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Review: 'Beyonce'

The R & B superstar takes the pop world by surprise with her fifth album. Beyonce posted a short video for her 8 million Instagram followers, accompanied by a one word message - “Surprise!” She was announcing the release of the self-titled Beyonce, a 14 song, 17 video “visual album.”

This was always supposed to be Beyonce's year.

Back in February, the super-diva played the Super Bowl half time show. You don't assemble an audience that size without planning to do serious business in the months ahead, and a world tour followed, complete with a headlining spot at the Made In America festival in Philadelphia this summer.

But as 2013 went on, fans were left to wonder: Where was the new album that was expected to accompany the Mrs. Carter Show? Was the pop star obsessively tinkering? Did she scrap it because it wasn't up to snuff?

The riddle was solved a few minutes before midnight on Thursday, when without advance notice, Beyonce posted a short video for her 8 million Instagram followers, accompanied by a one word message - "Surprise!" She was announcing the release of the self-titled Beyonce (Parkwood / Columbia ***), a 14 song, 17 video "visual album," which became available on iTunes that very second and is almost as impressive an artistic statement as it is a creative career move. 

The means of getting the word out echoed out-of-the-blue announcements by David Bowie, who caught his fans off guard in January when he revealed his new album The Next Day, and Beyonce's husband Jay-Z, who used a commercial during an NBA playoff game to tell the world Magna Carta Holy Grail was on its way, via a problematic mobile phone app.

In both of those cases, though, time was allowed time for a traditional blockbuster set up, with a few weeks of promo time before the lion's share of the music was let loose. Beyonce didn't bother with that. Instead, she adopted the strategy also employed by British shoe gaze band My Bloody Valentine who released their first album in 21 years one late night in February, and dropped the whole shebang at once.

Each song on Beyonce is accompanied  by a glossy short film, many shot in such exotic locales as Rio de Janeiro, Coney Island and her home town of Houston while on the road with the Mrs. Carter Show. You've got to hand it to her: The woman is a real worker Bey.

The mini-movies are collaborations with high profile video directors like Hype Williams and Terry Richardson, the most ambitious of which is for the lead track "Pretty Hurts," directed by Melina Matsoukas. The clip serves up a critique of the beauty-industrial complex and features Harvey Keitel as a pageant emcee and Beyonce-as-actress forcing herself to vomit into a toilet to lose weight and fighting over a hair dryer with other contestants backstage.

It's also a good example of Beyonce having it both ways, as she does while working with Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign while also signing a $50 million deal with Pepsi to sell soda cans with her face on it around the world. "Pretty Hurts" takes aim at the impossible beauty standards set by the a superficial skin deep culture. "Perfection is the disease of a nation," she sings. "You can't fix what you can't see / It's the soul that needs the surgery."

Meantime, on that and the other highly sexualized videos on the album, 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. She's ready for critics who might call that hypocritical, though, with the woman-power anthem "***Flawless," whose video is bookended by a 1993 clip of Beyonce appearing on Star Search with a group Ed McMahon introduces as "the hip-hop rappin' Girls Tyme." The song samples a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "We Should All Be Feminists," quoting the Nigerian writer defining "feminist" as "a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes."

Beyonce's sheer heft - over an hour of music, with its length more than doubled if you watch the videos separately - defies the theory of the shrinking-attention-span consumers. Not only does Beyonce want you to listen to her album in its entirety, she wants you to watch it, too. It's more like Netflix series such as House of Cards that arrives on your desktop all at once. It's a mass of material that affords fans the luxury of a Beyonce binge.

"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it," the 32 year old singer said in a press 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. The breaking news of the release created an avalanche of free publicity, and with the only option a full album purchase for $15.99, Beyonce sold 80,00 copies in its first three hours, and over 400,000 in its first day, according to Billboard. By mid-morning on Friday, it was #1 on iTunes in 90 countries.

And how about the music? Will it have staying power after the hype has subsided? Beyonce is by no means flawless. It's slow going in its middle section, with "Mine," an overly long duet with Drake, and "Jealous" mainly providing an opportunity for Beyonce to showcase her dark side in the video, one of three in which she gets a co-directors credit.

The album is bold musically, with Beyonce 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 long time hitmakers such as Pharrell Williams. Frank Ocean sings on the standout "Superpower," Miguel shows up as a co-writer on the Prince-ly seducer "Rocket," and Justin Timberlake and Timbaland both contribute to that track and the Jay-Z duet "Drunk in Love."

(That song contains the album's biggest misstep, but Jay-Z, not Beyonce, is responsible for the what-was-he-thinking? moment. In the couple's pas de deux, shot in black and white on a beach at night in the Hype Wiliams directed video, Hova gets out of hand, comparing himself to late notorious wife beater Ike Turner. "I'm like Ike Turner," he raps. "Baby know I don't play, now eat the cake, Annie Mae, eat the cake Annie Mae!." using Tina Turner's given name.)

Beyonce 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 album was delayed is that it's short of those sure fire earworm hits. It commands the attention on the strengths of Beyonce'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 that she's been performing live on tour all year, and which was included in a Pepsi commercial.

The song is not on the audio portion of Beyonce, but is included as a bonus video, in an incredibly adorable clip with home movies of a cute-as-a-button Beyonce 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. It's lyric, however, sums up exactly what Beyonce is saying with the entirety of Beyonce. "I'm a grown woman," she sings. "I can do whatever I want."

Thirty seconds of the "Pretty Hurts" video is below.

Previously: Top Ten albums of 2013 follow in the Mix on Twitter