December 22, 2013 at 11:36 pm EST | by Santiago Melli-Huber
Beyonce’s surprise
Minimalist cover art of Beyonce's new album. (Image courtesy Parkwood/Columbia)

Minimalist cover art of Beyonce’s new album. (Image courtesy Parkwood/Columbia)

To the surprise of her fans, Beyoncé Knowles released her fifth studio album on iTunes on Dec. 13 with no promotion. An intimate and powerful artistic step, the self-titled album “Beyoncé” could easily be a musical standard bearer for years to come.

The “video album,” as Knowles refers to it, contains 14 tracks and 17 music videos and was recorded mostly in secret. In July, Diplo revealed to the UK’s The Sun that he worked on two songs with Knowles that were ultimately scrapped, but details on the full album remained a mystery.

Fueled by the excitement of a surprise release, “Beyoncé” sold about 828,000 copies in just three days, breaking an iTunes record for most albums sold in the first week, previously held by Taylor Swift’s “Red.” The three-day sales figure also doubled the first week sales of her previous album “4” (2011).

Often deep and sometimes dark, “Beyoncé” is an exploration into life with her husband Jay-Z and their daughter. It’s also rife with feminist themes, not unusual for Knowles.

The album opens with “Pretty Hurts,” which addresses the physical and emotional trauma women endure while trying to adhere to impossible standards of beauty. While it may seem like Beyoncé is revisiting “girl power” themes from earlier hits like “Single Ladies” and “Run the World (Girls),” “Pretty Hurts” aims to inspire rather than excite young women by stressing the importance of happiness over beauty.

“***Flawless,” a Southern hip-hop track, samples a TEDxEuston speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The accompanying speech adds significance to Bey’s authoritative line “Bow down, bitches,” an assertion of her power as an independent woman, with a comment on the double standards women face.

The lead single “XO” is an uptempo pop tune and has all of the makings of a radio hit. Conversely, “Haunted” is not poised to enjoy the same success. It’s one of the more experimental songs and criticizes the record industry, but the vocals in the hook are ethereal. The accompanying video is artistic and creepy, complementing the song well.

A potential crossover hit is “Drunk In Love,” a duet with her husband Jay-Z. The song is one of several on the album depicting the sexual relationship music’s biggest power couple enjoys. Between her singing and his rapping, the song has potential for both the Top 40 and R&B charts.

“Blow” immediately follows the duet and is equally explicit. A mod- and funk-inspired dance track, it’s quickly and justifiably become a fan favorite. It’s fun, catchy and the bridge turns the song from a ‘70s throwback to a modern pop hit. The music video is a must see for, if no other reason, the impressively well-coordinated glow-in-the-dark dance sequence.

“Partition” is a tough hip-hop track that contains the hilariously sexual line “He Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown.” The song stays true to the album’s themes and includes a section in French defending female sexuality. It also seems to introduce a new alter-ego named Yoncé, a tougher figure to replace Sasha Fierce, a personality Beyoncé “killed” years ago.

In “Mine,” which features Drake, Beyoncé opens up about her postpartum depression and marital issues. Beyoncé and Drake’s vocals complement each other well in a back-and-forth that melds together in the hook.

The last two tracks are the most emotional. “Heaven” is a haunting and somber ballad about the death of a loved one. The song alludes to the miscarriage Beyoncé suffered during her first pregnancy, detailed in her HBO documentary “Life Is But a Dream” and referenced in the Jay-Z song “Glory.”

If “Heaven” tore listeners down, the final track, “Blue,” will bring on tears of joy. The song is an ode to her daughter Blue Ivy, and the vocal performance is incredible by even Bey’s standards. The song itself is an intimate expression of love, capturing a moment of pure joy Beyoncé experiences as she holds her daughter.

Overall, the album is deep, powerful, and a defining moment in Beyoncé’s career in the same way “Ray of Light” was for Madonna. Without sacrificing her mass appeal or playful rhythms, Beyoncé has created a mature, innovative opus. She ranges from light and bubbly to deep and soulful, and no moment feels out of place.

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