Friday morning, Beyoncé sped up the whole slow and steady musical event ramp-up shtick that defined 2013 by releasing Beyoncé, her fifth album, with little to no warning, complete with 17 fully-formed music videos. The self-titled album expounds on the frustrated feminism of her HBO documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream from earlier this year, and sounds like a Houston rap tribute as imagined by Prince in Jamie Starr mode if he travelled to 2005 when Swisha House ruled the world and then took back that continuation of the Screwston sound, misremembered, to the early '80s, and morphed it into scrunchy electro jams.
There are videos for every Beyoncé song (and separate videos for the rappity parts of “Haunted” and “Partition”). These are mind you, actual videos. Not a bunch of half-assed performance clips, or even videos that were all shot in the same day near one another or anything like that. 17 high-concept videos helmed by 15 different directors, including monolithic heroes from the '90s monoculture Jonas Akerlund (“Haunted” and “Superpower”) and Hype Williams (“Drunk In Love” and “Blow”), next-level Bey-auteur Melina Matsoukas (“Pretty Hurts”), the “infamous” Terry Richardson (“XO”), and bleeding edge visual vampires Pierre Debusschere (“Ghost” and “Mine”) and @LILINTERNET (“No Angel”). Meanwhile Beyoncé gets a co-director credit on “Jealous,” “Rocket,” and “Blue.”
Before we get going, a few words about analyzing an entire record and all of its videos when it's just a few days old: that's how we're digesting things these days! Deal with it! To pull back and try to come up with some mega-statement on the record one week or two weeks from now is delusional and self-important. You might as well be mad that men wear dungarees out in public and not only when they're in the mines or some shit like that if people responding to a record in real-time sticks in your craw. Frankly, gut-level wild-outs and jumping the gun contrarian thinkpieces are preferable to loaded, supposedly labored upon “serious” reviews most of the time, anyways.
Let's start with the best videos of the bunch: “Pretty Hurts,” an incredibly affecting mini-melodrama that underlines to Beyoncé's painful awareness that being black and female means you're never enough of something or other for mainstream America; “Haunted,” a Wendy Torrance's hallway walk from The Shining meets Madonna's “Justify My Love” J-Horror riff; and “Heaven” (directed by Todd Tourso), a song about Beyoncé's miscarriage that visualizes grief and acceptance by way of shots of a dancer contorting in church, as if she were ecstatic and in pain at the same time.
This video cycle does deserve some side-eyes, too. There is a rather icky sense of slumming with poor folks in a lot of these videos. Watch Beyoncé hang out in the hood of Houston in “No Angel” (also calling herself “Ms. Third Ward” in the beauty pageant-themed “Pretty Hurts” is problematic); headbanging and moshing with a bunch of punks in “***Flawless”; running around doing some revolutionary cosplay in “Superpower”; and playing tourist in Brazil in “Blue,” recalling the joyful, condescending quasi-documentary anthropology of the Miami episode from season three of Louie.
Nothing is ever that simple and even these videos give you plenty to unpack and embrace. “No Angel” captures the communal spirit of regional rap scenes expertly, and a star as big as Beyoncé, who is indeed from Houston, putting on for the incredibly influential, still rather slept-on hip-hop culture of the city helps more than it hurts; black punk faces in “***Flawless” corrects the rockist white boy narrative around punk rock; and “Blue,” reminding viewers of Beyoncé's motherhood at the end of so much earnest sexuality is an affront to typical video objectification (There's really no excuse for #OCCUPY-themed “Superpower,” though).
Primarily, these videos are celebrations of Beyoncé's body, which is important in and of itself. Especially now that she's a mother, which means she's a “MILF” to a lot of objectifying lunkheads out there. The final videos are “Blue,” which finds her on vacation with her daughter, and “Grown Woman,” full of footage of Beyoncé as a child. She's a loving mother and she used to be goofy dancing kid and she won't let you ignore that or separate it from say, the intimate beach crawl of “Drunk On Love” or the B&W butt close-ups of “Rocket.” And that's what Beyoncé's entire anti-roll out of a release ordains, right? That you take on the entirety of Beyoncé's person, all at once.
Brandon Soderberg is a writer, film lover, and dog owner in Baltimore. He's on Twitter - @notrivia