Beyonce’s self-titled fifth album, released by surprise on December 13, turned the music biz on its head, stole a lot of the year-end critical thunder from 2013’s other big-name releases (including her husband’s), and gave an unexpected jolt to a pop-music world that generally goes into hibernation after Thanksgiving. Both a bold and deeply rewarding artistic statement and the work of one of pop’s most reliable names at what seems like the peak of her powers, it managed to sell a million copies in under a week at a time when even major releases have trouble breaking seven digits. For the past three weeks it’s sat more or less unchallenged at the top spot on Billboard‘s Hot 200 albums chart, and looks to be there for a while.
Over at the singles-focused Hot 100, though, things aren’t such a shutout. At a time when Billboard‘s newish policy of counting digital streaming plays towards Hot 100 placement has allowed acts with massive, cultishly devoted fan bases can land most of an entire album on the chart during its first weeks out, the Beyhive’s only placing three songs on it right now: “Drunk In Love” at number 17, “XO” at number 73, and “Mine (feat. Drake)” all the way down at number 82. Meanwhile Katy Perry has three songs in the top 20 alone, while newcomer Lorde has two.
“Drunk In Love,” Beyonce‘s lead “urban” single, isn’t even doing so well on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. With over 35 million YouTube plays for its official video, it’s at the top of the R&B Streaming Songs and R&B/Hip-Hop Streaming Songs charts, but on the four other R&B/Hip-Hop singles charts it’s being beat out by relatively old songs by Drake and Eminem.
There are any number of reasons why “Drunk In Love” hasn’t found significant traction on the pop charts. The song’s verses have a stoned, improvisational quality that probably meander too much to compete in a world where Dr. Luke has turned punchiness into a science, where not a second is wasted on anything that might take away from delivering hooks. The verses, which are supposed to be what sells a pop song, kind of jump in at unexpected times without much clear delineation between them and the other parts.
In the context of the album, which is built on a series of unexpected sharp left turns, “Drunk In Love” makes sense, and even stands out as one of its more accessible moments. On its own it seems too slithery and strange to succeed against a packed field of songs that give listeners a lot of proven pleasures with a minimum of challenges. There is a lot on Beyonce to suggest that after over two decades of competing in the pop game, Mrs. Carter is trying to redefine herself as something else, a serious artist who’s not afraid to step far enough outside the thickly drawn pop-star lines in order to follow her art. Perhaps she even looks at “Drunk In Love”‘s relative lack of chart success as a badge of honor, that after a career full of smash-hit singles she’s finally become an albums artist.