The riddle was solved a few minutes before midnight Thursday, when, without advance notice, Beyoncé posted a short video for her eight million Instagram followers, accompanied by a one-word message:

"Surprise!"

She was announcing the release of the self-titled Beyoncé (Parkwood/Columbia nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends ), a 14-song, 17-video "visual album" that became available on iTunes that very second. It's almost as impressive an artistic statement as it is a creative career move.

David Bowie caught fans off-guard in January when he revealed his album The Next Day. And Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, used a commercial during an NBA playoff game to tell the world Magna Carta. . . Holy Grail was on its way. Both, however, allowed a few weeks for the traditional blockbuster set-up before letting most of the music loose.

Beyoncé didn't bother with that. Her strategy was more like that of British shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine, which released m b v, its first album in 21 years, one late night in February, all at once.

Each song on Beyoncé is accompanied by a glossy short film, in locales such as Rio de Janeiro, Coney Island, and her hometown of Houston. These mini-movies are collaborations with high-profile video directors such as Hype Williams and Terry Richardson.

The most ambitious video, for the lead track, "Pretty Hurts," is directed by Melina Matsoukas. This scathing swipe at the beauty-industrial complex, featuring Harvey Keitel as a pageant emcee, takes aim at the impossible beauty standards set by a superficial, skin-deep culture. "Perfection is the disease of a nation," Beyoncé sings. "You can't fix what you can't see/ It's the soul that needs the surgery." Beyoncé-as-actress forces herself to vomit into a toilet to lose weight and fights over a hair dryer with other contestants backstage.

This video is also a good example of Beyoncé having it both ways. "Pretty Hurts" may attack the beauty industry, but here and in other highly sexualized videos on Beyoncé, she looks fabulous, showing off her bangin' post-baby body in about a thousand barely-there outfits, setting an impossible standard for young fans to meet. 

Beyoncé's sheer heft - more than an hour of music, more than two if you watch the videos separately - defies the notion of the shrinking-attention-span consumer. Not only does Beyoncé want you to listen to her album in its entirety; she wants you to watch it, too. It's an invitation to a Beyoncé binge.

"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it," the 32-year-old singer said in a news release about her fifth album. "I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. . . . I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans."

So far, the business strategy is a resounding success. News of the release created an avalanche of free publicity, and with the only option a full album purchase for $15.99, Beyoncé sold 80,000 copies in its first three hours, and more than 400,000 in its first day, according to Billboard. By mid-morning on Friday, it was No. 1 on iTunes in 90 countries. In its first three days, it sold a record 828,773 units on iTunes.

And how about the music? Beyoncé is by no means flawless. It's slow going in its middle section, with "Mine," an overly long duet with Drake, and "Jealous," mainly an opportunity for Beyoncé to showcase her dark side in the video, one of three in which she gets a codirector credit.

The album is bold musically, with Beyoncé pushing herself in fresh directions. She's singing better than ever, whether softly cooing, letting her voice soar while flirting with Middle Eastern scales, or employing guttural hip-hop grunts. She even convincingly raps, most amusingly on "Yonce," in which she rhymes "liquor" with "I sneezed on the beat, and the beat got sicker."

She works with state-of-the-art electronic R&B songwriters and producers like Hit-Boy and Boots, as well as longtime hitmakers such as Pharrell Williams. Frank Ocean sings on the standout "Superpower," Miguel shows up as a cowriter on the Prince-ly seducer "Rocket," and Justin Timberlake and Timbaland both contribute to that track and the Jay Z duet "Drunk in Love."

Beyoncé has scored more than her share of undeniable pop hits over the years, from "Crazy in Love" to "Irreplaceable" to "Single Ladies." Maybe one of the reasons the new album was delayed is that it's short of those surefire, earworm hits. It commands the attention on the strengths of Beyoncé's star power, inimitable vocal presence, and consistently surprising production sounds.

The exception that proves the rule is "Grown Woman," the snappy feminist statement of purpose with a double-dutch beat. The song is not on the audio portion of Beyoncé, but is included as a bonus video, in an incredibly adorable clip with home movies of a cute-as-a-button Beyoncé performing solo, with her sister Solange and members of Destiny's Child. It's super-catchy and doesn't really fit in musically with the rest of the darker, more challenging songs that precede it.

Its lyric, however, sums up exactly what Beyoncé is saying with the entirety of Beyoncé. "I'm a grown woman," she sings. "I can do whatever I want."

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