Picture this: an alien arrived on Earth in 2011, right when Beyoncé released 4. Thousands of people all over the world were eager to check her new material, and the alien would get to know her solely by judging this album. What would they learn about her?
Chances are they would think, Wow, this woman really loves her man. (Even if gender was an unfamiliar concept to the alien, they could have learned it from her since she repeats gender pronouns exhaustively throughout the LP, often using possessive pronouns together with the word “man”.) But, change the angle from trying to get to know Beyoncé—a woman and the potential representative of all women on Earth—and the alien would have a harder time forming an opinion.
I was that alien, in 2011, when Beyoncé released 4 (although I obviously knew who Beyoncé was back then). I, like many, was a young woman to whom music and pop culture were as much sources of entertainment as they were tools to understand the world. In 4, I found great music and more reasons to admire Beyoncé and keep up with her career; yet, I was also left with a lot of questions.
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to dissociate Beyoncé’s art from discussions about feminism (moreover, Black/intersectional feminism) and racial equality. However, it wasn’t like that yet when she released 4. Even if Beyoncé had been singing about female empowerment since her days in Destiny’s Child—via songs like “Independent Woman, Pt. 1” (1999)—she wasn’t yet embracing those themes so openly in 2011, like she’d do in 2014, when she displayed the word “FEMINIST” in the backdrop of a performance at the Video Music Awards (Goodman, 2016).
4 was a fundamental record in making feminism a part of Beyoncé’s personal and artistic brand; yet, it’s something that can almost go unnoticed (or, at least, might have gone unnoticed back then) in the first 11 tracks. It is not until the last song, “Run The World (Girls)”, that she addresses it in the most explicit way possible: “Who run the world? / Girls / Some of them men think they freak this like we do / But no they don’t”, she sings.
Even without considering all the powerful performances of “Run the World (Girls)” that Beyoncé would eventually deliver (most notably, the one at the Billboard Music Awards 2011), the song itself is a strong statement; to this day, it is still a mandatory song in every “Girl Power!” playlist (or whatever other, better version of this feminist motto now exists).
That said, it also leaves room for debates on the narrative that Beyoncé was pushing. The lyrics of “Run the World (Girls)” place women as powerful beings who can—and do—cumulate the roles of mother and hardworking professional, yes, but most importantly, do anything they set their minds to (including “build a nation”). Yet, it is unclear how much of the potential she’s singing of is credited to women’s innate capability rather than to their ability to convince men to let them do it. A lot of time is spent addressing how women’s competencies impress men and suggesting that it is all part of the sexual allure women have over men.
When she sings, “You’ll do anything just for me”, the sensuality and melisma in her voice make it sound like she’s hypnotizing the man she’s singing to. The seductive chant is followed right away by the militaristic call: “Who run the world?”. The song has its merits, but you can’t blame the listener for wondering if Beyoncé actually means it or if it’s all a performance for the male gaze.
For example, after singing about “all my girls” who buy stuff for themselves “and get more money later”, she immediately adds: “Boy, I’m just playing / Come here, baby / Hope you still like me”. It’s probably just irony, but the video for “Run The World (Girls)” reinforces the skepticism when, at the end of it, Beyoncé and her army of women perform a military salute to an army of men.
It gets more complicated as you try connecting the track to the others in the album.
4 is made mostly of romantic tunes, all of which were co-written by Beyoncé except for the ballad “I Was Here” (which was penned by Diane Warren). The record’s lyrics are dramatic, such as with “If I ain’t got something, I don’t give a damn / ‘Cause I got it with you” (“1+1”) and “I’d rather not live at all than live my life without you” (“Rather Die Young”). Throughout the album, Beyoncé sings about loving, caring, and being alone in how much she loves and cares (“Well I care / I know you don’t care too much / But I still care”, she sings in “I Care”).
The songs show a woman that would sacrifice everything for the man she loves, and that engages multiple efforts to prove why she and her love deserve to be put “on top” of his life. She feels both empowered by the love she feels (to the point of being able to walk out of it, as shown in “Best Thing I Never Had”) and powerless for loving too much.
Beyoncé comes across convincingly, but above all else, she sounds great, too. 4 is spectacular to the ear, and even the most simple lyrics gain muscle through her soulful vocals, like on “I Miss You” (co-written by Frank Ocean). And there are remarkable moments when Beyoncé’s voice serves as (one more) instrument of the aspiration for greatness that drives 4, like the run-up melismas and high notes on “I Care” and the octave-climbing on both “Love on Top” and “I Was Here” (wherein her vocal delivery brings to mind the star factor of divas like Whitney Houston).