In an era of popstars in which being a sexual edification is as much the goal as a #1 single, it’s a bit funny how Beyoncé (sort-of) secretly cuts her first Really Good Album, and then when it appears out of nowhere it immediately displays the contrast between a rich girl plying her wares down by the hacky sack corner at a local community college and a grown woman wrapping a blindfold around the eyes of a man who’s seen the world. Miley Cyrus spent most of 2013 trying to prove that listening to a bunch of 2 Chainz and Juicy J singles meant she understood what sex is, or how to portray it as a popstar. In just over an hour, Beyoncé renders that year—along with many a poptart before her—bad foreplay.
Let’s be clear, Beyoncé is filthy on this album. She’s hanging with stoners, she’s had one too many shots, she’s re-living her role in “Freakum Dress” and roleplaying the girl Amy Winehouse glorified for “Fuck Me Pumps” as though the stereotypes against those women as an inevitable crash and burn were absurd. It’d be easy to be offended by how brazen she is throughout this record, after all she’s famous enough that we basically know how she looks naked even if the finer details (like how she smiles, or feels, or exists) remain mysterious and it’s easy to be spiteful or jealous of her for living that reality. But this is also really her first attempt at bridging an audience, making music that makes the men want to hear what she has to say and the women feel like they can say it to men as well, or reminds them of the times they’ve similarly warned their man, to paraphrase, “I’m cooking food at home naked. Get the hell home.”
Despite an army as deep and varied as any other Beyoncé album, what she’s found here is an honesty that’s just missing all too often from these sorts of raunch-fests. Beyoncé checks herself out in the mirror, post-childbirth, in a way that feels emotionally bare rather than physically embarrassed. I’d have expected her to go the latter direction on just about any other album, but whether it’s the birth of her daughter or simply being absolutely comfortable with her position in life, she’s able to approach sexuality as an honestly emotional position, not mere pornography. It’s amazing to hear her cut a Prince song about intense cowboy-position sex with her man in a way that recalls the subtlety of ?uestlove’s side-career helming R&B albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo rather than Rihanna bemoaning her ability to fuck, because it’s all amounted to Wale.
Sexuality has been such an overt subject of pop music in the autotune era that it’s no surprise Beyoncé essentially simulates a multiple-orgasm on this LP, or Jay-Z cops to being willing to “rape” Beyoncé on certain nights (“Ain’t got the time to take draws off, on site / Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike”), but it’s a surprise that these subjects are only ever so brazenly sophomoric on their surface. Combined with the music from Timbaland, BOOTS, Detail, Pharrell and others, along with Beyoncé‘s typically nuanced - and finally well used - vocal performance, all of this stuff feels very now but also informed. “Goddamnit, I’m comfortable in my skin / And you’re comfortable in my skin” Beyoncé sings to He Who Was Named Earlier on “Rocket”, moments before she worries having a child has ruined her love life forever on “Mine”.
It’s also never been more fun to hear Beyoncé play like other people. It’s obvious when she’s pretending to be Jay, or The-Dream, or Drake, or Rihanna. But she’s constantly winking at you, always giggling even at the smallest moments. Dare I say it’s a very adorable performance from Beyoncé, oftentimes the most teenaged topics she’s ever sang about translated through the knowing nod of a 30-year old woman who’s been there, often still finds herself there but knows how to wade in the water. At one point I wanted to find a way to declare Beyoncé was becoming this decade’s Sade with BEYONCÉ, but at the end of the day this album is far too bangin’ for that. She’s this decade’s Beyoncé, grown secure and prominent as ever.
Turns out, 2013’s pop wars were a whole lot of stage smoke. Watch the throne.