Perhaps only Beyoncé Knowles could pull this off. Just after midnight on Friday, a new self-titled album by the pop star appeared on iTunes. Standard enough. Except no one beyond her inner circle knew it was coming, didn't even realize it existed.
Beyoncé didn't do any interviews. No press releases went out beforehand. Presumably her lips have been sealed on her latest tour dates (including a return to TD Garden next Friday), and recent set lists suggest she hasn't been performing new songs in concert.
There was nothing to indicate "Beyoncé" would be pop music's last blockbuster of the year. Out of the blue, there it was, billed as a "visual album," with 14 songs, 17 accompanying videos, and a tidal wave of freak-out reactions all over social media.
In a video announcement on her
Facebook page, Beyoncé explained her approach.
"I felt like I don't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready, and from me to my fans," she said, smiling at the camera. "I will make my best art and just put it out. And that's why it's out today."
In that same video, she laid bare her thoughts on how we no longer value albums as an immersive experience. We hear snippets of a song, she says, until we get to the smash hit.
She's right. Maybe that's why, at press time, the album was available exclusively on iTunes and only in its entirety. Reportedly you can download individual songs starting Dec. 20, and physical copies, as a CD/DVD combo, "will be available at retail in time for the holidays," according to a subsequent press release.
Which brings us to a key question: How did she do that? And why? Beyoncé is savvy enough to know that the traditional ways of releasing music are dead in a culturally fractured age when we want to pick and choose what we consume — before moving on to something else tomorrow.
Debuting her album with no fanfare was a stroke of marketing genius. With no advance buzz or lead-up, she and her team essentially made the album's release a news event. True enough, Twitter and Facebook went into overdrive when word spread. And then there was my upstairs neighbor — who has never even talked to me about music beyond country singers, mind you — texting me at 9:45 the morning the record came out: "Beyoncé!" Brilliant.
Among Beyoncé's female contemporaries, 2013 was a banner year for major pop stars, with new albums by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus. But they all adhered to the conventional promotional schedule, which begins, at the very least, three months before showtime. Cyrus had already twerked her way into infamy before "Bangerz" dropped several weeks later. Gaga nearly short-circuited in a blaze of outrageous outfits and appearances leading up to "ARTPOP," and Perry announced "Prism" three months in advance with a message emblazoned on a gold semi-truck that drove through Los Angeles.
To be sure, this year did bring albums from Justin Timberlake, David Bowie, and Jay Z that were announced mere weeks before their release dates, but Beyoncé has topped even them.
If Beyoncé's strategy sounds calculated, the music itself is blissfully organic. This is not Beyoncé in diva mode; it's Beyoncé the sensualist, the sublime soul singer, the artist who clearly has the reins. There's a casual charm and seduction to these 14 songs, all of which have shades of the artist we've heard before.
"Beyoncé," her fifth studio album, doesn't redefine her, and certainly not pop music, but instead it amplifies something she doesn't get enough credit for: her softer side. If there are massive radio hits here, they will likely have to come in the form of thumping remixes. Most of these tracks are ballads cast in minimal, industrial R&B backdrops reminiscent of Frank Ocean (who adds backing vocals on "Superpower"). Of her previous albums, "Beyoncé" is closer in spirit to the introspective "4" than, say, the more dance-oriented "B'Day."
A few surprises arise, including "Blow," which takes a turn into raunch so sweet, you don't even realize how nasty it is upon first listen. It's her spin on Prince or R. Kelly. Assuming this gets past the censors, here's the line the chorus clings to: "I can't wait till I get home/So you can turn that cherry out."
The guest appearances, too, feel meaningful — more about family and friends than a question of who's going to make the song more commercially viable. Jay Z, her husband, turns up on "Drunk in Love," a hybrid of hip-hop and soul that mirrors their own distinctive styles. Blue Ivy, their daughter, parrots some of mom's lyrics on "Blue," and it's cute without crossing into saccharine.
Then there's "Pretty Hurts," in which Beyoncé stresses the value of loving yourself and not striving to satisfy external standards of beauty:
Ain't got no doctor or pill that can take the pain away
The pain's inside, and nobody frees you from your body
It's the soul, it's the soul that needs surgery
As for the videos, which range from lush, Instagram-like vignettes to conceptual performance pieces, Beyoncé said in her video announcement that she wanted fans to hear the songs and see the stories that inspired them. Her explanation for that inadvertently summed up what makes "Beyoncé" such a heartfelt, and bold, surprise as we round out the year: "That vision in my brain is what I wanted people to experience the first time."