That Beyonce Knowles released her album with no warning and initially on a download site is mostly of academic interest. That the album is a long record accompanied by an even longer pool of videos – one for each of the 14 tracks and three extras – which are all high quality, often intriguing and genuine companion pieces to the songs is more interesting, though hardly shockingly new (she made videos for all the tracks on a previous album too eventually) or reason to think the album any more necessary than its predecessors.
What is really worth discussing with Knowles' fifth album is that it is a modern record that doesn’t fall into the trap of seeking only modern sounds or replicating the past; that it tries to lift her from the generic R&B/pop diva forms, lyrically and musically; that it looks to say something, even if at times contradictorily.
And, most surprisingly but most rewardingly, that it is the best thing she's done.
It’s an album of many sonic pleasures. These songs sound great, both on headphones and through full speakers, with her voice allowed more warmth (Rocket) and space (Heaven), low burbling basslines as quietly penetrative as any thumping bottom end and the electronics stopping short of the prevailing chart favouring of accentuated sharpness.
In fact, while hip hop has a greater role than previously – and most of the guests are hip hop voices, including ‘im indoors, Jay-Z -, the dominant influence is inward looking electronica, enclosing a lot of Beyonce with a night time/down time atmosphere.
That doesn’t mean rhythm-less: the slow drag of No Angel doesn’t just sound like late ‘80s Prince but packs a similar surprising dancefloor pull; Jealous offers a ballad that never fully hides a tripping-you-over beat; the dancehall flirtation in Partition fair hitches your skirt up.
Nor does it mean melody-less, but rather a more measured, even thoughtful approach which serves to create its own little world and emphasise the breakouts.
One of those breakouts is Blow which sees Knowles come over all Patrice Rushent, rather liquid and light, perfect for the filmclip’s rollerskating, but also high-end pop that insinuates and then captivates.
The other breakout is the emphasis on sex, something more often discussed in the abstract before this.
There’s definite heat, sexuality played to its fullest here, from the licentious to the sultry to the tender. It’s entertaining though the odd thing about Beyonce is how she can sing quasi-personal lyrics but never really get deeply personal, talk about emotions without ever really being nakedly emotional and move with high levels of sexuality without ever generating something other than mechanical desire.
It’s an extension of the issue with her live, a veneer which is impermeable and therefore beyond reachable, even when we get sampled glimpses and soundbites from her childhood as happens here.
She has a constructed persona which may sing, as she does in the opening song, Pretty Hurts, that “perfection is a disease” (captured in the accompanying filmclip by almost brutal scenes from a beauty pageant, complete with bulimia, abuse and crushing despair) but vulnerability has never been allowed to appear.
Which brings us to the other element in that discourse, her commentary on a society built on such facades, demanding even the extremely attractive – like, well, Beyonce Knowles – to seek further perfection.
Of course there’s no escaping the incongruence of an artist who has made perfection an art form singing about it and appearing in so many of these filmclips in varying degrees of nakedness and perfection.
Yet rather than completely undermine her arguments, the ideas offered, the inclusion of a mid song speech from Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the lower than usual quota of Oprah-style “uplifting” messages, all suggest an awareness beyond the New York mansion doorway.
Paired with so many fascinating and nuanced songs it makes for an album as potent and as compelling as the image we had already bought.