Beyoncé – 4
Beyoncé – 4
Even though its whole dual personality concept didn’t really pan out, I Am…Sasha Fierce, spawned numerous hits, namely “Single Ladies,” but a lot had changed since 2008. In 2011, the pop charts were unquestionably dominated by the heart-on-the-sleeve soul of Adele, while Lady Gaga still had a firm grasp on the public with Born This Way, which boasted eclecticism as one of its main draws. Call it good timing, but Beyoncé Knowles’ aptly titled fourth album, 4, attempts to blend those artists’ qualities by both reclaiming her more soulful bent and extending her reach into uncharted territory. More so than on her earlier works, she’s unabashedly retro, dipping into classic soul, new jack swing, adult contemporary and ’90s R&B. And to help her achieve her goals, Beyoncé smartly brought in forward-thinking producers like The-Dream, Diplo, Kanye West and Frank Ocean to mix things up while still leaving a professional sheen. So it comes as both a surprise and no surprise at all that West and André 3000 drop by for a few verses on “Party,” that “Run The World (Girls)” twitches to a Major Lazer sample, that “Love On Top” features backing vocals straight out of New Edition or that “Countdown” and “End Of Time” ride waves of stuttering horns.
However, 4 plays much straighter than it reads. For the most part, other than the nearly beatless opener “1+1” and the nearly beat-saturated closer “Run The World (Girls)”—tellingly, two of the album’s best songs—everything still feels relatively within Beyoncé’s comfort zone. In the case of the smug kiss-off “Best Thing I Never Had,” this isn’t really a bad thing, but “I Was Here,” simply comes off as trite, just content to go through the motions. But even when 4 appears to play it safe, the most welcome and obvious change is Beyoncé’s vocal approach. Here, she’s never sounded better, going for raw, live-sounding vocal takes, the kinds that are often heard in concert but not necessarily on record. The result is an unexpectedly emotional listen, especially on the first handful of tracks. The bitter “I Care” and heartbreaking “I Miss You” are both fine songs, but “1+1” may be the best track here, an impassioned all-we-have-is-each-other ballad with a surprisingly cathartic Prince-inspired guitar solo at the end. Her singing also pays great dividends for her elsewhere, such as on the infectious sex jam “Party” where she’s able to make a line like “So in love, I’ll give it all away. Just don’t tell nobody tomorrow” come off as strong and sexy, rather than desperate and sleazy. Meanwhile, on “Run The World (Girls),” she truly lets loose, unafraid to sound down right unhinged. But these moments only make you wish that 4 tried more. Considering the big-budget ambition and the hints of inspired weirdness on display, it’s a shame that Beyoncé and her producers don’t travel further down these roads, especially since the more conventional moments aren’t hooky or memorable enough to justify running in place. In any case, 4 comes across as a more mature, nuanced variation of 2006’s more club-oriented B’Day, and, more importantly, it holds some of the most thrilling music of Beyoncé’s career.