Considering this woman spent her 2013 conjuring an illusion of spontaneity from a script that never veers off-message, did anyone see this thing coming?
A quick recap: She sang at President Obama’s second inauguration, then confessed to lipsyncing. She broke a righteous sweat at the Super Bowl, then tried to scrub the Internet of unflattering photographic evidence. She produced a bio-doc about motherhood and superstardom for HBO, but the final product felt as intimate as advertising. Her career rolled on like a perpetual-motion magic trick. The closer we got to Beyoncé, the farther away she appeared.
That changes right here. Her self-titled fifth album is a hard pivot into idiosyncratic R&B that feels as vast and frisky as Prince’s 1987 masterstroke “Sign o’ the Times.” Checking in at 14 songs — packaged with 17 companion videos, all of it released on iTunes late Thursday — it’s her most compelling offering since 2003’s “Dangerously in Love.”
It kinda had to be. Beyoncé’s not only asking us to cough up time and money during a holiday season when everyone’s short on both, but she’s also asking us to forget that her previous album, “4,” was as thrilling as 2% milk.
Just five minutes into her new songbook, nobody sounds more bored with Beyoncé than Beyoncé: “I’m climbing up the walls/’Cause all this s--- I hear is boring,” she mutters. “All the s--- I do is boring.”
So she slams down on the gas, going from control-freaky to freaky-freaky at the speed of R. Kelly’s Maybach. “Rocket” rivals the sexaphorical wowzas of any Kelly verse while modernizing the slow drip of a D’Angelo ballad. There are waterfalls and rivers and sins and sweat. As per Beyoncé’s instructions, “Read between the lines.”
She’s a bit more blunt with “Blow,” a strutting, moaning disco vamp with a refrain that asks, “Can you lick my Skittles?” Then, suddenly, she teleports into a funkier time zone, chucking verse-chorus-verse trajectories out the window. It’s a smart step toward the form-dissolving songcraft of Maxwell, Erykah Badu and Frank Ocean, who proves himself a worthy duet partner during the futuristic doo-wop of “Superstar.”
And while this might be headier turf for Beyoncé, she finally sounds like a real person having fun. On the busted funk of “No Angel,” she squeezes her gospel-grade soprano into playfully squeaky shapes. Over the ominous click-clack of “Partition,” she raps from the bottom of her gut: “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.” (And that’s only the third-best line in the song after the Lewinsky zinger and the outro, in which she vocalizes like a hornet: “BZZZ-BZZZ-BZZZ.”)
She can still breathe wildfire, of course. Check out “***Flawless,” a feminist salvo that doesn’t need those asterisks in its title to stand out as the album’s most riveting moment. With a guest monologue from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — who efficiently defines a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” — this is Beyoncé at her most poised. “I took some time to live my life,” she sings. “But don’t think I’m just his little wife.”
Her marriage seems stable, though. Duetting with her husband, Jay-Z, on “Drunk in Love,” she raps giddily over 808 booms like she’s playing double Dutch in an earthquake. Jay tries to eclipse her irreverence but comes up short on charm: “We sex again in the mornin’/Your breasts-eses is my breakfast.” C’mon, now.
As for the music videos — they’re music videos. In one clip, Bey re-enacts “From Here To Eternity,” twisting around in black-and-white seafoam. In another, she orbits a vintage skating rink in slow motion like a scene out of “Roller Boogie.” There are expected cameos from Jay and Drake. There are unexpected cameos from Harvey Keitel and Slim Thug. Sometimes Beyoncé sings while looking us dead in the eye.
It isn’t necessary. Marketing this thing as a “visual album” may have been a nifty trick to persuade us to fully commit our senses to the experience, but these songs are plenty commanding in their own right.
And sadly, for a superstar in this fame bracket, that qualifies as a feat. Pop’s A-list made a pitiful showing in 2013, with new albums from Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake each making flashy marketplace entrances but failing to dazzle on contact.
Jay-Z’s airless “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail” was the biggest bummer in the bunch, rolled out as a promotional campaign for a mobile device, which was as much fun as it sounds. There was no thematic corollary between the message and the medium — besides the pursuit of money.
Beyoncé appears to have been taking careful notes through all of that. The spirit of her new music — whimsy, candor, nonchalance — feels in tune with the delivery method. She has raised the stunt-release bar while blasting some coded wisdom across popland: Go ahead. Take that cannonball off the high dive. Make a big old splash. But please know how to swim.
Beyoncé performs at Verizon Center on Dec. 18.