Beyoncé (Columbia/Sony) Rating: NNNN
Beyoncé one-upped the music world last week by proving that you can not only keep an entire album's existence secret (let alone its content), but you can also make 17 different videos while you gallivant across the world on tour.
And while there isn't a chart-smashing Single Ladies or Baby Boy in the mix, the resulting 14 tracks (plus 17 videos) make her most complete album to date.
In a lot of ways, Beyoncé is an R&B traditionalist. Which explains why, for example, her last album, 2011's 4, could have an agro dance hit like Run The World (Girls), but also a throwback soul tune like Love On Top.
On her fifth solo record, the old-and-new pattern continues, as the singer incorporates elements of 2013 (electronic alt-R&B with of-the-moment producers like Pharrell Williams and Hit-Boy), while remaining unapologetically, earnestly, pose-hardingly, rah-rah-rah Beyoncé (see XO). It's what separates her from the hard-edged raunch of her peers, but it doesn't mean she can't do scandalous. On Beyoncé, Queen Bey has picked up her sex game, big time - working it best on Rocket - a cross between late-90s D'Angelo neo-soul and early 2000s Usher - and Partition, where Beyoncé narrates backseat shenanigans over deep, resounding bass.
(As if we didn't spend enough time thinking about Bey and Jay's sex life.)
The future-R&B vibe runs throughout, but there are moments of major genre nostalgia, too. The 70s disco funk of Blow, for example, where she manages a Janet Jackson delivery over a Michael Jackson beat.
And while there will definitely be haters for sugary power anthems like Pretty Hurts (a Halo-sounding song about the pressures to be beautiful), it's classic Beyoncé feminism, and if you're a sucker for girl-power hits like Irreplaceable, you'll have this one on repeat, too. (See also: Flawless, featuring powerful words from feminist Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.)
Everywhere, Beyoncé's buttery vocals are perfect, whether she's growling on Drunk In Love (a follow up to Crazy In Love featuring Jay Z), unleashed on a ballad (Heaven), restrained on a Noah "40" Shebib-produced duet with Drake (Mine) or rapping an alt-hip-hop intro on Haunted.
Top track: Rocket