Bey Day continues (And everybody’s celebratin’)…
Crystal Leww: “Blow” was written by the same team that was largely responsible for Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience plus Pharrell and Beyoncé herself, and it spawned a new wave of “I told you so”s from 20/20 fans. Unlike 20/20, “Blow” is actually very good. JT supposedly recorded both parts of 20/20 in 14 day spurts; Beyoncé proves how early 2000s vintage only sounds fresh when you’re willing to put in the work, to obsess until it’s perfect. Whereas many of the tracks on 20/20 manage to sound simultaneously self-indulgent and dialed-in with lengthy songs that drag on forever, “Blow” grooves and stutters in all the right places. Timbaland’s signature beat-boxing percussion finally sounds right over that bass groove. The melodic riff lifted straight from Ciara’s “Goodies”, the comparison of eating pussy to eating candy, the cheesy French Big Lebowski: this would all be absolutely terrible if it were any lesser artist. But hey, we’re talking about Beyoncé here. The rocketship that is “XO” is undeniable in terms of anthemic quality, but “Blow” would have shot the sounds of 2003 Timbo, Pharrell Williams, JT, and Bey back onto the radio with a song about female oral sex. That’s amazing.
Madeleine Lee: Breezy as it is on the surface — the aural equivalent of lip gloss, a blow-out and a leotard — there’s a rich pool of influences and potential connections to be drawn (or teased, if you will) out of “Blow.” The two I can’t get away from are the least savoury: Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” with its notoriety rooted in coercion, and “Les Sucettes” (“Lollipops”), given by Serge Gainsbourg to an unfortunately naïve France Gall to sing in 1966. Beyoncé’s taken on the former before, of course, so it doesn’t need to be summoned here until the final third. It’s the latter’s stage-winking candy metaphor that gets the illusory reclamation treatment, with the sex flipped, too (although that’s a response not to Gainsbourg, but to a decade of men rapping about their lollipops). I can put up with the pointless freestyle midsection for a song about female sexual enjoyment where the ickiest thing one can say about it is that Blue Ivy is eventually going to understand the lyrics.
Patrick St. Michel: The laid-back disco of the first half is nice (“Skittles” is a great sounding word), but it’s really all about the turn-the-cherry-out part for me, wherein Beyoncé just really drives home the point of the song over some retro funk. Makes me sad this didn’t come out in the summer.
Anthony Easton: “Turn the cherry out” is one of those nonsense phrases with enough erotic ambiguity that it leads to genuine delight. That the delight ends up being an ode to cunnilingus makes everything that much better — that Slate article that claimed Beyoncé as conservative did not pay attention to how encyclopedic this album was about women’s power.
Katherine St Asaph: “Beyoncé is suddenly raunchy!” — no, not exactly. Slog as IV Play was, it had the pretty explicit “Turnt,” and all the way back to Dangerously in Love, Bey was doing “Hip Hop Star” and, y’know, that time she actually quoted “Love to Love You Baby.” Still, it’s great to file “Blow” alongside Ciara’s “Read My Lips” and Cathy Davey’s “Moving” as delightfully poppy songs on this particular subject, or Mya’s “Sophisticated Lady” and Tracey Thorn’s “Get Around to It” as raunchy disco throwbacks. And it’s even greater — to add to that GIF going around — that Beyoncé shoves the baby-talk nonsense of “Strawberry Bubblegum” and all the leches of the Summer of Smoove off the table with this effortlessly featherweight then gloriously brash cut. Bey even trounces them on adding French in a sex song — cliched by dudes, inventive by The Dude.
Brad Shoup: Like “Love on Top,” a simulacra of sensation. I was thinking it’d be neat to have a guest willing to get graphic — Jaheim ghosting for Lil Wayne, perhaps — but I found myself dreading Timbo’s responses, their snotty and desiccated tone. It’s much better, in symbol and substance, to let Beyoncé be the sole rider here. A couple nice touches: a percussive ping fathoms below the main levels, and a gorgeous, downstepping four-note “yeah” that ends in a pleasured/surprised “oh!” But “Blow” isn’t a portrait of marital bliss, exactly. It’s more a picture of foreplay: the flushed promises of complete fulfillment, of stretched muscles and drained vessels. There’s lots of mink here, but no spunk.
Rebecca A. Gowns: Nobody can bring marital bliss to life like Beyoncé. You know what Maria Felix once said: “an original woman is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom no one can imitate.” I think of that whenever I hear a track like this from Beyoncé, effortlessly combining the spirits of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Donna Summer. At first, I’m not sure how this could be played on the radio, and then I look over the lyrics again, and thank the Lord for colorful euphemisms.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Here, a confection! Pharrell slides back into his “Work It Out” disco boots, allowing Knowles to update primo Donna Summer; Timbaland then takes over with a Minneapolis-tinged clattering workout, allowing Knowles to update Appollonia. She adamantly — and gleefully — sings about the prospect of the post-club “tear that cherry out” ritual. Timbo censors it, turning it into “turn that cherry out,” a sign that he’s been knocked dizzy by Bey, his wild blushing shrouded under his reclaimed musical mojo. This is masterful fluff that twists in on itself, and it’s amazing that it sounds like a real song rather than an excuse to print money. And somehow it’s not the lead single? The restraint on show here is mind-boggling: good work everyone, we solved the riddle.
Will Adams: Pharrell’s production aesthetic is built around a chintzy nostalgia, using electric pianos, funk guitars, and natural drums to create a live band effect. Unfortunately for “Blow,” he crosses the thin line from chintzy into cheap; his drums are tinny and out-of-the-box, and the guitars sound stale and pre-set. The arrangement picks up in the second act when Timbaland enters, but the thin beats return, bloating the whole piece to five minutes. A waste of a performance from Beyoncé.
Edward Okulicz: The disco of “Blow” is so hushed and subtle (i.e. it needs some better drums) that it seems kind of ingenious for it to be hiding an ode to cunnilingus effectively in plain sight. The music doesn’t build to the same climax Beyoncé does, making it feel a bit undercooked and a bit pleased with its wordplay (“Skittles/solve the riddle”). Maybe that would sound better were it not completely overshadowed by the outlandish and filthy funk that follows — I could listen to ten minutes of that bit.
Alfred Soto: The quiet keyboard lines and Beyoncé’s unforced melisma and satisfied love grunts suggest the Ashanti of “Happy,” and Pharrell is up to the challenge — for once. The call and response vocals tease out every possibility in lines like “Pink is the flavor/solve the riddle/yeah!” Superstars get horny too.
John Seroff: I have on my desk an unpirated, physical copy of the actual-to-god Beyonce Black Album, which is surely what we were meant to call it though she’s been too polite to correct us. Here is how I got this slightly waxy slipcased little beauty: I went out of my home, visited a record store and bought it. Well, not really: this being 2014, what I did was visit an electronics store that hid its new release music up on the fourth floor as if embarrassed. It may have been a decade since I last waited in line to buy an album in a store; I buy most of my music either via subscription or direct from the artist at live shows. The reason for this bout of consumer nostalgia had less to do with declaring myself #TeamBeyonce or throwing a penny down the “let’s stop piracy” well and more with honoring what I sensed as a genuine request by the artist on how to appreciate her work. At the heart of Bey’s stealth release, abhorrence of traditional PR methods and avoidance of full-length streaming, I couldn’t help thinking she was asking us to listen to her album as an album, not as a single delivery system. So I had the wage slave at the desk deactivate the magnetic tattle tape and I took the disc home and listened to Beyoncé the way I used to listen to albums when I first got them years ago: I played them through to completion and then played them through a few times more before I started dissection. Internet and media-addled as I am today, re-embracing passively-active pop listening was no small step. My verdict after that fourth spin was that this was likely a slow-burner with one obvious firework (“***FLAWLESS”, naturally), no obvious missteps, a lot of solid catalog material and a surprising willingness to experiment. “Blow” is one of the album’s sonically safer cuts, with Pharrell and Timbaland’s corn/disco-ball fingerprints all over the production, but I’m still surprised this genderflipped “Strawberry Bubblegum” is being bandied about as a single at all given the less-than-subtle lyrics. To hell with upending the supply chain; real girl power is when you can demand head for five minutes on pop radio and they ask you for more. Pity that the phrasing and energy is more J. Timberlake than D. Summer; I can’t help but think that this exercise would improve vastly if Beyoncé would throw herself a bit more bodily at the bassline. “Blow” will benefit from a thousand inevitable remixes but even sloppy as it is, it’s a mostly fun ride.
David Lee: I suppose what I’ve meant all along when I’ve referred to EDM’s Top 40 presence as generally “warmed over” or “soulless” was a total lack of sexual frisson. This problem is most apparent in those songs trafficking in disco. Katy Perry sneaks toward the edge of the erotic but never really gets there, preferring instead to bury her attempts in enough sugary playfulness to entice tweens and avoid clucks of disdain from AC radio’s listenership. On The 20/20 Experience, “Strawberry Bubblegum” and a couple other #deepcuts excepted, JT settled for a smooth classiness over revelatory aural ecstasy. And “Treasure” is too brash in its sunniness to move off the dance floor and into the bedroom. Pharrell, getting lucky and erupting in falsetto “oohs,” and Carly Rae Jepsen, fanning herself over cascading strings, are the two major pop stars of late that stand out as truly utilizing disco as a vehicle for eroticism. Enter “Blow.” All the moaning and cooing recalls Donna Summers ode to orgasms, “Love to Love You Baby.” The sunset-pink, Off The Wall production nods to Michael Jackson’s pleasured yelp leading in to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Even the Timbaland flourishes on the bridge remind us of that producer’s finesse when it comes to spinning sex into sound. Some of the wording here is clumsy — Skittles are uniformly sweet, and tearing cherries out sounds unsettlingly violent — but as a whole it’s a lot of wet, sticky fun. Many have giddily highlighted that Beyoncé is probably the singer’s most sexually blunt work. Here, though, I’m more excited about the explicit association of the electronic with the organic.