Unusually for an industry fuelled by hype, it was the most well-kept secret since David Bowie's comeback album earlier this year, and all the more shocking for the global heft of its subject: at midnight Eastern Standard Time - around five o'clock this morning - Beyoncé suddenly released an album, available immediately through iTunes, with no advance promotional campaign at all.
A package of 14 new songs accompanied by 17 video clips, the self-titled “ visual album” is the singer's fifth long-player, and will only be obtainable in its entirety until tracks are individually downloadable in a week's time.
That's pretty much where the surprises end, however. Musically, it's the same kind of electro R&B with which radio is already awash - in large part because it's produced by the same small coterie of hip producers, with Timbaland appearing to take the most prominent role amongst the likes of Detail, Jerome Harmon, Pharrell Williams and Ryan Tedder.
And there's the obligatory appearance by her husband Jay Z, who she proudly claims “can't keep your eyes off my fanny, daddy”, over a cavernous sub-bass groove as billowing and bountiful as that legendary booty.
Elsewhere, Pharrell, Drake and Frank Ocean chip in with duets, and the celebrity couple's daughter Blue Ivy closes proceedings with a few cutesy burblings which, following the album's celebration of Beyoncé's sexuality, success and jet-set lifestyle - the accompanying clips are variously shot in global locations including France, Brazil, Australia and America, and in some cases resemble high-budget holiday videos - seems annoyingly like a you-can-have-it-all boast: all this power and luxury, and a happy family too!
Which is rather ironic, as the album likewise seeks to have its cake and eat it - an apt metaphor, in the circumstances. Following Beyoncé's bland assertion that “My aspiration in life would be... to be happy”, the opening track “Pretty Hurts” deals with the insecurity and anxieties of a girl undergoing cosmetic surgery, rooted in parental pressure - “Mama said, 'You're a pretty girl, what's in your head, it doesn't matter'”.
It's the best thing on the album by far, an undeniably noble attempt to boost female morale which finds its echo later in the feminist manifesto of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie featured in “ Flawless”; yet the rest of the album is an unashamed celebration of the very physical virtues, and the ultimate fulfillment of sexuality they inevitably bring, which leads so many women to suffer those anxieties in the first place.
The track listing is as follows:
- Pretty Hurts
- Drunk In Love (Ft Jay Z)
- Mine (Featuring Drake)
- ***Flawless (Featuring/ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
- Superpower (Featuring Frank Ocean)
- Blue (Featuring Blue Ivy)
The album can be downloaded from itunes at www.itunes.com/beyonce
Watch a preview of Blue: