One day, history will look back at Beyonce’s “4,” out June 28, and view it in much more favorable light than it’s going to get now. In some ways, like Lady Gaga with “Born This Way,” Bey’s made her least accessible album.
Unlike Lady Gaga, however, who tends to take big anthems and make them even bigger through her dramatics and persona, Beyonce is focused primarily on the smaller, deeply personal romantic relationships that mark our lives. They’re the ones the first unite us and then later blow our hearts apart. The girl who was blithely, giddily “Crazy in Love” has now found that love can drive you insane.
Beyonce signals that she is not traveling down her usual sassy, beat-laden, catchy musical path by opening the album with “1 (Plus) 1.” It’s an intimate Alicia Keys-type ballad, despite the rock guitar solo, but with a weird vocal up-hollar at the end of several of the lines that are slightly jarring. The first track of an album is usually an invitation to come on a journey, to ride shotgun with the artist through the next 10 songs or so. Instead, we get a deep album track about realizing the depth of her romantic bond (I’m guessing to Jay-Z) that sounds like it would normally be in the later half of a set.
Rhythmically, she gets back on a pop track, somewhat, with “I Care.” It’s a wide-open, straight from the ‘80s, production with big, echo-y drums and reverberating synth keys. She’s still clinging to a relationship, though her partner has turned his back...so much so that he revels in her pain. By the third song, “I Miss You,” ; they’ve parted, but she still can’t let go and her needs are vexing her.
It feels like Beyonce wrote a mission statement for this album with three goals that she passed out to her raft of producers and co-writers: 1) Show she is grown up and is dealing with the complexities of love and life and is much more than a one-dimensional dancing doll 2) Prove that she really can sing by overloading the album with repeated emotional wallops that allow for full-on belting and 3) Make an highly percussive album that sonically combines rhythms and synths from the ‘70s and ‘80s with modern technology.
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So how does she fare? On No 1: The lyrics are dramatic. She wants to make love, she wants her lover to feel her pain, she’s can’t stand a day without her man. As she states most drastically on “Rather Die Young,” she’d rather perish “than live without you.... I’d rather give up everything than live my life without you.”
I don’t know why she split with her dad Matthew Knowles, who had managed Beyonce her entire career, but I doubt Papa would have let his little girl put out this album without the addition of some obvious singles. There’s an admirable passion and intensity here, but a total absence of the sassy, attitude that marked “Crazy In Love,” “Irreplaceable” or “Single Ladies.” The closest is the joyous R&B/pop nugget “Love on Top,” a record that sounds like it’s straight out of Shalamar’s repertoire from the ‘80s. It’s screaming for some great remixes to twirl to.
Second most accessible uptempo tune--in and album with an absence of them-- is the quirky “Countdown.” It starts and ends like Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman” (though not as catchy) with a fun countdownIt’s a song about sex, cloaked in a ‘50s Lennon/Andrews Sisters vibe, but then it switches to a rhythmic stream-of-consciousness the likes of which we’ve never gotten from Beyonce...especially where she’s recommending we “grind up on it, girl. Show him how you ride it.” She also borrows a few repetitive, Rihanna-like vocal tricks here.
On No. 2) She also clearly wants to show that she is a vocalist and while she’s often sounded spotty and thin in the past, this is definitely her strongest, most powerful outing as a singer. She’s never projected this robustly, though there are times when she seems to confuse loud with strong. Maybe she’s already thinking about her character in her remake of the Clint Eastwood-directed “A Star is Born.”
On No. 3) Did she hire the Army drum corp for this? Seriously, there’s more fife and drum rhythms on here than in the Revolutionary War. It’s a heavily percussive album. “Run the World (Girls)” certainly set the tone with its militant drumming. “End of Time,” a song about until death do us part, has the same reliance on drumming, this time she’s seemingly the USC drum corps. She doesn’t go quite as far as Fleetwood Mac on “Tusk,” but there’s a lot of thumping going on here from the syncopated rat-a-tats to the Steve Lillywhite/Hugh Padgham big snare sound from three decades ago.
She veers away from the love themes slightly with first single, “Run The World (Girls),” which peaked at NO. 29, and the slow groove of “Party”—produced by Kanye West and featuring Andre 3000— (although it’s about a party for two), which seem to have wandered on here from some other album. Same with “I Was Here,” with its sawing cello, haunting opening (like something from “The Social Network” soundtrack) and its big theme about leaving one’s mark on this earth. It’s treacly and, at times, overwrought, but also universal and surely meant for some big death scene in a forthcoming movie.
If it weren’t so out of vogue these days, I’d say Beyonce has made a concept album about what love feels like in a time of confusion with a few red herrings thrown in. I haven’t decided yet it she was brave or simply indulgent on this set to make an album that so glaringly doesn’t pander to anything that radio wants right now. That’s going to take some more listens. Maybe she was both.
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