Beyoncé: 4 (Album Review)

If you’re looking for Sasha Fierce, don’t bother: She’s gone.

Well, not entirely–she’s certainly still there twerking her hips above the militant beat of “Run The World (Girls)” and the frenzied horn-filled club bounce of “Countdown,” but for the most part, the divalicious alter ego of one of the world’s greatest entertainers has (temporarily?) stepped a stiletto to the side for the majority of her fourth studio album, 4–allowing the record to remain a decidedly Beyoncé experience.

Trouble came quickly for Beyoncé this year when a demo of the lead single from 4, “Run The World (Girls),” sprung an early leak.

The bouncy Diplo & Switch-produced club banger, which relies (a bit too heavily) on an extended sample of Major Lazer‘s “Pon De Floor” was instantly panned by a number critics and fans alike. Supporters of the 2009 Major Lazer hit were quick to dismiss the singer as a bold-faced song swiper. Others said the song “misses the mark big time.” Driving home from work on the day of the song’s premiere, I heard the DJ announce live on radio: “We’ve got the new Beyoncé single…and it’s TERRIBLE.” Reception was lukewarm, to say the absolute least.

Despite high-profile performances on both Oprah‘s final show celebration and the 2011 Billboard Awards, the song stalled at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

She fared no better with the soft iTunes release of “1+1,” the Prince-tinged album opener she performed live on American Idol finale, which barely clawed its way to #57 on the charts.

Around the same time, news broke that she and her father ended their professional partnership, and Mathew Knowles stepped down as her manager prior to the release of 4. Rumors swirled regarding Columbia’s confidence in the album–from rumored album release push-backs to supposed re-recording sessions. Backlash started flying after it was revealed that the Billboard Awards performance was more or less a direct copy of a performance from Italian pop star, Lorella Cuccerini. Then, the album’s promotional photos soon came pouring in–a confusing clutter of both ’70’s-inspired glamour and misguided high fashion fetishism, doing nothing to clarify any real direction for the record. (Is that a Clifford the Big Red Dog draped over her shoulders?)

Yet astonishingly, regardless of whatever truth the rumors hold, it seems as though Beyoncé simply doesn’t care about commercial success right now.

What the casual listener may not have already seen or read (by no fault of their own, as she’s has done a staggeringly minimal amount of promotion thus far) is that 4 is the product of the singer’s first break away from the music industry. Taking off more than a year since she first started in the industry well over 15 years ago with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé spent her time broadening her musical horizons, attending concerts (Rage Against The Machine!) and generally experiencing life (however normal that may be for a larger-than-life superstar.)

She spoke candidly about her experience to Billboard two months ago:

I took more than a year off: I traveled around, spent time with my husband, woke up in my own bed, ate whatever I wanted, went to museums and Broadway plays, watched documentaries, and just had life experiences. I never get to go to concerts because I’m usually performing, so I saw so many shows – great bands, like Muse and Rage Against the Machine, that also inspired the album. There were a lot of artists I’d never been exposed to: I’m like a sponge and soak everything up, and I learned so much from watching these great performers. Having time to grow as a human being was really inspiring, and gave me a lot to pull from. I’m excited about growing: I can just have fun, and the artistic freedom to do whatever I want. At this point, I really know who I am, and don’t feel like I have to put myself in a box. I’m not afraid of taking risks – no one can define me.

And it seems she’s truly taken her artistic freedom to heart, as the album veers sharply from the chart-ready club banger pattern of her back catalog. Instead, she’s returned with live soul sessions and aching, nostalgic power ballads that drip with the intent of pure artistic fulfillment. But as a result, there’s not a single radio hit to be found on 4.

4 is meant to be enjoyed as a complete album experience. There are no radio-friendly singles on this album (barring “Run The World,” which proves even more jarring than it already is as the follow-up to the emotionally devastating “I Was Here”). This is actual musicianship, marked by gorgeous live instrumentation and raw, stripped vocals.

While speaking with Billboard about the wide range of influences behind her new record, Beyoncé named Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti as a main source of inspiration, along with an incredibly eclectic array of other acts: “I also found a lot of inspiration in ’90s R&B: Earth, Wind & Fire, DeBarge, Lionel Richie, Teena Marie… I listened to a lot of Jackson 5 and New Edition, but also Adele, Florence + the Machine, and Prince,” she told the magazine.

To help channel such a wide array of influences, Beyoncé’s team enlisted a full-on production powerhouse for 4, featuring contributions by Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, Kanye West and Diplo & Switch.

Yet more of the album has been crafted by fresher faces such as Shea Taylor, whose production credits have up until now extended to one or two tracks off of megawatt albums, including Rihanna‘s Good Girl Gone Bad (“Question Existing”) and Janet Jackson‘s Discipline (“Discipline). Here, Taylor co-commands no less than seven, including “Countdown,” “Love On Top” and a personal highlight, “I Miss You.”

The minimal ballad, which drifts atop of a chilly, drippy beat and weird, warped ambient sound, isn’t merely a ballad–it’s the perfect encapsulation of loneliness on record. “It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel, but I still need you,” she sadly pleads; her voice eerily echoed and distant. It’s easily one of the most haunting songs I’ve heard in recent time–an instant favorite.

Even with long-standing collaborators like Ryan Tedder, it’s clear that Beyoncé’s stepped up her game: While “Halo” was a surefire radio smash from the I Am…Sasha Fierce sessions, 4‘s Diane Warren-penned “I Was Here” stands as an utter triumph in songcraft.

“When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets / Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget,” she declares during the all-or-nothing ballad. “I was here / I lived, I loved,” Beyonce continues to cry out with sobering finality, as though delivering the very epithet that will one day appear on her grave. “I Was Here” is one of the most defining statement of purposes she’s ever delivered, and arguably one of the finest records she’s ever crafted.

Devastation aside, there’s also a fair share of anger to go around. “I Care,” a similarly minimal, desolate power ballad, finds Beyoncé bitterly biting back against a less-interested lover about her own feelings. “I know you don’t care too much, but I still care,” she angrily tears into the chorus. “Boy, maybe if you cared enough / I wouldn’t have to care so much.”

The album’s second single, “Best Thing I Never Had,” is also steeped in shade. Much like fellow DC3 member Michelle Williams‘ “Thank U,” the charging power ballad throws a curve ball by allowing Beyoncé to sarcastically thank her former flame for being the worst. “I bet it sucks to be you right now!” she fumes above the chugging piano-and-strings melody. The song is an absolute smash, save for one lyric: “You showed your ass, and I saw the real you.” While it’s fairly obvious that she’s trying out another way to say something to the effect of “You showed your true colors,” the line will never not sound like the song could just be about mooning someone. Troubling, no matter how many times it’s sung.

Most of the time though, Beyonce is relishing in that loving feeling: The horn-heavy, Kanye-produced “Party (feat. Andre 3000)” is a throwback exercise in feel-good music making, while “Love On Top” relishes in a ’70’s sheen of funky rhythms and guitar grooves. This is food for the soul!

“Countdown,” the album’s only other uptempo club track, comes blaring into the speakers with Afrobeat horns and pounding drums hoisted on high like a crazed marching band, as Bey cleverly counts down to the chorus (“My baby is a (Ten!) / We dressing to the (Nine!)”). As far as the Sasha Fierce sympathizers is concerned, this is the closest she comes to delivering the album’s weave-patting, hip-grinding club anthem. But is it on par with past offerings like “Diva” or “Sweet Dreams”? Not quite.

Frustratingly, it’s the album’s deluxe edition tracks that give 4 a much needed boost in BPM that the standard edition could have truly benefited from, including the unbelievably good “Schoolin’ Life.”

The jaw-droppingly solid, Whitney-esque moment of jubilation celebrates Bey’s need to unleash her inner freak (“Mom and Dad tried to hide the boys, I swear that just made them want me even more / At 14 they asked me what I want to be, I said ‘Baby 21, so I can get me a drink!”). It’s the most fun a girl can have while listening to 4–a sorely missed inclusion in the original tracklisting.

Other cuts include the soul-warming Stargate-penned “Lay Up Under Me” (another “Love On Top”-like flair of classic ’70’s soul) and “Dance For You,” a seductive slow grind that sizzles atop a slow grind cooked up by The-Dream. The song is not entirely unlike cuts like “9 to 5” and “So Good,” two cuts off of (the deeply under-appreciated and largely overlooked) debut of The-Dream side project, Electrik Red.

Apart from being overloaded with a steady stream of slower tunes–a pacing that will do nothing for radio-friendly ears or dance-ready feet (and one that could have easily remedied with the inclusion of the deluxe edition tunes)–4 is a gorgeous, solid album experience that pays proper tribute to a slice of music history without artificially recreating any one artist’s signature sound.

While the album is nearly guaranteed to go down as the first major misfire in Beyoncé’s otherwise unshakable career track record–the dreaded “artistic attempt”–it’s as much of a guarantee that future listeners will re-visit this record in time to discover that it is, in fact, a gem.

4 was released on June 28. (iTunes)

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