If you recently came back from a week without technology — say, you took a trip to Amish country, or you had a bout of amnesia that was just miraculously cured (congratulations!) — there is a minor chance you somehow missed the news that Beyoncé floored the world by secretly releasing a new album (Beyoncé) last Friday morning. As such, you may not know that she broke iTunes sales records, topped the Billboard 200 after only three days of selling her record and basically caused an Internet-wide heart attack.
The queen diva’s strategy was to get people to buy the full album and experience it as an event once again. Considering the sales, it seems she accomplished that quite well. But you, our hypothetical technophobe or medical miracle, are also a bit wary of commitment. Buying a whole album is a lot, after all. Luckily, starting today, all the tracks from Beyoncé’s self-titled album are available for individual download.
The whole album is great, but if you’re looking for a starter pack before you go whole-hog, here are five tracks you should download.
Every defining work — which, time will tell, but I do think Beyoncé is the queen’s masterpiece — needs a thesis statement. “Pretty Hurts” is the first track, the first video, and sets the theme for both the aural and visual experiences ahead. It’s been noted elsewhere that having the human embodiment of perfection tell us that “Perfection is the disease of a nation” is a bit jarring, but that’s not quite grasping the whole picture. Beyoncé doesn’t strive for perfection just because — she strives for perfection because that’s what we as a culture celebrate. More than that, she has to make it look effortless when it takes so much work and, likely, so much of herself.
This song — and this album — is an indictment of that idea: why must she give so much of herself? Why did she give up a childhood for trying so damn hard? It’s something she goes into in this video; “Pretty Hurts” and another song on this list are clearly the definitive one-two punch of the album’s first major message. Using the pageant as a metaphor for that struggle (“Just another stage, pageant the pain away”) is particularly effective, considering the near-uselessness of pageant skills in life beyond, of course, being pretty.
So as a thesis, “Pretty Hurts” works beautifully, but what about as a song? All you need to hear is the anguish in Bey’s tone, the pain of the lyrics and the scathing nature of the video, which I recommend downloading here more than any other song, and you understand what a powerful piece this is. Damning the system is daring for a pop star, but Bey’s disgust is unconditional here.
Best Line: The opening soundbite — “My ambition … is … to be happy.” It plays better in the video, as a complete whiff of a softball question she wasn’t expecting, but the intention of the line — ‘I’ve put so much of myself into being perfect, I forgot somewhere along the way that happiness was my goal’ — still resonates.
One of Bey’s clear goals in producing this record/living is to become Michael Jackson, more or less. She described Thriller as one of the big inspirations for Beyoncé, and nowhere is this more obvious than on “Blow.” The beat is pure MJ, facilitating the song’s retro flair.
Yet make no mistake: “Blow” is early-2000s Christina Aguilera dirrrty. It’s not “Ms. Knowles if you’re nasty” like “Partition” or “Rocket,” two of Bey’s filthiest recordings ever, but it does prominently feature Beyoncé telling her lover to turn her cherry out. It’s playfully sexy, a total jam (it was almost the first single before it was replaced by another song on this list) and will have you craving cherries all day. Or something like that.
Best Line: “Can you taste my Skittle, it’s the sweetest in the middle.” Beyoncé has plenty of nicknames for her ladyparts in this song, but “Skittle” stands out as particularly naughty.
“I’m in my penthouse half-naked,” Beyoncé purrs at the outset of “Jealous.” “I cooked this meal for you naked. So where the hell you at?” This wounded woman warrior ballad is a spiritual sequel to “Ring the Alarm” off B’Day. Yet where that song was fueled by pure fury (allegedly about rumors then-boyfriend Jay Z was stepping out with new label star Rihanna), “Jealous” is a lot more emotionally conflicted. Is the lover in this song even cheating? Beyoncé doesn’t seem quite sure, but she’s got her suspicions — and she’s human, so of course she’s envious. She dusts off her old freakum dress, a thrilling callback to another B’Day track, and she goes out on the town to meet up with her ex and have some fun. “Don’t be jealous,” she taunts with just the right balance of indignation and pain in her tone.
Although “Jealous” at first sounds like a variation on a well-worn theme — ‘my man is cheating and I’m pissed’ — there’s so much more going on here psychologically. This is about Bey’s conflicts within her own mind; her lack of trust in her partner, perhaps because of past indiscretions. Like “Ring the Alarm,” Bey sounds dangerous — but this time, the only threat she poses is to herself. It’s a micro example of the album’s second macro trend: taking previous songs’ premises and expanding them into a more thought-provoking, artifice-shedding place.
Best Line: Easily the aforementioned nude cuisine preparation. To Bey, the idea of a man not being there for her naked cooking is unfathomable; he must be cheating.
As you can tell from the “Pretty Hurts” and “Jealous” descriptions, Bey is in a deep place for much of this record. But all the claims that Beyoncé is without hits are pure hogwash, something you realize the moment “XO” hits its chorus. From the soaring production to Bey’s vocal, sure to put a spring in your step, this is the kind of song great memories are made of.
“XO” is bombastic, thrilling and hopeful. No, it’s not the most complex song in the world; in many ways, it’s the palate-cleansing gelato in the middle of your 12-course meal. But that’s hugely necessary, and a vital function for such an album as this. In a set of dark, challenging tracks, this one is the refreshing burst of joy you can enjoy all on its own for exactly what it is.
Best Line: Gotta be “Baby, love me lights out.” The tamest lyric on the record, yet somehow also the most romantic.
“***Flawless” (ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
If Beyoncé is Mrs. Knowles-Carter’s masterpiece record, “***Flawless” is her masterpiece song. What this track accomplishes in just over four minutes is monumental. It doesn’t waste a second, blazing through three different samples, the infamously boastful “Bow Down” that Bey leaked last spring and a new verse that has already gone viral.
Start with the framing of Bey’s appearance on Star Search. She was competing as part of Girls Tyme, a prototype Destiny’s Child that host Ed McMahon is heard describing as a “hip-hop, rappin'” group. They lost — baffling at the time to Bey, that you could put so much of yourself into something and still lose — to a group of white men named Skeleton Crew, who went on to do all of nothing. (Girls Tyme gets three stars — cleverly referred to in the song’s stylized title.) Already, the song feels connected to “Pretty Hurts” as almost a part two of her artist’s statement on imperfection.
Then there’s “Bow Down,” a vicious verse demanding that women respect her and, well, bow down. When it was first released, she was criticized for attacking other women — something that quickly gets called out in the final sample of the song, an excerpt of a TEDx Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists.” In the talk, Adichie condemns the idea that women are raised only to care about marriage and to compete with other women for men’s attention. But, she’s quick to clarify, she thinks competition between women for accomplishments “can be a good thing,” an important distinction that keeps Bey’s feminism feeling unique and singular. The last verse — a super-quotable section featuring the refrain “I woke up like dis / Flawless” —feels epic as you’re listening to it.
That’s a lot of parts, and it would be easy for all of it not to mesh. But it does, brilliantly, and in the process we get something incredibly special: a well-produced, masterfully performed exploration about Beyoncé’s feminist philosophy that doesn’t feel cheap or expository. Quite the opposite: it feels like a complete and utter jam. This isn’t just good pop music: it’s an incredible artistic statement.
Best Line: “I woke up like dis” is easily the breakout part of the record, ready to be GIF’d, danced to and Snapchat-captioned endlessly. But it’s more than quotable: it’s an incredibly caustic rebuke to the idea that men expect women to be beautiful in an instant, ignoring all the work they put into their image (see also: “Pretty Hurts”). It’s a rebel yell for women, uniting in their shared experiences of having to look — and be — effortlessly “***Flawless.”
Three more great tracks: “Drunk in Love” (ft. Jay Z), “Heaven,” “Superpower” (ft. Frank Ocean)
Follow Kevin O’Keeffe on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.