Every once and a while, a major player in the music industry takes a creative leap for their own sanity. While 4 asks considerably less of its listeners than Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, it is no less a statement of an artist’s intent to be true to themselves. Instead of crafting yet another album of dance-floor ready hits, Beyoncé has delivered the twisted R&B album that she has always had inside of her. Given all of the love-making, heartbreak, declarations of mutual dependency, and Major Lazer sampling that runs amok throughout 4, what is this personal state of mind that Beyoncé wants her audience to see so desperately? In short, happiness and gratitude. Beyoncé has taken what she could from the industry that lifted her into the stratosphere of stardom and is now finally ready to breathe new life, both metaphorically and potentially physically, into this world.
It can hardly be said that Beyoncé has ever been anything less than a superstar performer. In terms of sheer singing and dancing ability, no one can dethrone her. What has held Beyoncé back from heaps of critical adoration to complement the praises of the rest of the world, is her often middling music. Occasionally, a song with a glimmer of originality will pop up on a Beyoncé album, but for the most part, each one of them merely serves the goal of showcasing its able-bodied performer while giving the listener something to move to. 4 is a major departure from this formula. While her first three albums often sounded like they were meant to please others, 4, is clearly made to satisfy Beyoncé, first and foremost. The result is her most personal album to date; an album that revels in its relaxed grooves but is totally unafraid to push musical boundaries that a pop-star of a lesser status could not even attempt. With the amount of success that she has had in her career, Beyoncé has nothing to prove to anyone anymore and so she allows herself to dig deeper, her voice to get gruffer, and her influences to span greater distances.
The majority of 4 consists of mid-tempo pieces, but unlike the filler that might have occupied this pacing on previous albums, many of this album’s greatest strengths lie in this realm. Perhaps best exemplifying this spirit is the André 3000 and Kanye West assisted, “Party,” in which Beyoncé relaxes into a beat that, while not be easy to grind to, still works perfectly as a party anthem. Beyoncé reminds us that a party is not only meant for dancing. It is a place where you go to enjoy the company of others and often times, that involves real human conversation and interaction. Echoing this sentiment, André’s verse is tranquilized from his customarily rapid-fire delivery to a drawl more reminiscent of Lil’ Wayne than his traditional work with Outkast. “Party,” like much of 4, is a conversation, and André 3000 wants to be heard. “Love On Top” employs a similar pacing, though tonally, this track reminds one more immediately of Michael and Janet Jackson, as well as Stevie Wonder. This effervescent throwback escapes corniness by reveling in its pure joy and as such, it becomes one of the highlights of the album. The numerous key changes that flood the end of the song could seem masturbatory, but Beyoncé isn’t proving that she can sing as high as Mariah or Whitney because we already trust her to. It is energy and not ego that drives the constantly rising progression.
4 will likely be criticized for its lack of immediate singles and danceable tracks but while there are an awful lot of ballads to be found, those willing to look past this initial disappointment will find that many of these potentially dismissed songs are among the album’s strongest tracks. Opener “1+1” might be the crown jewel of the bunch in its own Prince meets Slash sort of way. Opening the album with such a confessional piece of R&B is a stroke of genius as it immediately alerts the listener that s/he will not be receiving the usual Beyoncé treatment. Both “I Miss You,” and “Start Over” will earn deserved spots in the Beyoncé pantheon once fans take the time to grow attached to them. Even the place-fillers such as the nearly Vanessa Carlton-esque single “Best Thing I Never Had,” are vastly superior to the majority of the trash being churned out by Beyoncé’s peers. Unfortunately, not all of these ballads do work and sadly, the Diane Warren penned, “I Was Here,” is the sour apple of the bunch. It is the only moment on the album that feels false and perhaps not coincidentally, it is the only song not co-written by Beyoncé herself.
So much talk of tempo and expectation must not overshadow the greatest triumph that 4 has to offer: progression. After 4 threatens to become syrupy, “Love On Top,” comes along to pep the mood up before bursting into “Countdown,” arguably the most experimental song that Beyoncé has ever been a part of. The lead-off to the verse features a tonal progression that cannot be followed lazily and the vocals laid on top of such an audacious piece of composition are skillful and assured. The minimalistic synth that appears next may sound a bit familiar, but even if only for a few measures, Beyoncé is touching new ground here. “End of Time” follows by revisiting the kind of girl-power territory that she found more often with Destiny’s Child, but this time around, the Fela Kuti inspired track is crisper, more tightly wound, and brimming with confidence that feels natural in a way that Beyoncé has never showcased before.
Bookending 4 with “1+1” and the tenacious, though eventually tedious, “Run the World (Girls)” seems to demonstrate a lack of musical consistency; but such squabbles are more than compensated for by the thematic commonality that is imbued in each track. Beyoncé Knowles is growing up and she wants you to know it. Her voice is the best it has ever been. Her music is the best it has ever been. She looks the best she ever has. With so many accomplishments evident on what she is so keen to remind us is only her fourth solo album, it would seem that all Beyoncé wants now is to lay back, enjoy a mid-tempo groove with her husband, and maybe, if this critic is not reading a bit too deeply, start a family of her own.