There was an article posted, a week or so before the release of Beyonce’s new LP, that speculated as to whether 4 might end up being– in commercial terms– a “dud.” I read the article with equal parts bemusement and bewilderment, not because I particularly care how well the album sells but because, just a couple of weeks prior, listening to the album’s first single, “1+1,” I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing what would have been a star-making vocal performance– were Beyonce not already a star, of course. Listening again, in the context of the full album, I’m sticking by my guns. It’s a knockout feat of soulful vocal acrobatics that stands quite easily, I think, as Beyonce’s finest diva moment on record. Will it sell? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I recoil at the notion that anything so graceful and achingly human could ever be termed a “dud.”
I suppose I understand the point, though. 4 is at once the best album Beyonce has ever recorded– by a wide margin, really– and a record so low-key and classicist in its formation that it’s probably fair to call it her least commercial effort to date. That’s not to say it’s short on dynamite singles. There’s nothing here that I suspect will light the charts the way “Single Ladies” or “Halo” did, but the songs are still quite compact and hooky, and, in the case of “1+1,” masterful in a way Beyonce’s never been before. Singles notwithstanding, though, the album plays a bit like an old-fashioned song cycle, torch songs and breakup tunes (compelling enough to make me wonder if someone ought call Jay-Z and make sure things are okay at home) that ultimately give way to catharsis and, in the end, celebration. The record is deliberate and classicist in its feel, and gives the distinct impression that it’s meant to be played in sequence. It’s a largely melancholy affair, as well, and all of these things point to it being a little old-fashioned, if not outright uncommercial.
But whatever. It’s a sound that suits her well. To my ears, Beyonce has never sounded more comfortable in her own skin, more graceful and in-element as a soul singer; indeed, where past albums have celebrated her standing as the hip queen of R&B, this one is more or less straight-up soul, one diva moment after another and plenty of ballads that showcase a singer who is more content than ever to play with her syllables and pour every bit of the humanity in her voice into every lyric. A big part of her new level of comfort comes from the fact that these songs are said to be inspired by a list of the artists who move her most; on that front, 4 proves Beyonce to be an artist of versatility and good taste. “1+1” is, again, the highlight– a Prince guitar-ballad homage that falls somewhere between “Purple Rain” and “The Beautiful Ones”– but there’s good stuff abounding, particularly the soulful belting of “I Still Care” (an old-fashioned ballad with 80s production flourishes, a trick used more than once here, and to surprisingly good effect) and the power-ballad bombast of “Best Thing I Never Had,” a kiss-off so dramatically cathartic it’s a shoe-in for a future episode of Glee. (I mean that in a good way, though.)
These aching, classically-inclined soul numbers make up the album’s heart, and most of its running time, and they take on a sort of loose song-cycle approach; the record opens with raw desire and romance and, by the second song, is wallowing in sadness and heartache. The turning point is a song called “Party,” a vaguely retro, hip-hop-flavored R&B cut that offers a tentative note of defiance– or at least the possibility of healing– in the form of a night out at the club. The songs that follow are a little more upbeat, and as a fulcrum that’s thematically consistent with the rest of the album, “Party” makes sense. As a song, though, it’s a misstep, partly because the hook is just flat, and partly because what could have been a glorious return to form for Andre 3000 is largely wasted in a by-the-numbers cameo appearance. Other experiments pay off much better, though; the album ends with a song called “Girls (Run the World),” the very title of which indicates the note of triumph on which Beyonce ends the cycle. What makes it memorable, though– if a touch out of place on what is otherwise a more deliberate and measured album– is the production from Diplo, who both conjures Beyonce’s own Fela Kuti fixation and points to previously unimagined possibilities of Beyonce as an edgier R&B/dance artist on the level of Santigold or M.I.A.
Whether she chooses to keep experimenting or not, though, 4 is something she can be proud of. It’s an album that blends influences and inspirations into something seamless, and it’s a song cycle that pulls heartstrings without being overbearing. Mostly, though, it’s just a terrific soul album, and a platform for a powerhouse singer who is only now, it seems, beginning to explore the full range of what she’s capable of.