Beyoncé is that rare breed of artist whose body of work is such that every element is top-tier and mind-blowing (which explains why they combine into epic summations). As a musical experience, 4 is perfect: it was her most cohesive and well-curated album to date, at least sound-wise. As for its message, well, I remember being confused.
It is one thing for a woman to advocate her right to explore her womanhood and do whatever feels right for her, and it is another to literally say women should do this or do that, as she sings on “Countdown” (“Ladies if you love your man / Show him you the flyest”). The “I” and “we” appear in seemingly interchangeable ways throughout 4, and the LP finishes on an ambiguous note with “Run The World (Girls)”.
Was Beyoncé a feminist? Was she a bad feminist (if such a thing exists, and whatever it may mean)? “Has the fourth wave of feminism finally arrived?” asks a line from a Clutch Magazine article titled with a question too: “Is Beyonce the Face of Contemporary Feminism?” (2011). These were the quandaries that popped at the time (online, in the press, in academia, and in the minds of Beyoncé’s female fans like myself).
I am not a gender studies scholar, nor do I wish to explore Beyoncé’s music solely by framing it in such a context. It’s not even fair to place the onus on her, as Beyoncé as she is represents the burden to be the ideal woman with which countless women struggle every day to understand and embody. (Note to the alien: her name has become synonymous with being as close to cool and perfect as possible on Earth.) And it’s not fair to intend to answer such questions based on one album only—especially an album like 4.
Because truth be told, Beyoncé did not promise anything other than to be Beyoncé with 4 (whose title came about for no other reason than it has a personal and mystical meaning to her). And even though Beyoncé has always been discrete about her personal life, the lyrics feel deeply more personal than on all their previous LPs as well.
When you’re on your way to becoming one of the most iconic artists in the world, and the biggest of your generation, it can be easy for your audience to forget that the only thing you need to be 100% legitimate and true to is yourself. Thinking from that angle, we can see on 4 the Beyoncé that would die for her man and live to empower women; the Beyoncé that cooks naked to please her man after a day of running a world where men say she can’t.
All of these Beyoncés are different yet the same.
The radically infatuated woman of songs like “1+1” and “Rather Die Young” does not necessarily contradict the bossy, dominant woman of “Run The World (Girls)”. When Beyoncé channelizes her love for her husband into a spirited and powerful performance (in songs such as “Countdown” and “End of the Time”), it’s as telling of what she feels for him and what she wants for herself. After all, we’re talking about the woman who molded a whole performance template for women pop stars and popularized stiletto dance (a dance form that relies heavily upon women’s confidence) with a song about being “Crazy in Love” (2003).
Even the possible contradictions in 4 can be seen as genuine in a way and were key to drive the discussions on Black womanhood that Beyoncé would continue and refine in albums like Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016).
Ten years after the release of 4, we’re past the thought that a pop song cannot have a sociopolitical message and/or implication, even if in unintended and subtle ways. As Rawiya Kameir wrote in The Fader about Beyoncé’s “Formation” (2016), Beyoncé’s success “doesn’t come from the fact that she is publicly claiming a politic, but that she is casually weaving that politic in with the rest of her aesthetic”.
Perhaps a still unresolved question is why the onus of carrying such messages is bigger for some artists than others ( although it’s worth noting that some indeed position themselves as the leaders, geniuses, kings, and queens that they are claimed to be). And when artists do that, the pressure is inevitably bigger on them. This is both the blessing and the curse of elevating yourself to the status of a legend and then actually becoming one.
This leads us to another discussion about 4: the songwriting and production.
When Beyoncé worked on 4, she was already a longtime drinker of the fountain of black music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her biggest solo hit, “Crazy in Love“, was built off a sample of the Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” (1970); likewise, her 2006 hit “Upgrade U” samples Betty Wright’s “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” (1968) and more. These references are present in 4 too, informing it in different ways.
Some of its songs are evidently written off the songwriting template of soul music from past decades. For example, “Rather Die Young” sounds like it could be have been released by the Stylistics or the Chi-Lites in the 1970s (in her Live at Roseland – The Elements of 4 concert released on DVD, Beyoncé says the Chi-Lites inspired the song). Elsewhere, “Love on Top” has the spirit, beats, and the remarkable key change that brings us back to the funky R&B and new jack swing of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. These songs sound timeless and show some of Beyoncé’s most impressive vocals ever.
On other tracks, her musical references are heard rather than just recalled. “Party” samples what is probably one of the most sampled songs of all time—Doug E. Fresh’s “La-di-da-di” (1985)—and hints at Keith Sweat’s “Right and Wrong Way” (1987) in the opening lyrics. Similarly, “Countdown” samples Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” (1991) and “Run the World (Girls)” is built off the base of Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” (2009) while reportedly being inspired by Fela Kuti and “End of the Time”. (This shows that outside of R&B, 4 is heavily inspired by electronic dance music and afrobeat, too.)
Intellectual Property debates aside, the mix of samples and references on 4 makes a case of Beyoncé as an intelligent curator and director (she’s one of the executive producers of the album). Beyoncé and her musical collaborators have created memorable hooks, melodies, and lyrics over and together with the samples. This isn’t the case where the sampled songs are the motive driving the songs; instead, they’re placed with equal, or even inferior, significance within the creative work that is done for the album. Even “Run the World (Girls)”, a track for which Major Lazers’ beats are fundamental, would work alone as a composition over different beats or no beats at all.
Borrowing words written about jazz (a music genre born out of Black culture, just like the music Beyoncé makes and is influenced by), “creativity in such a language environment is not based on a concept of complete originality (if such a thing is possible), but on repetition and variation, where meaning depends as much on the transformation of existing material as it does on originality” (Murphy, 1990). It’s a Lavoisier-esque approach that allowed entire cultures and art forms to be born, including hip-hop itself, of which Beyoncé is a part. Yet, she doesn’t get enough credit for her creative vision and direction.
“I feel like if I had to be defined at this point, I’ll take inventor or maybe curator. Sonic inventions, curated by emotion”, said rapper/producer Kanye West in a now-deleted tweet from 2010. His language and ideas flagged the conceited personality he’d become known for; but also, West was predicting curatorship as a trend (“we’re all curators now” and “everyone’s a curator now”, wrote newspapers and websites like Hack Library School, The Spectator, and the New York Times in 2012, 2016, and 2020, respectively). Additionally, he was trying to legitimize curation and derivative art.
West’s larger-than-life approach and other artists like him can come off as annoying for some people. But sometimes, the only way for an artist to be recognized for their greatness is to self-proclaim it, and to take exaggerate pride in their art — moreover, when it is barely seen as art or when the artist belongs to a group that’s not often recognized for its creative endeavors and influence (like Black people were for centuries, and still are).
Beyoncé would crown herself queen in her following studio album, Beyoncé (2013), telling people to “bow down” to her. The album would become iconic for more reasons than one: it “changed the game with that [unnanounced] digital drop” (as Beyoncé sings as a collaborator on Nicki Minaj‘s “Feelin’ Myself” from 2014), not to mention its innovative concept of a visual album, its more categorically feminist approach (Beyoncé even samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Why Should All Be Feminists” on “Flawless”), and its generally more experimental musicality.
Beyoncé’s self-titled album was an exhibit of how good she is in developing an artistic ideal and recruiting the right creatives to help bring it to life (which is, in itself, a valuable skill for any creative); it’s also a testament to how far she was willing to go to test the limits of what can be done in popular music. All those seeds were planted two years before, on 4.
A retrospective look shows Beyoncé was not yet at her peak as an innovator on 4. However, the album prepared the ground for what was to come. 4 displays Beyoncé as a versatile and competent singer; as a producer with a clear vision; and overall as someone who was on course to join the pantheon of artists who’d shaped popular culture and influence many for decades to come.
As history shows, she did just that.
Burke, Ed; Knowles, Beyoncé. (2011). Live at Roseland – The Elements of 4. Columbia Records.
Cottom, Tressie McMillan. (2010, September 23). “RT @kanyewest I feel like if I had to be defined at this point I’ll take inventor or maybe curator. Sonic inventions, curated by emotion.” Twitter.
Goodman, Jessica. (2016, August 28). VMAs: Beyoncé Closes Performance with Feminist Symbol. Entertainment Weekly.
June, Joanna. (2012, March 23). We are all Curators. Hack Library School.
Kameir, Rawiya. (2016, February 8). Beyoncé Works Hard. The Fader.
Loren, Arielle. (2011). Is Beyonce the Face of Contemporary Feminism?. Clutch Magazine.
Miller, Andy. (2016, July 9). We’re All Curators Now. The Spectator.
Mokoena, Tshepo. (2015, March 26). Beyoncé Scrapped Entire Fela Kuti-inspired Album, says The-Dream. The Guardian.
Rosen, Jody. (2011, June 28.) 4. Rolling Stone.
Stoppard, Lou. (2020, March 3). Everyone’s a Curator Now. The New York Times.