"Pretty Hurts" still courtesy Melina Matsoukas
Where were you at the stroke of midnight EST on Friday, December 13, 2013? For once, us homebodies were rewarded for our introverted ways, gifted by one of the ultimate extroverts in pop. This generation will remember its exact location and emotion when it first saw Beyoncé's self-titled album. That's right: saw the album. As everyone and their grandma knows by now, Mrs. Carter stealthily released her fifth solo collection this past week, with no hype yet all the fixings. Seventeen(!) music videos accompany the durrrrrty, poignant R&B and sleek radio rompers. The visual onslaught is not a new concept; Death Cab for Cutie, California Wives and Sigur Ros have all been down that artsy road before. But with each treatment and concept in Beyoncé's hands, ownership fell solely into the lap of this Child of Destiny's. "I see music... It's what makes it mine," she stated in a visual press release. We benefit from her synesthesia, as a real rainbow of visual artistry comes alive with the songs. (Which, honestly, aren't her best work. But to dissect the sound is not the point of this article.) The significance here is the diva's melding of historic talents with futuristic marketing. Of particular note, legendary music video provocateurs Jonas Ackerlund and Hype Williams come to Beyoncé's aid. The former's works have included the controversial Prodigy track "Smack My Bitch Up" and the meth-bender film "Spun." His surrealistic imagery shows up in droves on "Haunted," which feels like The Shining set in the Standard Hollywood hotel. "Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean)" is slinkier but also emanates an M.I.A. "Bad Girls" vibe, in which Bey rocks a balaclava and speaks volumes with her crystalline eyes. It's a solid visual manifestation of the inner power of which she sings.
Williams' offerings are perfectly on par with his oeuvre. The jerkiness and hyper-real eye candy of "Blow" recalls his classic collaboration with Missy Elliott, "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." It's zany and over the top, but to see Bey monkeying around is kind of a relief. (The same can be said of Terry Richardson's vid for "XO." It's Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" redux-- a tame creation for the photographer known for his perverse streak.) Williams does an appropriate 180 for "Drunk in Love (feat. Jay Z)," a sexy black-and-white crawl on the beach that would make Chris Isaak and Helena Christensen blush. There are, undoubtedly, questionable moments in this gallery. "Ghost," filmed by Dali-esque photog Pierre Debusschere, shows Beyoncé trying to appear fierce and fluid, but it really seems as though she's wrestling with the scarves and wind machine. Also, she faux raps: "I don't trust these record labels." We think it unwise to bite the hand that feeds so generously, as it was the major-label system that turned Beyoncé into a superstar. (Try making those 17 videos on the $1,000 budget California Wives imposed upon themselves. Not going to happen for this prima donna.) And we understand that mother/whore complexes are passe, but did there really need to be twerking in a video that also features her toddler daughter ("Blue" by Beyoncé, Ed Burke and Bill Kirstein)? Despite its imperfections, the visual Beyoncé album is one that will remain etched in music history. (We think she succeeded in making something akin to her desired example, Michael Jackson's "Thriller," in that millions shared the experience at the same time.) Next stop, in-home vinyl hologram projectors! (We hope.)