Albums like Sasha Fierce, in which an artist willingly separates her various impulses into two or more distinct discs/“characters”, are rarely convincing. Either one turns out way more stimulating than the other, or both feel limp without the diversity and range of emotion a typical album would allow. If 4 is any indication, Beyoncé would mostly be willing to concede that point even if she’ll never say it out loud. This 12-track album is the result of 70-plus finished tracks submitted to the label for them to hand select, but, unlike her previous albums, 4 is mainly the work of two production teams. The main thrust is handled by Ne-Yo’s frequent collaborator Shea Taylor, while G.O.O.D. Music’s Jeff Bhasker, Symbolyc One, Luke Steele, and Kanye West work the majority of the other tracks. The-Dream and Diplo’s right hand man Switch round out the proceedings, along with a Ryan Tedder production.
4 begins with a sort of startling sound—until the Kanye-helmed “Party” (featuring one of those rare “look how effortless rapping is for me” verses from Andre 3000 that have turned up in the strangest places since 2006), the music is largely reminiscent of late-‘80s diva histrionics. The backing tracks have no interest in her typical pursuit of forward-thinking, energetic fare, preferring to throw the emphasis on Beyoncé‘s radio-destroying vocal chords. “1+1” is the best result of this, finally providing Beyoncé a song that can compete with the favorites of this generation’s parents. But “I Care” (misplaced as it is, being a jilted lover track directly after such a pure love song as “1+1”) and “I Miss You” are equally competent, if safer, attempts at the same formula. It’s the sort of start that makes it clear why Beyoncé is head and shoulders above her Clear Channel competition in R&B. Unfortunately, she can’t sustain it forever.
Lead-single “Run the World (Girls)” is wisely hidden at the very end of the album here, almost like putting the song in timeout for flopping so embarrassingly out of the gate. The song was B’s least exciting and adventurous song in years, hindered all the more by its obvious insistence that it was a risk. The only risk it took was sampling (read: merely taking the beat for herself) a huge club hit that was barely more than a year old and turning it into an incredibly bland ode to her feminist contingent. That laziness reveals itself elsewhere, like the lyrical content of “Best Thing I Never Had”, in which the antagonist “show[s] [his] ass” and Beyoncé confidently proclaims “it must suck to be you.” Somewhere, Rihanna is sitting in a darkened room slow-clapping behind Cavale shades, but the rest of us are wondering how such lame lyrics could be sung with such earnestness.
Likewise, Kanye actually has the nerve to coin the term “dripping swag-gu” as a play on the word “ragú” on “Party”‘s chorus. The song itself also sounds much more natural as a hip-hop track, and proves it by being the only song to feature a rap verse. Likewise, songs like “Start Over” and “Countdown” just don’t seem to be listening to themselves, and will get by on listenability more than lyrical wizardry if they get by at all. Beyoncé makes most of the flops on this album interesting at the very least, but a lot of the material here feels beneath a woman as talented as she is. In the case of “I Was Here”, a Diane Warren-penned ballad to the self about a faded star desiring the world remember her impact, it’s plain awkward to here a woman as in her prime physically as Beyoncé is to even approach such a tune. The dull music from Ryan Tedder and an army of co-producers doesn’t help matters.
4 is a welcome comeback for Beyoncé after the Sasha Fierce meltdown, full of silly ‘80s musical references and many of the strong vocal turns that made Sasha‘s banality such a frustrating reality. It’s not an album that’s as surprising or forward thinking as Dangerously in Love or B’Day, but it is for the most part a fun listen at worst and for her legion of fans it will probably translate to much more. Personally, the dance vibe that storms in on the final fourth of the album feels forced even if they’re the songs Beyoncé is supposedly best at pulling off. Especially “End of Time”, which feels like it’s here merely for the sake of filling a quota. I also can’t help but wonder what this album would have been like with more mature lyrics in the vein of “1+1” and “Love on Top”, but that’s endemic to pretty much all radio-oriented R&B, not Beyoncé specifically.
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