“Let me sit this asssssssssssss on ya“ might be the moment it finally sinks in. Mrs. Knowles is all done with being the Good Girl, thank you very much. It’s mildly surprising given the singer’s wholesome image and reputation for modesty compared to that of her industry peers — up until now, she’s managed to steer clear of the sexual shenanigans, VMA scandals and half-naked Twitter pics that are de rigueur for pop stars of the Internet age. But what’s more intriguing is the improbable feat that Beyoncé pulls off during her inevitable foray into naughtiness — maintaining our respect.
By recasting carnality in the context of post-feminist empowerment, Beyoncé accomplishes something with her music that Britney, Rihanna, and Miley could not — being sexy (really sexy, truth be told) without being tawdry or artistically banal. The R&B/pop singer’s surprise-released fifth album Beyoncé is a defiant statement of erotic liberation and creative self-realization that embraces a grittier, aural palette and darker, emotional themes without sacrificing an ounce of Beyoncé’s mega-star status. On the contrary, Beyoncé cements it.
For an artist known for polished, mega-platinum singles “Crazy In Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” Beyoncé represents a significant shift from immaculate, verse/chorus pop to more sophisticated, multi-faceted compositions. “Haunted” and “Partition” unfurl like elaborate mini-suites, employing tempo changes and stylistic experimentation (trap, electro, and post-dubstep) in lieu of humongous, catchy hooks. “XO” proves Beyoncé can still write a flawless anthem, but its martial cadence and jittery, diced-up electronics are better suited for cinematic soul-searching than packing the dance floor.
Several A-list producers (Pharell, Timbaland, Hit Boy, etc.) join forces to give Beyoncé the lushest sonic backdrop of her career, and she makes the most of it — “Rocket” emulates D’Angelo’s neo-soul masterpiece “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” “Blow” bounces like a Studio 54 throwback, and Drake duet “Mine” is all creeping lust and dread, as Beyoncé trades nocturnal confessions with the Toronto rapper over a snaking, Noah “40” Shebib beat (his unctuous, grime-flecked atmospheres seem to have rubbed off on the rest of Beyoncé). Front to back, it’s the singer’s finest collection of songs to date and a triumph of aesthetic diversity without any loss of cohesion.
The album’s marvelous sound and songwriting hides a dirty little secret though— Beyoncé is going to make you blush. It doesn’t take a trip to Rap Genius to decipher “Blow’s” request for cleaning pink skittles and turning cherries out, but in case that one sneaks by you, Yoncé’s happy to remind you how much sex she’s having — in the bed, in the kitchen, in the limo, and, yes, in the tub (surfbort!) — with husband Jay Z. And to her credit, Beyoncé’s divine pipes makes each euphemism for a woman’s womanhood sound more tasteful than the last. “Rocket” portrays orgasms as waterfalls, fountains, and flowing rivers — standard romance novel fare, basically— but Beyoncé masterfully elevates that imagery with chord changes and sublime vocal runs that feel like little orgasms. The songs are so luxurious that you almost forget how racy they are — Beyoncé makes dirty talk sound like poetry.
She pulls it off for a simple reason — maturity. “This is for all the grown women out there,” Beyoncé declares, embracing monogamy and motherhood with a fervor that’s hard to root against. Beyoncé is blessed with talent and genetics that seem almost superhuman at times, but what connects us most to her are the moments when she reveals herself human — her adoration for daughter Blue Ivy, marital jealousy, post-partum depression, and everyday insecurities. Standing in front of a bedroom mirror, she proclaims with more than just a little spice: “Yoncé fillin’ out this skirt/ I look damn good, I ain’t lost it” — earning the appreciation of a million moms who’ve all been there. “Pretty Hurts” and “***Flawless” are overt appeals for feminist empowerment, but Beyoncé’s fulfillment is just as readily attained by meeting her daily needs — professional, parental, sexual. She manages to do on Beyoncé what Jay Z could not on Magna Carta, Holy Grail — be iconic but sound relatable; an every-woman who might be Queen B in her spare time, but just wants to be intimate with her husband and spend time with her child.
Much has been made of the fact that Beyoncé was written, recorded, and released while the entire world was looking the other way — the album sold over a million copies in just four days via its midnight, album-only drop on iTunes. But none of that matters if Beyoncé is just a couple of hit singles and a bunch of filler. It isn’t. Beyoncé is the rare occasion when a performer sets towering expectations for herself and succeeds, wildly. It’s a commercial and creative triumph that, if nothing else, gives teeth to Beyoncé’s demands for gender equality. “I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife” she spits on “***Flawess,” all while Jay Z’s “Crown! Crown! Crown!” sample shouts out a ringing endorsement. Beyoncé may have 99 problems these days, but Mr. Carter ain’t one.