Source: USA TODAY
Once again, we have underestimated Beyonce’s unique powers.
Friday’s surprise iTunes release of the 32-year-old diva’s self-titled “visual album” — 14 songs, accompanied by 17 videos shot in Houston, New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, among other locales — marks the latest step in an evolution that has been at once full of stunning turns and remarkably consistent.
No other pop artist has shown a greater mastery of image control; for all her gifts as a performer, in fact, it is Beyonce’s knack for sharing what she wants to share — precisely as, and when, she wishes to share it — that is her defining genius.
Thus on Beyonce, we see the superstar who for years refused to discuss her personal life — cannily dodging all discussion of her long-term relationship with Jay Z — reveling in the joys it has brought her. In the sultry black-and-white clip for Drunk In Love, she and her husband romp and caress on a beach, recalling a night of connubial bliss that lasted into morning.
Jay-Z playfully raps, “Your breasts is my breakfast.” (Other notable guests and contributors include Drake, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Ryan Tedder, Sia, Timbaland, Frank Ocean and Miguel.)
On the rapturous Blue, it is the couple’s daughter, Blue Ivy, in Beyonce’s arms. Towards the end of the video, we see and hear the toddler giddily responding; that segues to the lithely exuberant Grown Woman, in which we glimpse clips of the star in her younger years, then witness her living the dream as a mature, glamorous grownup.
In none of these songs or visual sequences does Beyonce coarsely exploit her celebrity. Rather, in keeping with her penchant for discretion, she reveals herself, and her loved ones, in controlled doses. The sensuality is distinctly, intentionally gritty, but never crass.
There are more darkly reflective moments as well. In the opening Pretty Hurts, Beyonce is cast as a beauty contestant, enduring the tedious, exhausting and ultimately dehumanizing process of trying to achieve physical perfection. The parallels to the singer’s chosen profession are lost on no one: “What you can’t see is the soul needs surgery,” Beyonce croons.
In Haunted and Jealous, she again embodies success and privilege on the surface, but there is a sense that her contentment is fragile. The latter video ends with her running to a man we see only from the back of his hooded coat, tears of relief flooding her eyes.
Throughout Beyonce, the music, movement and visuals combine the exotic with the familiar, wholesomeness with sly eroticism, happiness with ambivalence. In the bittersweet, nostalgically soulful Mine, featuring Drake, she is at first an image of purity, surrounded by dancers in flowing light hues; then the imagery and choreography become more frantic and provocative. The clip ends with fire, but not, evidently, destruction.
Desire is a complicated matter, Beyonce is clearly learning, and life an unpredictable journey. If she’s inviting us along for the ride, there’s no question who’s in the driver’s seat.