Review Summary: The queen reigns over her kingdom, a place where cynicism and romanticism don't have to be enemies, where love is the only real battle worth fighting for. And damn, she can sing.
It's tempting to say that in this day and age, "pop music" as a concept has become meaningless, since, given the rise of file-sharing and basic Internet-driven buzz, it's easier than ever for consumers to have a decently high level of discernment. And so popular music - music intentionally made for the mass public to enjoy - is a frustratingly difficult idea
to wrap one's head around, because if we take its definition literally, just about everything is pop music. Yet it's obvious that this isn't the case. "Pop", as a genre
, often seems to be clearly defined, with countless artists aping one basic framework, but its actual most prominent attribute is its constant stylistic motion. Try to imagine a time when bass wasn't in, when pop music made active use of slippery guitar solos instead of energetic, short synth hooks - it isn't easy to do. As is the case with any other genre possessing one crucial demographic, pop has a constant ebb and flow, with trends coming and going at varying speeds determined by their performance on the genre's ultimate focus group - charts. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Femme Fatale
, and Loud
, three of the most prominent pop albums to be released in the past twelve months, are all dominated by Eurotrash beats, cut-up vocals, and occasionally pseudo-dubstep bass. They're trendy
records, barely deviating from formula. Sure, Born This Way
went against the grain with its unique brand of techno-metal, but it sucked.
isn't a trendy record, but it's hardly unusual - which, after witnessing the sheer ineptitude of Lady Gaga's attempts at "experimentation", may be a good thing. Taking its main stylistic cues from Prince's intoxicatingly sexy R&B (as well as some more traditional pop balladry), Beyoncé's most recent album is a largely low-tempo set that finally gives that gorgeous voice room to breathe. There are few recent pop albums that begin with three slow-burning tracks in a row, but 4
's opening trio of "1+1", "I Care", and "I Miss You" is a strong and effective statement of the album's overall purpose: Beyoncé is in love and will do whatever it takes to see that love reciprocated. Hardly an original concept, but it's at least a nice counterpart (and complement) to the militant not-quite-feminism of lead single "Run the World (Girls)", which opens with an unsubtle play on an obscenity: "Who run this mother?" While I'd venture that the song has been unjustifiably maligned and actually works well as the climax of 4
's majestic build, it serves as a hugely misleading first single, suggesting "Single Ladies" rather than "Irreplaceable". Far better as a summation of the album's sound on the whole is "1+1", a gorgeously produced ode to love and desire - "make love to me," Beyoncé practically moans over and over again. It would be annoyingly trite if it wasn't utterly undeniable
, if that guitar break at the song's midpoint wasn't unexpectedly moving.
Which is par for the course across almost every song here, save the unlistenable "Best Thing I Never Had", a glaring misstep that sounds like the kind of ballad a soulless pop singer might put on a record as a cheap grab for "emotional significance". Lyrics take a backseat to the album's occasionally delirious throwbacks to silky-smooth R&B and funk - "Party" and "Love on Top" are two nearly perfect examples, their shamelessly artificial horns and unabashedly cheesy key changes making up for constant, mind-numbing refrains of "We like to party". Indeed, Beyoncé's commitment to her clichés helps rid them of their tendency to induce vomit - her utterance of "you're my James Dean / you make me feel like I'm seventeen" on "Rather Die Young" is made tolerable by her honeyed vocal slides. Certainly, the "bad boy" Beyoncé is in love with is more a physical representation of countless painfully banal fantasies about guys who "drive too fast" and "smoke too much" than an actual person, but at least it feels
tangible. For once, the pop song trying to make a connection with its listener doesn't feel like a total fraud. Forget Lady Gaga's song about her relationship with her father or Britney Spears' lullaby to her babies - here, I'm convinced, if only for a moment, that Beyoncé really would rather die young than to live her life without her lover, that she cares, even if you don't. This doesn't fully explain why 4
is as enjoyable as it is, but it does convey just how convincing
Beyoncé can be when given the right tools - and it turns out that those tools consist of not much more than Beyoncé's voice itself. You'd be loath to find any straight-tone singing here, but 4
is also refreshingly absent of indulgent melisma or showy mannerisms. When Beyoncé does
let loose, as she does on the aforementioned key changes of "Love on Top", which force her into a rarely-used high range, the results are absolutely magnificent, serving as a perfect catharsis for the burgeoning sexual passions of the album's first two thirds.
It's appropriate, then, that the album closes with some more uptempo cuts, all of which are irresistible; "Countdown" makes particularly successful use of its namesake and its dancehall influences. But perhaps even more notable is the record's penultimate track, the Ryan Tedder-produced "I Was Here". Tedder is arguably one of the most irritating people working in pop today, and considering his track record, it's not a surprise that "I Was Here" is the most contemporary-sounding song off of 4
. What's surprising is just how good
it is. The production is predictably icky, making that increasingly common mistake of using distant footsteps and reverbed guitar to convey a clichéd sense of "epicness". But then there's Beyoncé, at the center of the mix, intoning in an uncommonly hushed tone, "I wanna leave my footprints in the sands of time." Instead of gnashing my teeth, I listen closer, wanting to hear this shockingly affecting elegy directed for once not at one specific lover, but the world that allowed her to express that love in the first place. Oddly enough, the song reminds me of Lars von Trier's best works, which provoke actual emotional reactions while being, on paper, contrived pieces of shit. "I Was Here", and 4
in general, is that kind of a work, objectively middling, subjectively magnificent. It's the best kind of pop album, familiar yet unique, ambitious without having to step uncomfortably far outside of its firmly established territory. The overdramatic militarism that pervades throughout this album is the hyperbole-inviting sound of Beyoncé marching towards a place where cynicism and romanticism don't have to be enemies, where feminism can afford to be reduced to simple bullet points, where love is the only real battle worth fighting for. And for forty-six minutes, that seems to be a pretty damn good place to be.