Self-titling an album midway through your career can mean many things. For Fleetwood Mac, it marked the rise of the Buckingham-Nicks axis; for Blur, it signalled a departure from the jovial parochialism that had served them so well; and for Beyoncé, it’s a liberation from her Superwoman image but not necessarily from all the confusing gender politics that go along with it.
Stuck between the rock of the strong, independent message she preaches and the hard place of fierce sexuality she embodies, Beyoncé remains coy, refusing to resolve the heated feminist debate that has long surrounded her. If anything, the two contradictory sides of her persona are amplified on this, her fifth album, but any pretence of perfection she carries is completely and joyfully vandalised in the process.
‘Partition’ and ‘Flawless’ in particular see to that. The former sees Beyoncé on her knees in the back of a limo and leaving little to the imagination. It is downright filthy. Going beyond sexual, what makes ‘Partition’ shocking is the flippancy with which Bey can toss off a line like “Driver roll up the partition please / I don’t need you seeing ‘Yonce on her knees”. It’s a day-in-the-life sort of anecdote for her but a goldmine for tabloid publications the world over. And over a beat that clicks and grinds with leering revelry, she just hands it over like that window tint is there for no reason.
‘Flawless’, on the other hand, unleashes Superwoman Beyoncé once more but this time with an inbuilt irony. Repurposed from ‘Bow Down’, released earlier last year, the song is skittish and yet bombastic, allowing for a diatribe from feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to take up the song’s middle third. When Beyoncé reenters, she’s hardened. As she sings, “I woke up like this, I woke up like this”, there’s a threatening irony that belies its catchiness – it becomes more than a hook, it’s a mantra.
By Beyoncé’s standards, ‘Pretty Hurts’ is a fairly inauspicious ballad to start with, but it is important in that it decries the attitude of her mother and other like who said she should coast on her looks and strain for nothing more. “Perfection is a disease of the nation” is the main thing to take away from the opening number, and if Beyoncé has an overarching theme it is the dismissal of perfection in favour of a rougher, sometimes more hurtful truth. That is not to say Beyoncé is some warts-and-all account of its creator’s life, but it is still a pretty major unveiling of what goes on behind the curtain.
‘Drunk in Love’, for instance, paints a rather vivid picture of Bey’s sex life with Jay Z: animalistic, ravenous and without the exposed vulnerability that defines large swathes of the album. Maybe Jay is not keen to tarnish his untouchable, unflappable persona or his wife merely chose to limit his appearance to one track, but the pair come off as unable to keep their hands off each other, madly, drunkenly in love. So Beyoncé voices her insecurities without her husband’s input, most tellingly on ‘Mine’, which features both chronic oversharer Drake and a killer confession of doubt highlighted by the line “I don’t feel like myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it?”.
Coming towards the album’s end, ‘Mine’ really is quite devastating in its candour and made all the more intriguing by Jay’s absence – he should, after all, be the one to pick up the pieces, but Beyoncé is left to weigh up their relationship alone. She’s asking for relatively little – to call him hers – and his silence says so much. Drake does great work longing for a former flame and he is able to adequately sympathise with Beyoncé as she struggles to see a future with her husband.
Of course, Beyoncé goes back and forth on the subject of Jay Z. They seem perfectly in sync at times (‘Drunk in Love’, ‘Blow’) but they may also be on the verge of breaking up (‘No Angel’, ‘Mine’) and sometimes within the same song (‘Jealous’) – one minute she’s recommitting to him, the next she’s pulling the freakum dress out the closet. In all likelihood, ‘Superpower’ is the definitive comment on the Knowles-Carter union. Formed largely from the backing vocals of Frank Ocean, the song embodies the sort of subtle power Beyoncé sings about on it. Too big to fail, the pair find strength in one another. Their’s is a tough love “like a shark, like a bear” – hardly a conventional definition of contentment but there seems to be some sort of sustenance wrought from their combined ferociousness. Which is nice, I guess.
Closer ‘Blue’ steps back from questions of her marriage and feminist credentials, finding solace in motherhood. It’s a rather touching tune, a paean to her daughter from whom she takes great pride and joy, but its also rather insular and kind of saddening to hear of their symbiosis when there’s clearly so much else on her mind. Watching on as Blue Ivy gurgles and laughs, Beyoncé does sound happy if only for a couple of minutes, and that’s all she wants ultimately.
Beyoncé has spent the last 15 years being many things to many people. She can sing ‘At Last’ for the Obama inauguration just as much as she can coin the term ‘Bootylicious’. And for every For every ‘Irreplaceable’ or ‘If I Was a Boy’ preaching on independence and equality, there’s a ‘Cater 2 U’ or ‘Halo’ to contradict and a ‘Single Ladies’ or ‘Ring the Alarm’ to further complicate matters. Beyoncé is not a clarification, if anything it is just as confused as any body of work Beyoncé has released, but it excels thanks to its honesty – the lustre, the tears and pride that come with being Beyoncé.
This album is Beyoncé, at her best, worst and everything in between.