Beyonce ‘4’ – Review

12 Jul

Beyoncé’s headline performance at Glasto this year has demonstrated (whether purposely or coincidently) her percieved ambitions to establish herself as a serious, adult artist. Afterall, everyone is aware of ‘Crazy In Love’, ‘Single Ladies’, ‘Halo’ and their like, but could the average music fan name one of her albums? Has she made a serious dent in pop? In the lead up to the release of ‘4’ (album number four of course) we heard that Beyoncé had worked on over 70 songs, and had collaborated with acts as diverse as Sleigh Bells and Diplo. No doubt this was deliberately leaked in order to alert Beyoncé’s presence to the hip crowd, and it kind of worked; anticipation for ‘4’ has been pretty intense from all quarters. But actually ‘4’ is Beyoncé’s least contrived, least experimental, least ambitious album to date, and, despite the rumours, it features no unusual collaborations or guest stars. It is an old-fashioned soul album.

‘4’ opens with 1+1 (Beyoncé clearly likes maths) and it doesn’t hint at any major reinvention, it’s a pretty so-so ballad that basically serves as a demonstration of Beyoncé’s stunning voice. As nice as she sounds, the song is the kind of gushing big diva ballad that makes me feel a bit nauseous. ‘I Care’ is a lot better, it has a simple beat that reminds me of something The Weeknd or The Dream would conduct (in fact the latter may well have created it, seeing as he worked with Beyoncé on some songs), and if only it had a melody to match the strong beat. Problem solved on ‘I Miss You’ which combines stunningly simple production (courtesy of Odd Future cohort Frank Ocean), a lovely melody, beautiful vocal acrobatics and resonating lyrics. It’s here where Beyoncé reaches her stride, and the material from here improves.

‘Best Thing I Never Had’ does exactly what you want a Beyoncé single to do; it’s big, it’s brash, it’s emotive and it’s excellent (if a little too reminiscent of ‘Irreplaceable’). ‘Love on Top’ pays one of the best tributes to ‘Off the Wall’ era Michael Jackson I’ve ever heard whilst ‘Countdown’ and ‘End of Time’ add a contemporary flavour to proceedings. Only first single ‘Run the World (‘Girls) truly lets her down, here it feels like Beyoncé is straining to sound cutting edge and it’s an utter failure (and its disappointing chart position confirms that it hasn’t connected with a wider audience).

‘Run the World’ at least ends the album on a positive, upbeat note, whereas the rest of the album is pretty slow and laid back. Considering we were led to believe that ‘4’ would be a radical change of direction for Beyoncé, I can’t help but feel let down that the majority of songs are traditional ballads that don’t really set the pulse raising. ‘I Was Here’ and ‘Start Over’ are just about saved by Beyoncé’s stellar vocal performance but they are still bland, Beyonce by numbers, songs. There is no ‘Crazy in Love’ or ‘Single ladies’ – ‘Run the World’ tries and fails and nothing else even attempts to be as dynamic. This lack of variety, more than the lack of experimentation and attitude, stops ‘4’ from being a great album.

This is a fairly old-fashioned r&b/soul record and, besides a few choice signifiers here and there, there is nothing that places the album firmly in 2011, which turns out to be both a good and bad thing,  but it certainly ensures that Beyoncé’s greatest strength (i.e her voice) isn’t sidetracked by modern production gimmicks. Whilst it’s far from perfect, ultimately the album’s successes outweigh the failures brought about by the conservative selection of songs. ‘4’ is a solid front to back album with a handful of tunes that are destined to make B’s inevitable greatest hits – but perhaps more importantly for Beyoncé’s legacy it quite easily ranks as her most sophisticated and accomplished piece of work to date.

6/10

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