Friday morning, the UK awoke to the news that Beyoncé's fifth had dropped overnight.
It materialised on iTunes without fanfare or preamble, not unlike the return of David Bowie via his single, Where Are We Now, in January.
Everyone believed, though, that The Dame was ailing, allowing Bowie to plot in total secrecy. With Queen Be, clues littered the floor, like designer clothes at a styling: a couple of sort-of singles doubling as adverts, that could not exist in a vacuum; the fact that Be5 should really have come out months ago. These things tend to go tongue-in-groove with singles, world tours, Super Bowl gigs and the public filming of videos in various exotic locations.
The announcement a few days ago of further Mrs Carter UK dates in February made most fans drum their fingers even more expectantly. Everybody knew a Be opus had to materialise, and one of the best times for a major US pop artist to descend into the marketplace is in the lucrative fourth quarter.
The surprise here is the format, not the delivery. Beyoncé is a "visual album", in which every song comes with a short film. According to the press release, it's a "fully immersive multi-platform experience" that completely "chang[es] the way her fans consume music". Well, no: there are just lots of videos, magisterially shot by names such as Jonas Åkerlund and Hype Williams (but also Terry Richardson), all more or less circling one familiar Be vibe: lush porny luxe (or, indeed, luxe porny lushness).
As befits an album of mixed media, the messages are mixed too. There is a hell of a lot of high-quality come-hithering, in song and on film. The first visual message is that Beyoncé has got her body back, and she intends to use it. No Angel is pretty much as described: a winningly stark baroque'n'B track in which Beyoncé declares she is no angel, and neither is the object of her affections, who seems to live in the less salubrious postcodes of Atlanta and sport a grill.
Blow (oh yes) is a straight-up funk cut with shades of Prince in which Beyoncé's "cherry" is "turned out". Drunk in Love, meanwhile, finds Beyoncé rapping lasciviously and making eyes at her husband. It's about 100 times better than that description allows for, and the video finds them on a beach – somewhere in the Med, at a guess – acting drunk and in love. Less originally, the high-concept Haunted video finds Beyoncé in a posh hotel populated by sexually motivated freaks, with many shades of Madonna invoked. The song itself? It's a classy dance-pop tune about being haunted in love that begs a play untethered from all the high-end fashion shoot furnishings.
But Beyoncé has plenty of depths as well as curves and swish. There are home videos of her winning things as a child, and cameos by her sister Solange and various Destiny's Children. Even better, there are at least two baldly (post-)feminist statements here, at either end of the album.
Pretty Hurts is – broadly – 21st-century soul music, in that Beyoncé is questioning the relentless need for women to beautify themselves when "it's the soul that needs the surgery". Obviously, the beauty pageant video makes much of her own prettiness, but there's some perspective in the painful depilating, pill-popping and toilet-hugging details.
Further in is Flawless (known in an earlier version as Bow Down Bitches), in which Beyoncé relocates to some black-and-white gritty fashion shoot, complete with skinheads, once again to question the tyranny of judging books by their covers. Best of all is the mid-song excerpt from a TED speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, despairing of how we raise girls to be good wives, not to have "too much" ambition.
Sometimes, Beyoncé (the album) suffers slightly from the need to borrow – curiously, since Beyoncé (the person) is one of pop's most recognisable auditory and visual presences. It's not a bad track at all, but Yoncé has more than a few shades of MIA. Beyoncé's slightly more Caribbean cadences, meanwhile, owe more than a little something to Rihanna. The duet with Drake, Mine, just doesn't ignite, chiefly because the chemistry that fires in Drake and Rihanna's collaborations is utterly absent here.
There is goo here too, in the form of Blue, in which Blue Ivy Carter is dandled on a Brazilian beachfront video shoot. Fans are thanked with XO, which is less mawkish and noisome than most teary-eyed tributes to the people who shell out increasing quantities of money to see their idols play live. Beyoncé's thoughts are with those ordinary civilians on Ghost, in which she raps about her gilded life versus "all those people working 9-5 just to stay alive" over a nicely arrhythmic heartbeat.
Blue aside, there are really none of the dire ballads that so often mar pop R&B releases. Beyoncé's vocals span some squeaky sexed-up falsettos, hood rat rapping, wordless ecstasies and effortless swoops. The best surprise of all, in an autumn in which Beyoncé's closest competitors – Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus – made underperforming bids for the throne, is how thoroughly assured, immersive and substantial this album is.
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