This is going to be a review of a Beyoncé album. Fair warning.
I spent a good while trying to find the right natural disaster that could be a metaphor for Beyoncé’s voice, and thunderstorm is what I settled on (tornado and earthquake were also in the running). For sheer power alone, the comparison holds up — it’s also capable of cool rumbles and lightning quick gymnastics.
When reviewing a Beyoncé album, it’s good to get that out of the way early — Mrs. Jay-Z just destroys it vocally, always. That can problematic, because when someone is such a naturally captivating — and talented — vocalist, the other factors worth consideration fade into the background. This certainly benefits Knowles, because she has a voice that instantly legitimizes what could otherwise be throwaway pop. After all, barring laryngitis, Beyoncé probably isn’t going to sound bad.
And “4” certainly doesn’t sound bad. Quite the opposite.
What we have here on the pop icon’s fourth solo studio outing is a collection of tracks that wear their influences on their sleeves. Most of the songs are love letters to distinct eras of sound. “4” is the Beyoncé equivalent of a cereal variety pack. There is a flavor for everyone. “Party,” featuring hip hop’s living avatar of fun Andre 3000, is a great example. It’s one of the album’s brightest spots, a funky cut of sonic swagger that would sound great as the theme song to an ’80s sitcom starring Queen Latifah, one of the kids from The Cosby Show and maybe the mom from Sister, Sister as sexy, independent women pursuing love and careers in the urban jungle. (Tell me you wouldn’t watch that, at least in syndicated reruns).
“1+1” is a ’90s R&B slow jam through and through, with a steady and heavy beat that, probably more so than any other song here, lets Beyoncé’s voice do all of the heavy lifting. With little instrumentation and banal lyrics (“I don’t know much about algebra/But I know 1+1=2”), it’s a necessary evil, but it’s lazy, akin to wrapping a filet mignon in Fruit By The Foot instead of bacon, because hey, it’s still a delicious steak and that’s all anyone cares about, right?
“Rather Die Young” is a disco funk ballad that manages to reference both James Dean and weed and sounds fine, but would be a lot better with a disco ball. The vocal gymnastics get to stretch out on “Start Over,” but the real thrill on “4” is “Love on Top.”
If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like if Beyoncé had Natalie Cole’s songwriter and Chicago as a backing band, this is your jam. Before listening to this, I had never thought about playing a Beyoncé Knowles song for my dad. I’m still not going to, but if there was some sort of “my life depends on it” clause, this would be at the top of the list.
For those who want their Beyoncé songs to have a little je ne sais crunk, “Countdown” is the best bet, as it’s the only thing resembling a hip hop song on the whole album. The marching band-bolstered track is eminently danceable, and it has a fun lyrical structure and some of the strongest lines to be found (“London speed it up/Houston rock it”). “End of Time” follows absolutely seamlessly, carrying the drumline beats further, lacing them with a Caribbean sway and even including a little Beyoncé maybe-sorta-rapping — it’s like she’s punching people with her words! — which is a lot more enjoyable than I’m aware it sounds.
“4” comes to a grinding, momentum shattering halt with the maudlin, overwrought, soft rock radio station baiting pablum of “I Was Here,” because somehow Diane Warren still finds songwriting work. I’m guessing she has some blackmail worthy dirt on Beyoncé.
It’s appropriate to address the album’s two lead singles separately, because they are different animals than the rest of the tracks here. There’s a good reason that “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Run the World (Girls)” are singles, and that’s because they are fiercely dedicated to maintaining the Beyoncé brand. The former is this album’s “Irreplaceable,” an anthem proclaiming how boys are stupid and Beyoncé is too fantastic for you to comprehend, completely dredged in — there’s no better word, for that I apologize — sass. The Diplo-aided “Run the World (Girls)” keeps the same message. It’s a girl power club thumper, but it also is literally Knowles’ vocals and lyrics slapped over Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor.” I guess Diplo isn’t really sampling, just recycling. The video, however, features Knowles dancing in ways that human bodies are incapable of, which certainly keeps the spirit of the “Pon De Floor” video. I’ll let you look that one up, if you want to die inside.
The best thing about “4” is that it finds a way to be an undeniably interesting pop album and yet aggressively loyal to the Beyoncé sound. What would you expect from a thunderstorm?
(8) “Love On Top”