand head and shoulders above the rest. The first is the badass vaguely feminist anthem, of which Beyoncé has already had several. The other is the heartfelt ballad that gives Bey a chance to let her vocal chops soar. “Heaven” initially seems like the later, with its contemplative piano and deeply personal lyrics, but it instead turns into a master class in restraint. Each verse pushes towards the heights that we’re used to hearing Beyoncé reach on songs like these, only to tumble back to earth at the last minute for the chorus. There are flashes of virtuosic intensity but they’re pushed far back in the mix and covered in reverb, sounding more like ghosts than grand gestures. The video cuts back and forth between Beyoncé having a great time with her friends and her somberly walking through a graveyard, making her seem just as haunted as the song. Of course it is impossible to tell whether it’s the good times haunting the bad or vice versa.

Blue (feat. Blue Ivy) & Grown Woman
And so we reach the end of the visual record. The album proper ends with “Blue” a heartwarming tribute to Beyoncé’s two-year-old daughter, but the visual version of the record adds on “Grown Woman” a peppy self-empowerment jam. This is where the trickiness of Beyoncé’s format really starts to get kind of unavoidable. For anyone listening to it on the go, “Blue” ends the album. For anyone who makes the effort to watch the visual version “Grown Woman” ends the album. Does this make the audio only version incomplete or does it make the visual version redundant? This confusion could have been solved by one small change: roll the credits** over “Grown Woman.” The video is already a retrospective, interplaying home footage of Beyoncé through out her life with new footage of her reenacting her childhood dance moves. We get more shots of the wall of trophies from “Pretty Hurts” bringing the pseudo-narrative of the record full circle, and the whole thing goes delightfully cosmic before fading to black. This also feels more appropriate after the obvious emotional climax of “Blue.” The song is the best possible meeting between Beyoncé’s competing tendencies towards bangers and ballads, building slowly but surely until a swell of bass and trap drums push the song into the heavens without losing its deep sense of intimacy. “Blue” puts the whole record in perspective, revealing the beach in daytime, showing what kept Beyoncé and Jay together during their rough patches, and giving face to the reason Bey isn’t going to back down from putting her feminism upfront in her music even if it hurts her sales, and god damn is that face adorable. Nothing sums up Beyoncé better than Blue Ivy Carter: both are products of talented and absurdly rich parents, both have been kept out of the public eye for their own good, and the presence of both in our lives should give us nothing but hope for the future.

Grade: B

*Unlike poor Wale. Sorry dude, better luck next time I guess?

**This idea of a final track actually being the “credits” sequence isn’t a particularly new one, but its one that I’ve thought about a lot since “Compton” followed “Real” on Good Kid M.a.a.d. City last year.


  1. great review-

    interesting that you decided not to mention heaven in relation to her miscarriage (as she describes the song). i'm going to pretend that the "B" letter grade is in honor of queen b.


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