Let me make this perfectly clear: I’m not a big fan of Beyoncé Knowles as a singer. I’ve never been that impressed by her work with Destiny’s Child, always preferring the vocals of Kelly Rowland. However, I listen to her music because you can’t avoid it. There were moments of B’Day that were impressive, but I feel that while Beyoncé is effective as a singles artist, she and her team often go overboard with trying to fill the gaps with… music. It should never be that way, the art of an album is that you used to use singles to lure people to get the album, and then kill them softly with songs that you used to have to buy the album to hear. These days, everything is immediate and singular, so there isn’t a draw or demand to be more daring as a means of a lure. So what happens? A greater emphasis on the hit, and your album is almost treated as the equivalent of non-LP B-sides.
4 (Columbia) is being promoted in a number of ways. Outside of this obviously being her fourth album, it’s also her first album done away from the control of her father and ex-manager, Mathew Knowles. On on hand, she’s finding it important to make music more on her terms, but that of course means catering to those who have loved her and what they want to hear from her. In pop, it usually means “more of the same”, or variations of the formula. Beyoncé is no longer just the R&B princess she started out as, she’s a pop artist and thus must make music that meets the demands of what the spotlight represents. She has made moves to do more pop material on her last two albums, and the first half of 4 features a number of songs that would be fitting alongside some of the mundane pop that’s on the radio today. Not R&B-tinged pop, but straightforward pop. In the opening track, “1+1”, it sounds like Metallica guitars pitch-shifted before going into a vocal performance that sounds like someone is trying to squeeze her into a straw. It’s strained, it’s forced, and it just doesn’t sound natural. “I Care” doesn’t fare any better either, but things change with “I Miss You”, at least for most of it. I like the sensitive and delicate touch she applies with her vocals, but the additional background vocal from her just ruins it. I believe in the “less is more” theory whenever possible, and I would’ve wanted to hear this without the extra Beyoncé vocal, just one singular voice. The next two tracks I wasn’t feeling, but I really liked “Party”, which welcomes in Kanye West and Andre 3000 into a soundscape that sounds like late 70’s/early 80’s soul, complete with a 70’s-style drum machine rhythm and a vocal performance that works up to a point. To be honest, I think the song, as is, would work with Jill Scott. What’s wrong with it? There are moments where I imagine Beyoncé saying “I’ve really got to work this, let me push myself” and some parts of her vocals sound exaggerated. There is that Vanessa Williams/Cindy Herron polish, and in fact Beyoncé’s vocals is on that thin line between Williams and Herron, where it can a bit of funkiness to it but the polish gets in the way, I want it to stay funky but with an essence that doesn’t spoil it. “Rather Die Young” is a song that’s quite nice lyrically, where she speaks about not wanting to live a life without a special someone, almost getting her inner Mary J. Blige out and putting her wounds out in the open for all to hear. There’s even a nice bridge that will make pop fans smile with delight.
In the second half, things take a turn for the better on the dancefloor with “Countdown”. While this song will make you bounce and krump, there is still a pop tinge in the lyrical structure that shows she’s trying to pull listeners in with her level of cocky attitude, but hitting them with the truths of sorrow, hope, and optimism. Fans will hear the hooks, but within the song she’s proud of who she is, what she’s capable of, her home (“Houston, rock it!”), and what it will take to seek and find happiness.
“Run The World (Girls)” is the first single from the album, and I’m feeling it not because of her, but because it’s the work of Diplo. No matter what context he works in and within, it… works, and that’s a huge boost for Mr. Pentz, who has managed to find some opportunities and now it’s coming from all directions. Who run the world? My main man Dip.
After “Run The World (Girls)”, the programming of the album just goes flatline. I can hear the attempts to balance things off with songs that may bring back the songs Beyoncé used to listen to as a kid, then a mellow song, more pop, and then 4‘s moral to the stories. I think the album would’ve worked if Diplo’s track was the second to the last song, and the last track was where she did her all.
Out of the 15 tracks on the album (deluxe edition features three remixes of “Run The World (Girls)”), I found myself putting five songs on repeat:
I Miss You
Rather Die Young
Run The World (Girls)
That’s a third. For me it doesn’t improve her track record, as I’ve found myself liking about a third from her second and third albums. Nonetheless, there are fans who do love what she does and how she does it, so while she has yet to floor me over 33.3 percent, I know she has it in her. She always finds the best people to work with, but I don’t want to hear songs on her album that I would prefer to hear with other singers. Beyoncé has already reached the Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand levels in that no matter what you throw at them, her own devoted following will eat it up like kids to cake and ice cream. Many young artists of the last 10 years barely make it to their third albums, and this is album #4 for her. She is confident in balancing her R&B and pop sides, and that will never change (at least not for now). She may choose to open the door a bit more with future projects, but for now, it’s an album that shows an artist maturing in someone more bolder and confident. She’s not teenybopper Beyoncé singing goofy songs with Wyclef Jean, she’s on a stardom pedestal all her own, and it sounds like she’s saying “it’s lonely at the top, and I’d like to have a bit of company so I can share this with you.” If and when there’s a time when she opens the doors, I see her making an album that will define her as an artist.