On Beyoncé’s 17 Music Videos, Our Image Obsession And The Future Of Visual Albums

You might’ve heard about it via text or through hyperventilating fans on Twitter. But seeing is believing. Initial proof that Beyoncé’s surprise! album was indeed real (and readily available on iTunes) came in the form of photos jetting across timelines: Beyoncé adorably mean-mugging over Jay Z’s shoulder; Beyoncé flaunting perfect cheeks in a black, geometric thong; Beyoncé just minding her business while floating onto a bed—video stills that compelled people to purchase it so they could hear, watch repeatedly, update statuses and join the conversation (aka confirm that yes that’s Beyoncé’s bare ass), all the while driving up her sales, which are currently edging toward 600K. If Nielsen also calculated the number of home viewings on her 17 music videos, some of us might be slightly embarrassed. Did you watch “Drunk in Love” back to back? Did your heart not puddle at the sight of Bey carrying Blue Ivy on her hip? Were you a little frightened at the Drake-Yoncé face fusion in “Mine”? Is THIS your laptop wallpaper? Yes it is. Because as much as the success of her anti-marketing plan relied heavily on the fact that Beyoncé is Beyoncé, the effectiveness of the videos did, too. She needed you to care to even watch, not exactly a tall fete for an artist with a high performance acumen and more than a few deranged fans. Still, it had to be executed well. As a visual album in a very visual era, Beyoncé successfully extended Vine-length attention spans. Feeding our FOMO, coupled with our image obsession, she ensured that her album will live eternally as video stills and gifs. It’s an ambitious idea that’s been around for at least half a decade—50 Cent released 21 videos for his sophomore album The Massacre. Beyoncé dropped multiple videos for 4 but staggered the releases, resulting in interest waning. Bundling them Netflix style demanded immediate attention. Any new Beyoncé music would’ve left the Internet needing AAA, but her soul- and disco-splashed sexual liberation wouldn’t have struck the same blow without its high-budget visual companions, the work of Beyoncé and 11 different directors, including Hype Williams, Melina Matsoukas and Jonas Akerlund. Frankly, her defiance of anatomical logic helped, too. In becoming a sex goddess—who now coos things like, “Can you lick my skittles?” and “Gimme that daddy long stroke”—Beyoncé is also no doubt playing to our desire to see Beyoncé half-naked. So we get body parts of hers that we hadn’t seen before, erotica and intimacy with her daughter and husband (Overheard in the office: “They wouldn’t even acknowledge each other in person before and now we got all of this”). We’re inundated with videos that encourage pausing, marveling and repeat viewings, if not for the skin shots, choreography, fashions and cinematography, then for the Easter eggs (did you notice the trophy motif?). It was too much jelly.

Of course, these aren’t all high-art masterpieces, but together the pretty pictures make good conversation pieces, many of them from Beyoncé’s brains to our eyes. For the “Yoncé” video, it was her choice to use all models of color, including Chanel Iman and Joan Smalls (the one who licks her chest). “Beyoncé wanted to push that angle — that was her request and concept initially,” director Ricky Saiz told New York Magazine about the all-black cast.

Francesco Carrozzini, the director of “Jealous” also praised Beyoncé’s famous hands-on approach: “It’s not the traditional way I would do a video — how I did for A$AP or for other artists where you just come up with an idea and present it to the artist. She had a very precise storyline in her head and it was written and filled with references — and so a big part of the creativity is her.” It’s not that complicated, but it is game-changing. Plenty of artists envision and execute their own concept videos. It’s another thing to package it into something pleasing enough to hold our drifting gaze, with excellent music to match and produce a No. 1 album. It’s a model that could prove effective for natural storytellers like Erykah Badu or Kendrick Lamar. How much more mind blowing would good kid m.a.a.d city have been if it were a visual album or, as he told GQ, a short film? Beyoncé is onto something. Maybe it’s a perfect storm only she could pull off, but in this case copycats are welcome. —Clover Hope (@clovito)