On January 12th Beyonce Knowles released an unannounced “visual album” with 17 songs and 17 accompanying videos called “BEYONCE”. It was released as an iTunes exclusive and was only made available to other retailers on Dec. 18th. It costs $15.99 and sold over 800,000 copies in its first weekend. Pretty wild stuff.
Here’s what we already know about Beyonce: her music will have high production value, she’s magnetic, she’s extremely attractive, she’s a great dancer, and she can sing. In all these respects she’s exceptional, and if this were the debut album of a new artist I would definitely take notice. But Beyonce is someone I also believe has been behind really great, innovative music, bucking trends and going her own way. In this respect—musically—I see this album as a step backwards.
I imagine a meeting in a boardroom at Sony Music Entertainment’s headquarters between a top record executive and a producer coming up with the direction for the album. Let’s call the exec Fred and the producer Bob. I imagine the conversation going something like this:
Fred: Gee whiz this video album is going to be expensive! Not only will we have to pay for musicians, studio time, and songwriting teams, but also for 17 different video shoots with crews, actors, and a ton of different hot shot directors, not to mention the army of lawyers we’ll need to hire to keep the whole thing a secret and make sure the album isn’t pirated once we do release it. Somehow we need to guarantee that we will sell enough records to recoup all these expenses…
Bob: How are we going to do that??
Fred: We’ll just take every musical and cultural phenomenon of the past 3 years and copy them. That way the record is sure to be a hit!
Fred: Who’s popular these days…? Lady Gaga’s popular right? All that macabre, highly sexualized stuff is brilliant! Wish we’d though of that. Oh well, we’ll just do it anyway. We’ll make a video set in a spooky hotel with lots of deformed people, and people wearing crazy clothes licking each other and humping and whatnot. We’ll call it “Haunted!”
Bob: Perfect! We’ll put it all over a sort of brooding euro-techno thing, I hear the kids these days love EDM…
Fred: “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” were obviously monster hits. How do we replicate that?
Bob: We’ll write a highly sexualized bubbly retro-electro-disco sorta thing. Should take about five minutes to write the lyrics and then we’ll get Pharell Williams to help us out with the track. We’ll call it “Blow.” But do you know what the biggest trend these days is? The newest fad all the kids are crazy about?
Bob: Civil unrest! It’s happening in the Ukraine. It’s happening in Syria. It’s happening all over! Remember all those kids who put up tents in Zucotti Park a couple years back? What was that called? Oh yeah, Occupy Wall Street! Imagine if all those kids protesting all over the world bought a digital download of Beyonce’s new album, we’d recoup those expenses in no time!
Fred: Perfect! We’ll make the video for “Superpower” about a futuristic/post-apocalyptic protest! But, of course Beyonce will still be half-naked and making out with dudes and stuff. Remember, everything has to be highly sexualized. Ever since Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s that’s what everybody’s doing. Over the top in your face sexuality is really in right now!
I could go on:
The first verse in “Ghost” has the same recitative multi tracked rapping thing that Kendrick Lamar does.
Beyonce’s sing song rapping on “Drunk in Love” sounds weirdly like Drake.
The pseudo-carribean first verse of “Yonce” sounds a lot like Rihanna, and has the same Elvis lip motif that Rihanna uses in her video for “Rude Boy.”
“Partition” and “Jealous” have a recent Kanye minimalist industrial kind of texture, and “Jealous” even has a yelping vocal sample that sounds so strikingly similar to the one in Kanye’s “Mercy,” that I suspect it may even be the same sample.
“Rocket” sounds exactly like D’angelo’s “How does it feel.”
“Flawless” has "trap" style production a-la Three Six Mafia, or 2 Chainz.
Despite all this, the record seems to be getting a ton of critical acclaim. Am I crazy? Is anyone else noticing these similarities? Does anyone else care?
Let me clarify for a second, I don’t think the record is all bad. There are a few tracks towards the end I really like. While I suspect “Blow” will be the first single, I think “XO” is a much better candidate, or if that's too much of a ballad "Drunk in Love" could work too. All the ballads are pretty good, “Flawless,” and “Superpower,” are both cool and “Grown Woman” is my personal favorite track on the album (although it’s partly because of the awesome bass playing in the end part). While there are a few gems, I just find it shocking how obviously derivative most of these tracks are. I used to think of Beyonce as a tastemaker and an innovator, so to see her bow so easily to current and most likely passing trends is disheartening.
I understand the argument that the work is about the cumulative effect of all the songs and videos together, and that the “video album” concept is ambitious and of our time, but to me neither the videos nor the music have the content to back up the concept. There isn’t really a narrative thread that goes through the music or the videos that makes it feel like anything more than just 17 songs with 17 ok videos (except maybe you could argue there's a feminist slant to most of the songs, and there's a recurring trophy image in a few of the videos). And as far as music video multi media innovation goes, I think this project pales in comparison to the incredibly simple, clever and powerful video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that came out a few weeks ago (http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html). It’s pretty amazing that Bob Dylan after a 50+ year career is still one of the most innovative and vital artists out there. And it’s actually kinda sad that a 72 year old man does zeitgeist better than any member of my generation I can think of.
We all love Beyonce, and maybe for most people her raw talent and magnetism is worth the price of admission. I get that. But I always liked Beyonce because in addition to having raw talent and magnetism she put out fun pop music that was innovative and of high quality. She always masterfully towed the line between entertainer and artist, and now with “BEYONCE” I see her solidly planted in the entertainment camp.
Anyway, I guess my final word is that instead of buying “BEYONCE”, you should spend your $15.99 on a bottle of Muscadet or a 375 ml bottle of Valdespino's "Inocente" sherry and drink it while watching “Like a Rolling Stone” 17 times in a row. Now that’s a high quality way to spend an evening.