Look, I’ll be honest: I can’t stand Beyoncé. There’s something about her that has always stirred a sort of visceral loathing in me, something I’ve tried hard to articulate over the years. It’s a combination of the narcissism, the materialism, the arrogance, the faux feminism, and the awful, awful songs. And the fact that it seems I am the literal only person who feels this way (well, just about), while everyone else is writing articles like this. Beyoncé is not an avatar of perfection; she is a cashed-up diva with a temperature-controlled personal archive and a penchant for making propaganda films (and trampling people in her way). BUT! I am a professional. And I listened to Beyoncé with an open mind. I tried. I really did. This is what happened.
“Pretty Hurts” So. The album opens with a song about the pervasiveness of the beauty myth, which sounds somewhat promising until you remember who’s singing it. Sample lyrics: “Just another stage/ Pageant the pain away/ This time I’m gonna take the crown/ Without falling down.” Look, America’s obsession with physical appearance and general superficiality is definitely a subject worth addressing in song. But sorry, you’ll excuse me for not taking you entirely seriously for singing “Perfection is the disease of a nation” when elsewhere on the album you devote an entire song to how perfect you are. (Oh yes, of course she does.) Or singing “Blonder hair, flat chest/ TV says bigger is better… Vogue says thinner is better,” because:
“Haunted” If you can make it through this album, you’ll notice a theme: samples from Beyoncé’s past. This song starts with the precocious little Knowles on stage at a talent show, thanking judges, her parents and the city of Houston for giving her some sort of award. Huzzah. But wait, this shit is hard, don’t you know? “All the shit I do is boring/ All these record labels boring/ I don’t trust these record labels/ I’m touring/ All these people on the planet/ Working 9 to 5, just to stay alive.” Yeah, all those funny little people, eh? Must be weird for them, right?
“Drunk in Love” But look, this song is actually so awful that it’s kinda hilarious: a song about Beyoncé and Jay-Z having sex! Because that’s exactly what the world needed to hear! Clearly, the whole being-pretty-is-oh-so-difficult thing has long since been forgotten by now, since Beyoncé spends plenty of time talking about how hot she is (“No complaints for my body… Last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding off in that club”). But honestly, it all pales in comparison to Jay-Z’s rap, which may be the actual worst thing ever recorded that does not involve will.i.am. It starts with bit of product placement and a “joke” that Jay-Z is so pleased with he repeats it three times (“That D’Ussé is the shit/ If I do say so myself” — GEDDIT?!), and then descends into what must surely be self-parody — “Foreplay in the foyer/ Fucked up my Warhol.” OH, BOO FUCKING HOO. Also “foyer” and “Warhol” don’t even vaguely rhyme. Even that’s trumped, though, by the immortal line that finishes Jay’s verse: “Your breasteses is my breakfast.” This is like hearing about your parents having sex. Make it stop.
“Blow” Oh dear god, they’re still at it. “Can you lick my skittles?/ That’s the sweetest in the middle/ Pink that’s the flavor/ Solve the riddle.” What is it with people comparing vaginas to candy this year?
“No Angel” Meh.
“Partition” Not, sadly, about the 1947 division of the subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, nor about the innovation of including a recovery partition with every standard install of OS X 10.7 and later. No, it’s about how hot Beyoncé is. Surprise. “Every boy in here with me got that smoke/ Every girl in here got to look me up and down… Ya man ain’t ever seen a booty like this.” And, oh, wait: THEY’RE FUCKING AGAIN. “Driver roll up the partition please/ I don’t need you seeing ‘yoncé on her knees… Oh he so horny, he want to fuck/ He bucked all my buttons, he ripped my blouse/ He Monica Lewinski all on my gown.” Disappointing product placement opportunity missed there, mind: surely it was a Versace gown or something?
“Jealous” Wait! Trouble in paradise! They’re not fucking because Jay-Z’s out on the town somewhere! THE DRAMA! “I’m in my penthouse half naked/ I cooked this meal for you naked/ So where the hell you at?” Hey, we’ve all been there, right? The whole naked cooking thing? What? Oh.
“Rocket” Normal service restored: they’re fucking again. “Rock right up to the side of my mountain/ Climb until you reach my peak babe, my peak, the peak/ And reach right into the bottom of my fountain.” #splash. (Also, it’s somewhat disturbing how she keeps calling him “daddy.” As in: “You ain’t right for doing that to me, daddy/ Even though I’ve been a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad girl/ Tell me what you’re gonna do about that/ Punish me, please.” Um.)
“Mine” Wait! Trouble in paradise again! “I’ve been watching for the signs/ Took a trip to clear my mind/ Now I’m even more lost/ And you’re still so fine, oh my, oh my/ Been having conversations about breakups and separations/ I’m not feeling like myself since the baby.” Actually, there’s something pleasantly relatable about this: a hint of humanity beneath the gold-plated, airbrushed veneer. It turns out that even this is carefully contrived, though, because the rest of the song is devoted to a narrative that, yes, brings her back to her dear husband. Reviewers are already falling over themselves to call this “a revealing look at Beyoncé,” and all such things, but it’s not, of course. You only ever see exactly what she wants you to see.
“XO” I mean, what do you want me to say? It’s a big ol’ power ballad with a fucking choir on it.
“Flawless” This is the compulsory pseudofeminist anthem on this record, the successor to “Independent Women” and “Single Ladies,” and it’s a load of utter fucking codswallop. You’ll have heard part of this before, as “Bow Down,” but now the “Bow down bitches” refrain is counterpointed by a long monologue from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who speaks eloquently about how the world sets women in competition against one another and how they’re taught to “shrink themselves… to make themselves smaller.” And LITERALLY A MINUTE LATER, Beyoncé is singing “This diamond, flawless/ My diamond, flawless… God damn, say I, I look so good tonight.” These boasts are interspersed by some sort of woolly cheerleading for girlz in general (“We flawless, ladies, tell ’em”), but as a demonstration of how hollow Beyoncé’s patented brand of “modern day feminism” is, you couldn’t do much better: her version of empowerment, such as it is, is based on a sort of inherent conservatism, rooted not in compassion and generosity, but instead in materialism, braggadocio, and inescapable narcissism. Feminism is actually caring about people who are oppressed — women, minorities, the poor. It is not spending 99% of your time talking about how great you are and how much hotter you are than other women and how rich you are, and occasionally inserting some sort of nebulous piffle about “girls running the world” or whatever else. The empress isn’t naked; she’s dressed in shit you could never, ever afford, and she’s laughing at you. Bow down, bitches. (Also, the production is fucking dreadful.)
“Superpower” Features Frank Ocean. More pseudoromantic bilge. I’m tired. My head hurts.
“Heaven” An understated ballad for a loved one who’s died. And, hey, it’s really quite beautiful, actually.
“Blue” And, finally, a song about the world’s most famous baby. Say whatever else you like about Beyoncé, she obviously loves her daughter. Good for her. And anyway, the album’s over. I need a drink.
[Edit: Some follow-up thoughts on this piece, and the way I addressed its subject matter, here. -TH]