Albums of the week
BEYONCE Beyonce Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia **** ALTERNATIVE R&B ANXIETY Autre Ne Veut Software Recording Co **** One is an R&B pop superstar and the other a lesser-known artist from leftfield R&B. Beyonce and Arthur Ashin, the Brooklyn-based crooner behind Autre Ne Veut (meaning "I want no other"), may appear chalk and cheese, but there's something similar at the core of their art. It's confession, but ruthlessly unsentimental.
Beyonce's fifth record quietly dropped on iTunes last Friday, but what intrigues is not how she pulls off the marketing coup, or how it's peddled as a "visual album" with a video made for each tune.
What fascinates is how Queen Bey is doing a meta-textual dissection, taking a scalpel to her public/private personas, and asking: Who am I? What makes me happy?
This is the Everywoman in all her complexities. She's questioning her identities as wife, sexual creature, mother, career woman. At the same time, she's still ridiculously glamorous, brazenly sexual, strong yet timorous too.
Pretty Hurts zeroes in on how much of a woman's self-worth remains pegged to physical attributes. The song is classic soul empowerment, underpinned by electric fuzz, as she realises "it's the soul that needs the surgery".
Another sassy treatise is Flawless, a salvo against gender discrimination, as she declaims she isn't "just his little wife".
The music is ragga spiked with OutKast-styled freak-soul and pinned with an eviscerating speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who laments that girls are raised not to have too much ambition because "you will threaten the man".
Remarkably, the proselytising is delivered in some of Beyonce's subtlest vibes. Superpower, produced by Pharrell Williams, slides on slippery grooves, with barely there finger snaps and an exquisite vocal shading by Frank Ocean.
Other protestations of love and sex aren't sappy or sleazy. She turns on her Sasha Fierce-ness as she raps on Partition, out-Rihanna-ing Rihanna in the sensuality stakes; and turns off the lights in the laid-back Rocket, penned by R&B star Miguel.
Autre Ne Veut's Ashin goes even further out on a limb. He's laid himself bare, scabrous hang-ups dutifully hung up for everyone to poke and probe. He doesn't mind being ugly.
On Anxiety - the album cover originally shows the Scream painting by Edvard Munch - he chronicles fears about death, heartbreak and his lifelong struggle with panic attacks.
Counting, about his dying grandmother, feels like all the bolts and nuts of the R&B are being apart and reconstituted, endlessly.
His nod-to-1980s lo-fi grooves and airless falsetto, like channelling Usher via Prince, verge on disrepair, rolling on a tough, sandpapery synth, as he chants: "I'm counting on the idea that you'll stay."
The disjunctive beats in songs such as Ego Free Sex Free and Warning turn R&B gloriously on its head, emphasising its seams rather than its sheen.
You groove to them, then wonder whether the Grim Reaper is near.