I was talking to someone last weekend, while I was on vacation in Berlin, about my life in New York. And without thinking about it, I found myself talking about the new Beyoncé record. Like, "Well, then this other crazy thing happened to me." I think of a new Beyoncé album as a milestone not only in her life, but mine as well. I was never really into Destiny's Child, but I remember waiting for Dangerously In Love to come out, and buying it at Virgin Megastore in Union Square when I was in college. I loved that record. I still do. I was also really into Speak My Mind, something about the idea of a secret album always appealed to me. B'Day is perhaps one of my favorite records of all time. I remember buying it when it first came out, too. My friend Joanna and I were newly graduated from college, and were driving around NYC one afternoon in September and listened to the whole album. It is one of my happiest memories in the world. B'Day is such an amazing record. I wasn't so into I Am... Sasha Fierce. I dunno. I liked it alright. It seemed a little too pretty for my taste. Or something.
Anyway I really love 4 and have been listening to it for a couple of weeks. I'm totally obsessed. I've been taking notes on it and I wanted to post some of my thoughts. I don't have the energy to write another essay-ish thing, and I don't care to. In college, my favorite Art History professor really liked my final senior paper, but said that I ought to "unpack" my thoughts. I guess the idea is that you're supposed to do that, but I haven't been so into unpacking since then. Not all the time, anyway. So.
SOME OF MY THOUGHTS ON THE NEW BEYONCÉ ALBUM 4, PACKED:
- THIS JUST IN: B can sing. I mean, we all knew she was a good singer already. It's why she's famous. But she sounds really fantastic on the new record. Very raw, high in the mix, and in complete control of what sounds like a newly-trained, articulate, precise instrument. Her voice sounds different (and better) than it ever has on any of her other records.
- Beyoncé's interest in Rock music is totally fascinating. She is a pop star at heart, and her use of rock and roll is always sort of... off, somehow. It's something to the left of center. It is never dead-on rock or pop or anything. There is something slightly unsettling to her poses. In this regard, the tenuous relationship to rock and roll, I would liken her to Pat Benatar. Beyoncé is sort of the heir to the Benatar legacy. Think about it. (ASIDE: check out this wonderful interview between Patricia Benatar and Lydia Lunch from a 1985 issue of Spin).
- So many references in the music. I feel like the harmonies in first line of "Party" ("I may be young but I'm READY,") sound eerily like early Alanis Morissette. Beyoncé loves Alanis. This is what I mean. Why rip off the style of Jagged Little Pill? It's funny. It's strange. It implies a certain decisive choice on Beyoncé's part. Why not rip off, oh, anything else in the last 20 years? Why that? It's great. It's stupefying. It's unique. It does what pop music should do (make you think, and not think at the same time). "Party" is incidentally not my favorite song on the album, I must admit (Kanye; I love you, but you're phoning it in), but the vocals are worth paying close attention to.
- I've always held the opinion that Beyoncé's songs seemed to center on a kind of climax. Something along the lines of a breakdown/breakthrough. This is the logic of her art: the logic is that of an explosion. Her new record, though, painstakingly expands the climactic moment, distorting it from a time-space event into an entire style. The breakthrough is the whole thing. Suddenly, her own Universe opens up. The new record is a missive from planet B, where everything makes sense, if only with its own idiosyncratic logic. This is not unlike a Kate Bush record.
- Beyoncé is showing off. She doesn't need to. Beyoncé is finding ways to employ melisma beyond bragging rights. The songs themselves, the vocal melodies are complex, surprising, engaging and beautiful. There is no reason to shred them with unnecessary notes. B is finding ways to avoid doing this. New uses.
- Much has been (and will be) made of the retro-inspired, delicious "Love On Top". I've seen comparisons to early 80s Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and I get that. I'd further submit, though, that it's actually closer to (I would like to think intentionally) to the late great Teena Marie. "Love On Top" is formally about a bygone era. A coded way of singing. This type of music doesn't exist anymore, and this type of love does not exist anymore. It's sad and sweet.
- There's a huge mix of references throughout 4. The lead single "Run The World (Girls)" samples "Pon de Floor" and "Till the End of Time" samples Fela Kuti. The next single "Best Thing I Never Had" sounds remarkably like Vanessa Carlton, perhaps Celine Dion's "All Coming Back To Me". The references ("Killing me softly") are not new. Beyoncés art practice as such (shut up, she totally has one) has been, from the outset of her career with Destiny's Child, about context. In order to Run the World, you need to Know the World. Beyoncé has mentioned in recent interviews that she took some time off before making this record, to see other live music performed. B doesn't live in some ivory tower. She doesn't seem to see herself as an icon, a maverick, a single voice in the wilderness of culture. She is not out to blow everyone's minds with the force of her ability to "create" something out of nothing.
Rather, Beyoncé is interested in situating herself within discourses we already know, and making us look twice. Her new record is a comment on the meaning of context. It seems to ask how and why we listen to her work, and asks us to examine our habitual modes of engaging. Can you hear a new Beyoncé song and also hear last summer's party jam at the same time? The new record is basically a blog. It's a Tumblr. It's a way of summarizing one's influences, almost letting the exquisite corpse of your favorite records become a stand-in for the person. But then B also sings over all the references. She comments. She uses what we know to make something we did not know yet. She gives us clues on how to use it, too.
- It's like a blog, but it also sort of reminds me of a 4AD compilation. Maybe one of Ivo Watts-Russel's This Mortal Coil albums. The one constant on the record is B. But even B is changeable. Is she Sasha Fierce? Is she King B? Who is she? There is some other common thread here, maybe even the tautological fact that since it is on a Beyoncé record, this is what she sounds like now.
- My one complaint about it is with the syrupy ballad "I Was Here". Not because it's a ballad or anything; it's a perfectly beautiful song. I'm upset by this because it implies a certain longing for Beyoncé to control, articulate her legacy. In short: I am afraid that the song means that she wants to quit making music. It feels like a possible goodbye.
Around the time of B'Day, Beyoncé said that she had hoped to retire by the time she was 30. She will turn 30 this September. Y'know what? I also would like to retire by the time I am 30. Here is the uneasy, dark heart of Beyoncé's work, most perfectly articulated by her new album 4: Beyoncé and my generation is a Generation of Quitters. We abdicate. We defer. We would rather listen to the next song on the radio. We are impatient. Her music is music for a generation who is scared to commit. A world of 30 year-olds unwilling to take up the mantle of responsibility for our own lives. And she knows that the only way out, to save ourselves from the apocalypse of our own inborn apathy, is to address it. B's album looks like a party, a metropolis. But it's actually a bonfire she's made and invited us to, and is daring us to jump onto it as if a funeral pyre.