To say it simply, Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album is a complex beast. Released midweek in a digital-only format with zero promotion, Beyoncé is hard not to see as a kiss-off to the music industry at large. It’s an album whose maker chose to ignore all the rules. And as of press time, it had sold more than one million digital copies. But sonically speaking, B’s latest stands on its own as a glorious testament to artistic growth. In place of Sasha Fierce’s hook-driven club bangers, Beyoncé aims to humanize B’s larger-than-life persona. “Sometimes I want to walk in your shoes,” she sings on “Jealous,” before exasperating the line “I’m just human” with a single, chest-rattling breath. “Drunk in Love” and “Partition” find the singer wrestling with her own sexuality with a refreshing frankness. And in between it all, audio snippets of Star Search losses and Grammy wins point to a life lived in the spotlight and all the baggage that comes along with it. Beyoncé’s calling-card torch songs show up here, too, but they’re an elevated version of their predecessors. Take “XO,” a bold, anthemic love song so hard-hitting it’s almost gratuitous, yet delivered with such blind conviction that you can’t help but wish it were directed at you. Sure, B’s latest may be emblematic of an industry tipping point. It may even signal the beginning of the end for the major labels. But if it isn’t, Beyoncé still serves as a testament to the poise and power of pop music’s biggest star.

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