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Beyoncé’s surprise album shows the singer at her most compelling

Beyonce performs at last February’s Super Bowl in New Orleans.


3.5 out of 4 stars


So, again with the "bow down bitches" from Beyoncé, the play-for-keeps diva and pop narcissist fiercer than the rest. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus are punks playing for second place, if they are even in the same game as Beyoncé. Though her eponymous new album came without warning, it has stormed the digital sales charts and captured imaginations. The hair-hurling R&B sorceress has snatched the pebble from the hand of Jay Z, her hip-hop husband and me-first mogul who laughs and lights a victory cigar now.

The stunt – dropping a sneak-attack "visual album" of 14 songs and 17 videos via iTunes without benefit of a lead-up campaign – has succeeded, but is the broad-siding Beyoncé any good? It is, and, really, it needed to be. If there's anything worse than a dud, it is an audacious one.

The disc is Beyoncé at her most compelling. The beats are hip-hop trippy, not relentless. The ballads are neither overwrought nor oversung. And the content is often lewd. The undulating Partition refers to a stretch car's sliding panel – put it up, as limo drivers (and children) should not be peeping at the backseat and booty.

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Partition is produced by the Timberlake-Timbaland dream team. Queen Bey instructs to drop the bass lower, and offers further production guidelines: "Radio say 'speed it up,' I just go slower / high like treble, pumping up the mids."

That ain't all she pumps up. Rocket taps the baby-making groove of D'Angelo, that silk-sheet luvva-man who years ago perfectly asked "How does it feel?" Beyoncé answers now with deep-eyed neo-soul sexiness and references to her physical allure.

This isn't a record of singles, it's album-oriented and done better in that respect than 2008's I Am … Sasha Fierce. The minimalist drifting and multi-parts of Haunted are not aimed for radio: "Soul not for sale," she says. "I probably won't make no money off this, oh well."

If we take the lyrics of Haunted at face value, the superstar singer is questioning her motivations. The business is boring and she doesn't trust the record labels. So, with this, her fifth solo album, she switches the marketing blueprint.

Both Haunted and the big opening track Pretty Hurts begin with archival clips involving youthful pageants. Too much perfection and plastic smiles – "Are you happy with yourself?" is the question asked.

Once dangerously in love, Beyoncé now sounds happy and pleasured on Blow, a breezy ode to oral sex that borrows Janet Jackson's sass and rings the seventies disco bell of Anita Ward. The romantic, piano-dappled Mine not only features Drake but slips into the Canadian rapper's phrasing and moody vibe.

Flawless, a fleshed-out reprise of Beyoncé's swaggering Bow Down single from earlier this year, incorporates an excerpt of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's reading on contemporary feminism. It is followed by the dreamy Superpower, a sublime duet with Frank Ocean, with production from Pharrell Williams.

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There's an air of arrival to this record, with an easy sense of authority and a fresh outlook. And if the talent shows and beauty pageants of Beyoncé's past are done with, she is still queen enough, on what she sees as her own terms.

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