Beyoncé's New Album Is Shocking, Sexy, and Has Something to Say

A chat about what the pop star is up to on her brand-new "visual" release
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Spencer Kornhaber: This going-viral GIF handily illustrated what Beyoncé did Thursday at midnight:

Translation: She upended the year in pop music by releasing a self-titled, “visual” album on iTunes—with zero forewarning. Well maybe not quite zero. She’d been on a year-long promotional tear, performing at the Super Bowl, producing an HBO autobiographical documentary, and launching a world tour. But no album had materialized. No album seemed likely to materialize. And then one did.

Nolan, Ashley, we took an hour today to binge on the 14 songs and their 17 accompanying videos (including credits!). Mostly we sat in stunned silence, except for that time when we all shifted uncomfortably as the camera closely followed Bey’s hand running across the curves of her body in slow motion for the “Rocket” clip. How are you feeling?

Ashley Fetters: Impressed. Overstimulated. Kinda hot and bothered, a little uncomfortable. So, you know, great overall.

Nolan Feeney: I feel like a grown woman, and I can do whatever I want.

Kornhaber: “Impressed” is a good place to start. This album’s existence must be one of the best-kept-but-then-revealed secrets in music history. What's amazing is not just that it exists—it’s that it’s a really big, cohesive, high-effort deal. There are SEVENTEEN music videos here, and in terms of production values, they all rank in the top tier of the medium. There are no tossed-off performance clips or star-free animations. Beyoncé’s in every video. They seemed to have been filmed all over the world. They vary from documentary-style to story clips to high-art dance choreography.

Feeney: Beyoncé indeed pulled off some Homeland-worthy scheming by letting the album’s unclear due date become something of a joke to fans while she slaved on all these videos for a year. With so many people involved in such a large production, I hope the lawyer who wrote up the nondisclosure agreements gets a hefty Christmas bonus. (Something to think about: While many videos feature guest stars and extras, shots of Bey are often separate footage, as if filming these didn't require the participants' full knowledge of what exactly what was going on.)

We’ve had a few clues about her filming music videos—we knew she went to Coney Island to shoot a clip for an unreleased song—but nobody anticipated a project of this scale. What makes this album release brilliant isn’t just that she kept fans out of the loop, but how she envisioned and executed a project her fans never saw coming. The release was not an old-school music moment, where every fan got the same product at more or less the same time because of a fast production turn-around. It was a forward-thinking, next-level kind of moment.

Kornhaber: And then there’s the music, which at least on first listen, seems … pretty damn good. Not the sound of a pop star regurgitating what she’d done before. Not a ton of obvious hits. More hip-hop vibes than she’s served up previously, but also a lot of ballads and experimental stuff—often all existing in the same track. It’s going to take some time to process. For now, what are the highlights for you two?

Feeney: We heard some of “***Flawless” when she teased it as “Bow Down” in March, but its final form is a completely different beast. Like other moments on the album, it’s a middle finger to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format of pop songs, which makes the fact that it’s one of the catchiest tracks a particular triumph.

It also fires back at some of her critics. Her lyrics about not being “just his little wife” take aim at those who link the overall quality of her previous album, 4, with its celebration of monogamy and domestic bliss. And the extended spoken word bit from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie feels like a response to original pushback against the song. The “bow down, bitches” line got plenty of heat for dissing women, but when Beyoncé samples Adichie’s suggestion that competition among women for jobs or accomplishments isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Beyoncé seems to say that calling her out for being anti-feminist is just another case of a patriarchal society trying to police her behavior. (Whether you agree with that is another story.)

Ultimately, though, what makes the track so fun is how it’s also classic Beyoncé. The line "I woke up like this" revels in her fabulous, effortless brand of perfection—even if another track, “Pretty Hurts,” highlights her frustrations with maintaing that image.

Fetters: “***Flawless” (what’s with the asterisks?) is a perplexing one for me. I love the Adichie cameo; I love everything that stands for. And I love how weirdly bleak and dreamy it sounds.

But the “I woke up like this” seems puzzling, especially after having seen the video. Given that she opens the album / video playlist with “Pretty Hurts,” which is all about the huge, painful amounts of effort that go into beauty, it seems like when she sings about looking flawless, her “I woke up like this” should be taken as a sort of caustic, yeah-right sarcastic remark. And I love that. But the video for it muddled my perception of how she means it.

I think my absolute favorite, though, actually, might be “Partition.” There’s a time-honored tradition of marrying sex and cars in various ways in pop music, and in “Partition,” Beyoncé contributes to the canon by asking the chauffeur to “roll up the partition, please.” (Because sex, if that wasn’t clear.) Sonically, it’s kind of pleasingly trippy and earwormy, and it also features some nifty, detail-oriented scene-setting in the lyrics.

Kornhaber: The first song to really make me say “whoa” was “Mine.” The opening part of the song is a piano-backed confession, with Beyoncé singing that she’s “been having conversations about breakups and separations / I'm not feeling like myself since the baby.” Then the tempo kicks up, and you have Drake doing a repetitive, echoing chorus (it’s consummately Drake—the entire track sounds like something off Take Care, which isn’t a bad thing). Then we’re back to Beyoncé, getting more confident: “We should get married / Let's stop holding back on this and let's get carried away.” At six minutes long, it’s this epic, shapeshifting, moody, shockingly honest (or seemingly honest) look at how one of the most public relationships in the world has evolved.

Also, Ashley, I agree that “Pretty Hurts” is fascinating. Here we have Beyoncé, whose name is synonymous with perfection, singing that “Perfection is the disease of a nation.”

Fetters: Right? After hearing that, watching a parade of videos in which Beyoncé does, indeed, look perfect made me say, "Yikes, did this hurt?" Do you think there’s a logic to opening the album with that one?

Kornhaber: Well when I first listened to the song, it felt like a humblebrag: Oh poor Beyoncé, you’re too beautiful. But then I watched the video, a behind-the-scenes look at all the primping and obsessive weight-loss (and fabulous, sky-print workout gear) that goes into a beauty pageant. The sight of dotted lines markered onto Beyoncé’s face by a cosmetic surgeon is straight-up disturbing. The fact that a song/video like this opens the album almost inoculates Beyoncé to accusations of self involvement. She’s fierce and flawless and swaggering for much of the rest of Beyonce, but we never forget that there’s an element of criticism and self awareness to that.

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Nolan Feeney, Ashley Fetters, Spencer Kornhaber

Ashley Fetters and Spencer Kornhaber edit The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel. Nolan Feeney writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel.

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