5 Beyoncé Tracks to Download Today

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.

20131217-124310.jpg“Pretty Hurts”
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.

20131217-124410.jpg“Blow”
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.

20131217-124441.jpg“Jealous”
“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.

20131217-124556.jpg“XO”
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.

20131217-124508.jpg“***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.

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Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell

Photo Credit: RCA Records

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

Kelly Clarkson has turned me into my least favorite type of person: a Christmas-in-October person.

It’s all her fault. I’ve never been a big fan of the celebrity Christmas album – sure, Michael Bublé sounds great on his, and Celine Dion’s version of “O Holy Night” is still one of the best things that’s ever been recorded, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. So when I heard that my favorite Texan vocal powerhouse was releasing a holiday record, I sighed. First she did the greatest hits album, now this – is she retiring at 35 or something?

But then I listened to “Wrapped in Red,” released last Tuesday – Oct. 29, not even close to Christmas – and now I can’t get “Silent Night” out of my head. Or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Or “White Christmas.” It’s a serious problem.

Leaping straight to Christmas right after Halloween – er, before Halloween – is a bad idea. It means you’ll burn out of holiday cheer right around Dec. 8. It means you’re ignoring Thanksgiving, the most woefully overlooked holiday. Christmas takes over a whole month anyway – why does it need any more time?

Oh, wait, Clarkson’s new song “Underneath the Tree” just came on and reminded me that Christmas needs more time because it is the best. Just thinking of a fireplace roaring as snow falls outside gives me warm, fuzzy feelings. (“But Kevin, you grew up in Austin, Texas–” Shh, snow is falling outside. It’s very important to my creative vision.) Why wouldn’t you want to play Christmas music all year long?

In the years since Clarkson won “American Idol,” I’ve also forgotten how good she is at big band-style music. It serves her so well here, as she nails even the most tangentially Christmas-related songs – who decided “My Favorite Things” was about the holidays? Quite frankly, there’s not a bad cover song on the record.

But wait, I think, waking from my snowy reverie. The most important part of a Christmas album is the original hit. And an original Christmas song hasn’t become a new standard since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I’ll probably get bored with Clarkson’s takes on the classic Christmas songs, right?

Wrong. Because Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” is a hit just waiting to happen. “4 Carats” is one of her hottest songs ever, regardless of the holiday theme. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)” is an adorable, sweet-hearted tune for her new husband.

That’s it. I’m done resisting. I’m letting the early holiday feels wash over me. After all, if letting Kelly Clarkson make you love early Christmas music is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Risks in ‘Spring Awakening’ are worth rewarding

Photo Credit: Leslie Irwin | The Los Angeles Loyolan

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Risks in ‘Spring Awakening’ are worth rewarding – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

At what point does sheer risk-taking become more impressive than the actual result? It’s a question that comes to mind while watching the Del Rey Players’ first production of the year, “Spring Awakening,” the Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical about youth, love and sex, opening tonight at Del Rey Theatre in North Hall.

“Spring Awakening” is not an easy musical to perform. It’s vocally challenging for almost every performer – especially the male lead, Melchior, played here by freshman theatre arts major Kevin Dwyer, who is expected to jump to almost every possible pitch throughout his songs. It’s heart-wrenching – extremely so for Wendla (sophomore health and human sciences major Lacey Smith) who gets put through the emotional wringer. It also often requires the actors to be giving full performances in voice and emotion at once – special mention must go to Moritz (senior theatre arts major Jakob Berger), who is the least prominent of the main characters but does so much more every moment he’s on stage.

All of this alone would be hard. Yet director and senior theatre arts major Adam Dlugolecki has turned up the difficulty level by adding complex choreography (by senior dance and psychology double major Grace Goodwin) to several musical numbers. There’s so much happening you have to marvel at the scope of the show – but is any of it really helping the material?

The answer: yes. Also: no. But mostly: sometimes. Some songs benefit significantly from the added choreography – “The Dark I Know Well” goes from a dark ballad to an absolutely devastating confessional duet. Yet some songs are crushed under the weight of everything that’s happening – “I Believe” just looks silly, as the dancers surrounding Melchior and Wendla in a moment of raw passion distract the audience from one of the musical’s most important scenes.

At Monday’s tech rehearsal, the first for the show, things still needed to be tightened up. Small glitches, like Dwyer missing key changes, should be ironed out in the final version of the show, so it’s not worth fretting over. The chemistry is worrisome, though: Dwyer and Smith just don’t click. Almost every other pairing, romantic or platonic, has more sizzle. Junior theatre arts major Cameron Tapella and sophomore theatre arts major Mike Rose share a particularly strong spark in their duet, “The Word of Your Body (Reprise),” that makes the main coupling feel ice cold in comparison.

Melchior and Wendla’s relationship is hardly warm and fuzzy – the chemistry could have been dark and dangerous instead. But despite Smith’s virtuosic performance as Wendla – truly one of the best performances from an actress at LMU in years, so full of longing for more in her life – no form of chemistry ever bubbles up to the surface.

Dwyer is mostly solid as Melchior, but he seems the most distracted by all the extras Dlugolecki has added. His voice is a great fit on bombastic songs like “Totally F***ed,” but a total mismatch on quieter ones like “Left Behind.” Berger is a revelation as Moritz, bringing a boyish energy to the part that works wonders.

“Spring Awakening” is worth seeing because of its strong ensemble – truly not a weak link among the actors – and for Dlugolecki’s fresh take on the material. It’s not always seamless; in some cases, it’s arguably damaging to the intention of the text. But it’s that kind of experimentation that should be encouraged by the LMU theatre scene. Dlugolecki’s “Awakening” may not be better than a straightforward adaptation would have been, but it is certainly more interesting.

‘Noah’ provides thought-provoking look at digital heartbreak

Originally published by the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: ‘Noah’ provides thought-provoking look at digital heartbreak – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

Imagine learning you and your significant other have broken up because he hacked into your Facebook account and changed your relationship status. Sound too low to imagine? In the context of the short film “Noah,” it seems all too possible.

“Noah” is a 17-minute film that debuted last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Taking place entirely on screens, primarily a computer screen, the film chronicles the break up between protagonist Noah Lennox and his girlfriend, Amy. There’s no big fight between the two. There are no tears or hints of a breakup in the making. Yet everything about it feels so organic, so realistic, so quintessentially Millennial.

It’s a fascinating film for how much of a non-event it really is. Think of the last breakup you or a friend had with a long-term lover: In the moment, it probably felt like fireworks. “Noah” is quiet about how this relationship falls apart, reflecting how silent life lived online can often be.

When Amy asks to have a serious talk with Noah, his instinct is to Skype, not meet in person. He absentmindedly peruses other tabs, including a porn streaming site, while they speak, nothing grabbing his attention for more than a few seconds. There’s no music other than the tracks Noah plays on his computer – the only score, so to speak, is made up of Noah’s clicks and keystrokes.

All this could come off as far too digital or mechanical, yet everything about it is gripping and real. It reminds me of a similarly Millennial-driven film, “Catfish,” in that the expectation is for something big to happen, but nothing ever does. The quiet, human, heartbreaking moments are so much harsher than any false histrionics could ever be. Even the ending, which would be an overplayed reveal in almost any other work, is nothing more than a fun tag in this film.

“Noah” is strikingly relevant to any young person, no matter their relationship status. I can’t stop thinking about it, and once you’ve given it a watch, chances are you’ll be left pondering, too.

Watch the full film below:

How the Other Half Loves

Cast and staging appeals in ‘How the Other Half Loves’

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Cast and staging appeals in “How the Other Half Loves” – Los Angeles Loyolan.

How the Other Half Loves

Photo Credit: Kevin Halladay-Glynn | The Los Angeles Loyolan

The art direction of a play can vary from something spectacular and opulent to a bare stage, but it’s rare that the stage itself is one of the most fascinating parts of a production. In “How the Other Half Loves,” the Del Rey Players’ newest show currently on stage in the Del Rey Theatre, the set is not only crucial, but it keeps the pace lively and stages the characters against each other in a unique and fascinating fashion.

While the staging is fantastic, the show is more than just its set. Hilarious, lived-in performances and a sharp pace make this show an impressive feat and a thrill to experience. Director Joe Hospodor, a junior theatre arts major, has achieved a trifecta of able direction, great set design and universally strong performances to create a portrait of domestic life that doesn’t sacrifice the humanity of its characters in search for a laugh.

The setup is simple enough: Two couples in the early ‘70s occupy opposite sides of the wealth spectrum. Frank and Fiona Foster (freshman theatre arts major Ben Szymanski and sophomore theatre arts major Paulina Fricke) are comfortable; Bob and Teresa Phillips (senior theatre arts and political science double major Rechard Francois and sophomore theatre arts major Mackenzie Ward) are less than wealthy. The primary conflict comes from Fiona and Bob’s off-stage affair and the troubles in the Phillips’ marriage.

From that central point, countless misunderstandings and awkward confrontations spur the action, and a third couple, William and Mary Detweiler (sophomore theatre arts major Kent Jenkins and senior theatre arts major Ashley Donnert) are thrown into the fray to further complicate matters. The play itself, written by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, is cute, but hinges so much on the characterization and the actors’ timing to sell the comedy.

On that front, the cast delivers in droves. This sextet of performances deserves a place in the (sadly non-existent) LMU Theatre Arts Hall of Fame – truly, this is an ensemble without weak points. As the Phillips, Francois and Ward strike the perfect balance of hate/love chemistry. Ward’s drunk and angry wife could have easily become unlikable and ventured into ‘shrill harpy’ territory, but she stays hilarious and never lets you forget that she’s truly the victim in the messy web of relationships.

Jenkins and Donnert should be given the greatest of ovations for their pitch-perfect performances as the Detweilers. From first entrance to the crucial dinner scene, where they have to essentially act in two scenes at once, the pair is flawless. Jenkins has appeared in several productions during his two years at LMU, but no director before Hospodor has harnessed his lovable, dork energy anywhere near as effectively. Donnert steals every scene she’s in, playing Mary as a meek mouse who always seems to want a way out of the crisis.

Fricke and Szymanski have arguably the hardest task of any of the actors: The Fosters are by far the most detached of any of the couples despite their picture-perfect marriage. Fiona is a particularly difficult character to make human amidst her seeming disregard for her husband and icy interactions with Teresa. However, Fricke succeeds at making her more than an alpha bitch. Szymanski is pulling nothing less than Herculean duty in selling the comedy of his character. Almost everything he does physically and with his voice when delivering a joke slays his audience. He has a gift for comedy, something Hospodor was incredibly smart to notice.

From start to finish, the production just runs like a well-oiled machine. The staging, with both main rooms on one set, allows for giant portions of the show to flow uninterrupted and keep the energy high. The costume design is clever and period appropriate, with the color choices of particular note. The lighting, while simple, does its job – there are a few dramatic moments that heighten the suspense thanks to a smart change in color or intensity.

The show isn’t perfect: The quick dialogue sometimes causes the actors to trip over their words. But the show is hardly hindered by its small flaws. In fact, it seems all the more real.

“How the Other Half Loves” is not an epic with massive sets and a veritable truckload of cast members, but it doesn’t need to be. It accomplishes so much with six skilled performers and a stage that pushes the storytelling into a new realm. Hospodor directs every aspect of the performance to the brink of perfection and often manages to push it there. It is a truly appealing production and a joy to watch.

Four showings of “How the Other Half Loves” remain this Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets can be bought through the Central Ticketing Agency.