Beyoncé Knowles, the reigning Super Bowl XLVII MVP and perennial candidate for “Greatest Living Texan,” surprised fans with a heck of a Christmas present late last night: her fifth solo album, the self-titled Beyoncé. It’s no small deal when an artist in her prime releases the follow-up to a multi-platinum album with no advance fanfare—but perhaps more fascinating is what else accompanied the album: Namely, an eighteen-part collection of music videos, including one for every song on the album, as well as four bonus videos.
That sort of presentation (the package is billed on iTunes as a “visual album”) pays off best when the album itself is something of a statement, and Beyoncé very much is that. Since the last time she put out a record, Beyoncé has become a mother; headlined the Super Bowl halftime show; become a political talking point after visiting Cuba with husband Jay-Z; taken on the controversially-titled “Mrs. Carter” world tour; and reunited with the group that made her a teen star, Destiny’s Child. Some of the questions that came up as a result of these experiences have certainly made their way onto Beyoncé, as well.
The album puts motherhood front and center: the opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” which also features one of Beyoncé‘s strongest hooks, recalls growing up being told that beauty is the most important thing that young Beyoncé could aspire to. It’s not a surprise that she’d be reflecting on the messages that mothers pass on to their daughters, and the album bookends “Pretty Hurts” with the closing track, “Blue,” a sparely-produced, lovely ballad that addresses daughter Blue Ivy Carter directly (and, in a moment that manages to stay on the right side of the touching/cloying line, ends with the almost-two-year-old herself offering her interpretation of the “hold on / hold on” chorus).
The twelve songs between the opener and closer, meanwhile, offer a different perspective on motherhood: songs like “Drunken Love,” a duet with husband Jay-Z, and “Blow,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-eighties Prince album, are sexual in a way that, given the context of how mothers are typically depicted, seems downright political; classic slow-jam “Rocket” ends with a double-entendre that reframes a basic self-esteem cliche like “comfortable in my skin” as sexual empowerment. In the context of a female artist’s post-maternity album, framing sex as a part of motherhood is an explicitly political thing to do.
“Explicitly political” isn’t a term that’s been used to describe Beyoncé’s music before, but given that the guests on the album include not just Jay-Z and Drake, but also Nigerian author and MacArthur Fellow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—who delivers a spoken-word verse about the way that girls and women are placed in competition with one another for male attention—there’s not really another way to frame it.
In other words, Beyoncé is an album that makes a statement, and the fact that she makes that statement in an album that she basically ambushed her fanbase with overnight is exciting. Musically, Beyoncé isn’t quite as catchy as some of her other work; there’s not a “Halo” or “Single Ladies” on it, but she’s also already been exploring the power of big pop hooks since Destiny’s Child first debuted when she was sixteen. Instead, she brings a lot of a different sort of pop: the dreamy, lazy atmospherics of the Drake collaboration “Mine” wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by indie rockers the XX.
It all adds up to an unexpected listen, but that makes sense for an album that nobody even knew they’d be listening to today. Beyoncé is one of the singular pop stars working today, and on her fifth album, she’s definitely not repeating herself.