Every great pop star represents an archetype, and the one Beyoncé settled into a long time ago was that of the unstoppable, flawless goddess. Even casual fans approach her as a sort of deity, in large part because thinking of her as a superhuman being is part of what makes her music and performances so much fun. Her act is exciting because her fans want to believe in an all-powerful, world-conquering diva, and it's inspiring rather than alienating because her performances prove that her level of perfection is actually within the realm of possibility. BEYONCÉ, her surprise fifth album as a solo artist, alternately exalts in this glory and deliberately deconstructs it by asking her audience to consider what it takes to achieve an image of perfection, and questioning what that perfection actually is, and who it's really for. It is, without question, the most personal work of her career.
Beyoncé has been constantly working toward perfection her entire life. She reminds the listener of this frequently over the course of BEYONCÉ with audio clips from her youth, when she competed in pageants and talent shows. She uses this device best as the prelude to "Flawless," a reworked and expanded version of a song she released earlier this year as "Bow Down/I Been On." In just four minutes, "Flawless" shifts from a Hit-Boy produced banger celebrating her competitive drive, to an excerpt from a TED Talk by Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how society places limits on the ambitions of women, to a final sequence in which Bey both mocks the idea of effortless beauty and exhorts her female fans to love the way they look. "I woke up like this, I woke up like this," she sings with a wink just before delivering the line, "We flawless, ladies tell 'em!" with zero irony whatsoever. There are a lot of ideas packed into this relatively brief song, and they don't all add up, but the conflicts in "Flawless" inform everything else on the album.
BEYONCÉ is the work of an artist who is doing her best to make sense of her role as a feminist pop icon, and working out a way to have a positive influence on culture without apologizing for or disowning anything she's ever done. She's putting the idea of flawlessness in scare quotes, and attempting to demystify herself so fans can recalibrate their expectations for themselves and envision a form of perfection that's within their reach. She's asking women to be beautiful on their terms, and for themselves. She's framing ambition and the will to succeed as a greater virtue than simply seeking the attention of men. She's declaring that women should not be ashamed of loving sex, and asserting that they should be as open about their desires as men. These ideas have always been big part of Beyoncé's music, but "Flawless" revises and clarifies those thoughts. BEYONCÉ at large is a manifesto in the form of a stylish, creatively adventurous, and resolutely adult R&B record.
The sexuality on this album is no joke. A solid third of BEYONCÉ is easily the most explicit music of the singer's career, but it's obvious that it's not designed to shock or pander. It's just incredibly frank, and when she sings in detail about getting head in "Blow" or messing around with Jay Z in the back of a limo in "Partition," it's genuinely sexy. Beyoncé has always presented herself as a sexualized person, but these songs are her first to step away from over-the-top romantic glamour in favor of giving listeners a sense of the specifics of her sex life. She sounds completely at ease, and the most contented moment on the entire record comes when the slinky slow jam "Rocket" climaxes with her singing, "Goddamn it, I'm comfortable in my skin." The highest compliment she pays her lover in the same song is: "You're my equivalent." This is the romantic and sexual ideal she's presenting: to feel utterly relaxed and confident in the arms of someone who is your equal, and respects you as such. She's describing the circumstances of her life as much as she is prescribing a goal for her audience. And it's a pretty good goal too.
There's a spoken word section in French near the end of "Partition" with a line that translates to, "Men think that feminists hate sex, but it's an exciting and natural activity that women love." This echoes a sentiment from the Adichie speech sampled in "Flawless," in which she says, "We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are." It's good that these ideas aren't directly expressed by Beyoncé herself – in context, these bits are like reblogged quotes that frame her artistic intentions – because she knows she doesn't need to be so didactic when she's actually singing about sex, and to do so would defeat her point about owning her pleasures.
Beyoncé has always been synonymous with confidence, but she's never seemed as fully assured as she does on this record. A lot of her earlier work now seems more like a show of bravado in comparison to where she is now, and that extends from the new level of thematic clarity and cohesion in her lyrics, to her consistently catchy music, which is modern in its style but also clearly made with an indifference to the whims of pop radio. She makes this explicit in "Ghost/Haunted," distancing herself from "boring" record labels and speculating that she "probably won't make no money off this. Oh well."
By releasing BEYONCÉ as a surprise and forcing the world to hear it all at once as the full album experience it was designed to be, she seizes control of the narrative around the record. It's not about singles, it's not about sales; it's about her making a statement, and the insistence that the world should come to her, and not the other way around. This is the very best kind of hubris, and it spins her creative and commercial risk into a strength. Beyoncé is telling us that she's bigger than hits, and she's got far more important things on her mind. And she's right.