On the evening of Dec. 12, most students were preparing for finals, completely unaware that the world of pop music would be changed before midnight.
Around 11 p.m., Beyonce Knowles released her fifth studio album on iTunes with no advance notice. It was a landmark cultural moment for the music industry in a year that contained surprise announcements and creative marketing campaigns from heavyweights such as Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk and Jay-Z.
Presented as a visual album, the digital package came with elaborate music videos for every song on the album. The simply-titled Beyonce broke sales records and created controversies involving Target and NASA. Beyonce debuted at number one, making Knowles the first female artist to have her first five albums all debut at the top spot. While her 2011 album, 4, sold close to 1.4 million copies and garnered critical acclaim, it sold less than half the amount of each of her first three records. Consequently, no one would have been surprised if she had decided to play it safe with more radio-friendly songs on her newest release. Instead, Beyonce’s self-titled surprise was a stunning masterpiece, an exercise in exploring alternative styles of R&B and pop and the most cohesive and personal album that Queen B has put her iconic name on.
Beyonce weaves between many different styles and sounds throughout her latest record, which is a sign of the team of collaborators she worked with for Beyonce. She works with some of the best in the business on this album — which features a collection of superstars such as Jay-Z, Drake, JT, Pharrell and Timbaland, alongside rising stars such as Frank Ocean, Miguel, The-Dream and Caroline Polachek of Chairlift. The record finds the star exploring her past, containing references to her youth in Houston and recorded samples of talent shows and singing competitions she participated in as a child.
She covers all kinds of R&B, from the doo-wop of “Superpower” to the funk of “Blow” and the D’Angelo-inspired soul of “Rocket.” She even delves into the indie R&B her sister Solange perfected on “No Angel,” as well as the dark and electronic-heavy R&B of The Weeknd on “Haunted.” Even with all of these different styles, Beyonce never sounds like she is copying or imitating anyone, always remaining distinctly Beyonce, like only Queen B can do.
Beyonce opened up like never before. The themes of the record are intensely personal, with songs touching on her relationship with Jay-Z, her miscarriage and the birth of her first child, Blue Ivy. Beyonce received criticism for how explicitly sexual it is, from the already infamous “surfboard” references on “Drunk In Love” to “Partition,” which describes a particularly eventful limousine ride. Even more than ever before, Beyonce is taking charge of her sexuality and proving that a monogamous relationship can be as thrilling and enticing as the sexual exploits of those who remain single.
A large aspect of this confident sexuality comes from how Beyonce delves into feminism in a new way. While the singer had her fair share of empowering anthems for women before this record, the clear album highlight, “Flawless,” is her most blatantly feminist track yet. The song establishes her superiority before featuring a sampled speech from a TED talk given by renowned feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. While the song has sparked debate among some critics over whether Beyonce is a true feminist, the song and the views expressed in it come across as very progressive, especially within the realm of pop music.
The album turned out to be a commercial success as well. It sold nearly 829,000 copies worldwide in the first three days, making for iTunes’ fastest-selling record ever. Within four weeks it sold 1.43 million copies, outpacing the sales of her previous album, 4. These results came in spite of Target and Amazon announcing that they would not be selling physical copies of the album because of the fact that it was offered exclusively in a digital format beforehand. Beyonce responded by visiting a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts, where she met with fans and gave out about 750 $50 gift cards to show her support for the store that was selling her physical album.
As a whole, Beyonce is the artist’s most engrossing, varied and rewarding album to date. It opens itself up to multiple listens and includes some of Bey’s best work. Beyonce is a spectacular album that has only grown stronger in the month following its release. The unconventional album drop got people talking about the record, but the music is what made it one of the best albums of 2013.