Beyoncé Knowles certainly knows how to make a splash: Last week, she released her fifth studio album on iTunes, with no warning or pre-promotion. Appropriately, the surprise self-titled effort is also her most confident album. Lyrically, Queen B and her co-writers—a star-studded list including Justin Timberlake, Sia, Timbaland, Frank Ocean and husband Jay Z, to name just a few—tackle self-confidence and gender disparities (“Flawless”), the soul-crushing oppressiveness of physical beauty standards (“Pretty Hurts”), maintaining a united relationship front (“Superpower”) and the special mother-child bond (“Blue,” which features cute babbling from Blue Ivy herself). More notably, Beyoncé’s songs also feature plenty of graphic sex references, in the form of raunchy pillow talk (“Blow”), unbridled lust (“Drunk in Love”) and steamy fantasies (“Rocket,” “Partition”).
With so much intriguing songwriting material, it’s unfortunate that the album’s music isn’t as memorable; anyone expecting an upbeat anthem to rival “Run the World (Girls)” or “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” will be disappointed. “Pretty Hurts” resembles any number of Rihanna ballads, while dated beats (e.g., tinny syncopation) and bloated arrangements make Beyoncé feel slightly lethargic, when it also shows it’s capable of better. The funky “Blow” sounds like a Donna Summer disco hit crossed with a jazzy Prince number; “No Angel” is the kind of slurring electro R&B favored by modern indie rockers; and “Rocket” is sultry neo-soul. The attitude-laden “Partition” is even better: The song jumps from trilling singing to sassy hip-hop to snapping doo-wop and purring R&B. On these songs, Beyoncé feels like pop disruption of the highest caliber. Overall, though, the lack of consistency makes the album’s initial rush of excitement fade all too fast.