Beyoncé

Beyoncé

Released: 13 December 2013 (Digital)

Genre: Pop

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With the weight of expectation resting heavy on her shoulders, the biggest popstar in the world delivers one of the year's most ambitious and best albums.

In an age where artists seem unable to release an album, video, single, or take a breath without the action being accompanied by a laborious teaser campaign, it was a brave move from Beyoncé to simply release her album on iTunes with no warning.

She calls it a visual album – 14 songs and 17 videos together as a complete package. No singles, no attempt to break some ridiculous record for Vevo views, just a complete body of work. Previously, Beyoncé has fallen into the trap of making her albums vehicles for singles; her eponymous fifth offering could not be further from that. Yes, there are some bangers on here, but is the paean to cunnilingus likely to be a radio hit? Possibly not.

That's not to say this isn't a commercial record. It is Beyoncé's least commercial record but it's a unit-shifter none the less - just one that doesn't necessarily need the backing of radio to do so. The aforementioned Blow is a filthy, Pharrell Williams'-produced dose of Bey-funk that could rival Prince in his heyday. XO is a epic blast of modern, emotive pop and Frank Ocean collaboration Superpower takes doo-wop to a new level.

It's difficult to avoid sex in this record – and in the accompanying videos. Motherhood has certainly not turned Beyoncé into a prude. Partition sees hubby Jay-Z "Monica Lewinsky-ing" on her gown, while Rocket could have been lifted from an R Kelly sex-jam – opening line: "Let me sit this ass on you."

She may be loved up, but Bey's not forgotten her core audience and she plays the fierce, spurned lover on No Angel and Jealous, which takes the clunky role-reversal metaphor of If I Were A Boy, developing it into a coherent response to her cheating lover: "Sometimes I want to walk in your shoes / Do the things that I never ever do."

Flawless reworks Bey's leaked track Bow Down/I Been On and takes the theme of female empowerment, incorporating the words of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie into a trap-infused feminist manifesto. She blasts critics who dismiss her as "just his little wife" making it clear that it's her vision, her artistry, her "s***" that they should bow down to. It marries the idea that you can be a feminist and in love.

And it is with that idea that Blue Ivy gets a starring role in closing track Blue – an obligatory dose of schmaltz, which reminds us that Beyoncé is a mother, a feminist, and one hell of a singer.

Earlier this year Jay-Z promised to release a record that would change the game – but it is his wife who has actually managed it.

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17-12-2013