Review Summary: The icon reclaims her throne by returning to the basics that influenced her from the beginning.
Since Beyoncé released her last album, pop superstar Lady GaGa rose to the top as Miss Knowles’ direct competitor. But unlike GaGa, Beyoncé has been a successful recording artist releasing hit singles consistently for the past 14 years. What has always separated Beyoncé from other female pop singers is that she have never had to rely on or hide behind stage gimmicks, elaborate costumes, autotune, edgy electronic beats, or lip-syncing. Her most valuable asset is her voice; it is her instrument, and with it she has always been superior to her competition.
With her debut album, she presented a very impressive near-classic solid R&B LP (which managed to even feature a duet with Luther Vandross). Her follow-up sophomore release was deliciously festive, using horn sections and hood-approved hip-hop beats. Her last release, I Am… Sasha Fierce, was a brief double album with a handful of really good pop songs and filler. On 4, Beyoncé moves away from the electronic phase that has taken over pop music and held it hostage for the past few years. Instead, she decided to go with a more mature sound that better suits the demands from her first wave of fans that fell in love with her Rhythm and Blues-oriented music.
4 is not an album for clubbers. Some fans have complained that its first single “Run The World (Girls)” is misleading, and to some extent they are right. It is the only electronic-driven up-tempo song on the album. The rest of the album is mid-tempo R&B jams and gorgeous ballads that are just as impressive in their delicacy as it would be with big powerhouse vocals (ie “Listen”). 4 opens with “1+1,” a song that received a lot of internet buzz after Jay-Z leaked video footage of Beyoncé flawlessly singing it in her dressing room prior to her American Idol performance.
“I Miss You” is a mellow lightly spacey track penned by Frank Ocean, reminiscent of Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape. The album’s second single, “Best Thing I Never Had,” is a mid-tempo R&B-pop ballad co-written by Babyface and produced by Symbolyc One. It’s more in line with the batch of songs on the first disc of I Am… Sasha Fierce. “Party” is a ‘90s R&B throwback featuring André 3000 and production by Kanye West and Consequence. A significant portion of the album is influenced by R&B from the 1990s, a time when urban music was of much better quality. Sometimes artists reach back to a prior time in music history to remind fans of the greatness that existed before them. In the ‘90s, R&B singers had a great sense of melody and rhythm, influenced by the phenomenal performers of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. While some current pop fans may have been exposed to this period of music in childhood, they don’t have a full grasp or understanding of how rich and innovative the music was at this time. R&B music from 20 years ago was at a much higher quality than the lazy autotuned R&B-pop of today. Groups like Jodeci, Tony! Toni! Tone!, and Mint Condition not only sang, but played their own instruments. Female singers like En Vogue, SWV, and Mary J. Blige had sophistication in their music that is missing in today’s R&B. Beyoncé acknowledges this era of music that inspired her on “Rather Die Young” and “Love on Top.”
“Countdown” is a festive horn-driven percussive track reminiscent of the upbeat party songs on B’Day (ie “Get Me Bodied”). The album closes with the lead single “Run The World (Girls),” which samples Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor.” Many fans of Beyoncé’s upbeat party songs embraced the single. But ironically, it might be the weak-link on the album, almost coming off as half-assed and out-of-place. “Sweet Dreams” from her previous LP is a more solid electronic-driven urban pop song. Beyoncé just might have delivered the album that her oldest and most devoted fans wanted, while not losing the edginess that she progressed towards in the last 5 years. Some fans won’t like the slower pace, but music is never meant to exclusively be one thing. Fans will have a more mature and broader understanding of the music-creating process once they learn to abandon trivial expectations.