Fewer artists have had enduring success like the inimitable Beyonce Knowles. Over the course of her 20 year career she’s managed to maintain an instantly recognizable identity which can be summed up into either fierce, flawless or even otherworldly. For her sixth solo LP and second proper visual album, the singer delves deeper than ever before to create an incredible work of art that encompasses a myriad of themes: love, identity, marriage, commitment, race, forgiveness and even power. From start to finish the album is mesmerizing.
Pray You Catch Me eases you into the story she’s about to tell from the breathy vocals at the beginning of the song echoing the ethereal work of twin duo Ibeyi which then transitions into a gripping ballad about the pain of infidelity and the anxiety of a whole lifetime of love falling apart. Hold Up, my personal favourite with it’s clever samples from Andy Williams instrumental to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs hook (with extra brilliance from Ezra Koenig) and even the surprising Soulja Boy’s Turn My Swag On has her questioning her suspicions and her worth (or any woman’s worth) in a relationship. Say what you want about Bey but she has a good ear for music and equally excellent grip on vocal production. It also doesn’t hurt that Diplo energized the song with shimmery light reggae production. Don’t Hurt Yourself upon first listen two months ago blew me away both on screen and in my ears. With it’s snarly delivery and fierce guitar play, it’s one of the most intense songs of her career. Its become evident that Mrs Carter intends to push the boundaries to where her vocal ability can reach and this track found her belting like Tina Turner meets Janis meets Steven Tyler—its great stuff honestly.
The most obvious commercial track on the album comes with Sorry, a trap-pop Wynter Gordon co-write which serves as a “fuck you” anthem to the haters and the men that did her wrong. Once again it’s amazing how her voice elevates a song which in the wrong hands can be generic and extremely mediocre but with her it’s a story, it’s passionate and it’s playful at the same time. The second verse proves my point when she sings “Now you wanna say you sorry/Now you wanna call me crying”, it’s as if she’s somehow taunting the guy (or Jay) that’s begging to stay or be taken back into her life. The song is so expertly pieced together right down to the spoken word bridge/final part that birthed the now famous phrase “Becky With The Good Hair” that it makes you just sit in awe on how committed to creating good music this woman is.
The smoldering 6 Inch saunters in with it’s thumping bass, dark horns and Beyonce’s effortless back and forth transition from her lower to upper register. The entire song arrangement is very cinematic which if you’re familiar with her work you’d remember the booming aura of Superpower from her self titled album. Daddy Lessons which was also written with Wynter Gordon (who with this record made me respect her even more as a writer) is a country jam mixed with gorgeous New Orleans jazz which acts as an introspective moment where the singer searches to understand the behaviour of the various men in her life and their impact generally in the children’s lives. Love Drought’s introspection begs to proffer the question of whether her love isn’t deep enough to deserve the lack of attention. Sandcastles, a sparse piano ballad with incredibly raw vocals, seems to end the rant and begin the process of healing and forgiveness while Forward, a moody hymn-like gem featuring James Blake further stresses the action.
Just when things were getting too bleak, in comes Freedom with it’s soaring Kaleidoscope sample and psychedelic production with self affirming lyrics (I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell) and strong deliveries from both Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. It’s a powerful song that hits hard on issues people of color face in the United States from shootings to discrimination to personal empowerment in the race itself.
The outtake of a speech from Jay Z’s grandmother on her 90th birthday at the end of Freedom is a perspective of life from a woman of color who’s seen all the movements and knows that her people-especially the black woman-cannot be broken. And thats when All Night, an absolutely beautiful ballad with it’s uncertainty of the future and celebration of love moves on with that statement in it’s heart and holds on to hope for better days by guarding that love jealously. The production, once again by Diplo who’s personal statements may be annoying but musical talent undeniable, is timeless and simply remarkable. The horns which formed one of the highlights of the song’s production was sampled from Outkast’s brilliant and ageless “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”. Finally the now iconic Formation brings us back to Beyonce being Beyonce: Self-heralding lyrics and feminist commentary trickled with political undertones and slight humor. It’s a brilliant track and a bold statement in her discography which like the artist herself, only gets better and bigger with each phase of her career.