Beyoncé Knowles has long been at the forefront of the femme fatale pop arena, and for good reason. Even before her 2003 solo LP debut Crazy In Love, Knowles dominated the scene as the frontwoman of Destiny’s Child, one of the most successful R&B acts of all time with over 60 million records sold worldwide.
Since the group’s end in 2006, Beyoncé has continued her plot towards world domination with what can only be described as an almost religious fervor. With a slew of Top 10 hits under her belt, the singer, actress and all-around Renaissance woman – not yet 30 years old – has turned a new leaf with her fourth album, simply titled 4.
4 is an album that’s hard to pin down on first – or even fourth – listen. While the usual bangers are present, the tone that dominates the record is a more atmospheric – and dare I say, almost sombre at times – one. Rather than rushing through a lineup of superficial dance hits, 4 takes its time (occasionally to the point of meandering) through a selection of more introspective ballads and slower R&B tracks which allow Beyoncé to not only showcase her impeccable range but also to experiment with her voice in ways that previous recordings have never really deemed appropriate.
This is perhaps a result of the varied group of producers who worked on the project, the lineup of which includes (but is certainly not limited to) industry veterans Tricky Stewart and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, longtime M.I.A. collaborators Diplo and Switch and Odd Future’s most promising member, Frank Ocean, who also penned one of 4‘s most minimal yet stirring tracks, ‘I Miss You’. Ne-Yo and The Dream also lend a hand, along with Kanye West and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller.
Given that Beyoncé herself has said that she recorded over 72 songs while making 4, one has to wonder about the criteria upon which the record’s relatively short 12-song tracklist was selected. While the variation is certainly a welcome one, it does occasionally lend a feeling of disjointedness to the venture and can jolt you out of a particular moment which the previous song or two were slowly building upon. This is perhaps due to the rather large production team, which can be seen as either a blessing or a curse given their particular approaches to recording, which don’t always mesh well.
“I wanted to do something refreshing and different. So I mixed genres and drew inspiration from touring, traveling, watching rock bands, and attending festivals… I was like a mad scientist, putting lots of different songs together,” Beyoncé said of the album, and certainly that goal was achieved. 4 is a mixed bag and represents several styles (and eras) of pop and R&B, if at the cost of cohesiveness. Still, there is an irresistible quality to the album’s ability to hop from fierce to fragile almost effortlessly as it does throughout, an achievement which lends a considerable amount of forgiveness to its few weak spots.
It would be a mistake to go into 4 with expectations based solely around its lead single, ‘Run The World (Girls)’. The stomping Afro-beat number finds its match in perhaps only one other track (‘End Of Time’) but is otherwise a singularity, pushed aside in favour of exploring a more ’80s approach. The decade certainly makes itself known, especially on tracks such as ‘Love On Top’, a smooth, synth-laden ditty which almost is reminiscent of Anita Baker. ‘Rather Die Young’ follows a similar path, seeming slightly retro without coming off as out-of-date.
Among 4‘s stand-outs are album opener ’1 + 1′, a minimalistic ballad which Beyoncé herself has called her favourite track. While the lyrics could theoretically become uncomfortable rather quickly (how many singers could get away with a repeated wailing of ‘make love to me!’ without sounding slightly hokey?), somehow it all comes together, allowing Beyoncé’s voice to soar through several different registers as she croons out the desperation of a woman in love. ‘I Care’ also makes good, featuring Bey in growling ‘empowerment jam’ mode over a pretty impressive drum and base backdrop.
‘Party’, which features Kanye West and Andre 3000, is one of 4‘s clunkers, weighed down by production which lends nothing to the album as a whole and seems more of a space-filler than anything of substance. ‘I Was Here’ – a rather cinematic power ballad – is also pleasant enough to listen to but falls short on conveying the emotions that the lyrics push for.
4 represents a new era of Beyoncé, one that seems more at ease and less concerned with mainstream expectation. That’s not to say that 4 lacks mainstream appeal, only that its priorities seem more focused on discovery rather than delivery. At its core, Beyoncé has created a record that, uncharacteristically for a star of her stature, rather lacks self-consciousness and is at times even vulnerable, showcasing her continuing maturity both as an artist and as a woman. It may not be what you’ve come to expect from Beyoncé, but then, maybe that’s why it works.