What a gift. The new self-titled album from Beyoncé, surprised-released two weeks before Christmas, may not be the perfect stocking stuffer for your niece not, at least, if you want little Madison hearing "Partition," a detailed narrative of sex in the back of a limousine. (Buy it exclusively on iTunes through next Friday. According to reports, physical copies will likely go on sale soon after that.) But it's a music-industry "event" with unprecedented value for fans: 14 dreamy new songs, each with videos, plus four other clips, dropped just like that into our laps.
Which, as it turns out, makes a decent metaphor for a notable chunk of her fifth and least overtly pop studio album: "Let me sit this assssss on ya," Beyoncé, now 32, lustily declares to start off "Rocket," a slippery, six-and-a-half-minute funk excursion, and just one of a suite of surprisingly frank sex jams. If "Rocket" takes a silk blouse out of Prince's drawer, "Partition," a two-part hip hop track divided by the sound of a camera clicks and a window whirring up, evokes fringier, grimier horndogs from the Ying Yang Twins to the Weeknd, and sends any sense of romance off with a swat on the rear-end: Not only do the couple never make it to the club, but "daddy" forgets to "bring the towel"; she's not relying on the men here to provide anything more then their libidos.
And what about Beyoncé's man in real life? Jay Z drops by for "Drunk in Love," although that track's really about the bass and Bey's truculent raps and rare (for this album) displays of scale-busting, R&B-singer flair. Jay's mainly good for a giggle, or his line about "your breast-eses for breakfast" is, at least. But Bey's not merely flexing her dominance or even her independence with these bedroom and, let's not forget, backseat songs. Just as often she plays the submissive part, saying "I just wanna be the kind of girl you like," or even "Punish me, please!" What she's shaking off relates more to any one idea we might have of her or, in the mild album opener "Pretty Hurts," any female held to a standard of "perfection": "Momma said you're a pretty girl/what's in your head doesn't matter."
We'll never really know what a day contains for Beyoncé, as this year's gauzy, self-directed HBO "documentary," Life Is But a Dream, reminded us. But this album reveals plenty of what's in that head of hers. One of the most beautiful, painstakingly constructed women in the world singing "Pretty Hurts"? Clearly, she's a little conflicted. Here more than ever Bey indulges clashing impulses between strength and escape, megapop and fresh sounds, big messages and resonant lyrics. "Haunted," "No Angel," "Jealous," and "Superpower," a doo-wop-tinged track featuring a mumbly Frank Ocean: These treat relationships with the same raw instinct that suffuses her sex songs, coasting along or snarling up according to flitting moods. She even goes full Drake on "Mine," a misty six-plus minutes featuring Drizzy himself.
Some fans will no doubt feel lost in this murky, intermittently thrilling new territory. For them and everyone else with a heart there's "Blue," which features her baby-talking toddler Blue Ivy reverbed into infinity at the end, but more importantly, proves that not every piano-laden pop ballad need bring the doldrums on. Like much of Beyoncé, it balances formal inventiveness with emotional directness. Share it with your little niece, or someone else you love. A-
"Blue" feat Blue Ivy A mesmerizing, spun-sugar ballad
"Haunted" A moody, genre-melding epic