A big, bold and brave performer, Beyonce Knowles is known for her over-the-top vocals, incredible stage presence and, most of all, her ability to seemingly produce a hit on command, whether it be in collaboration with others (see Destiny’s Child, or, more recently, her 2010 hit “Telephone” with Lady Gaga) or on her own (“Single Ladies,” etc.). However, Queen B lays quiescent in “4,” the artist’s fourth solo studio album. Instead, Beyonce seems to take the road less traveled, masterfully exploring the themes of both individualism and romance in what proves to be a more nuanced and sophisticated collection than her previous work.
Beyonce’s last two albums – B’Day,” released in 2006 and the two-part 2008 album, “I Am…Sasha Fierce” – solidified her status as a powerhouse, stocked with chart-topping, club-dominating hits that had Beyonce all over the radio and wowing crowds with her energetic live performances. However, “4” reflects the strategic move of a woman who already has a strong fan base and uses this certainty to give her the freedom to try something a bit different.
In fact, as far as commercialism is concerned, “4” doesn’t begin to compare to Beyonce’s previous albums. Frankly, there might be two Top-20 hits in the dozen songs “4” is composed of, but Beyonce very clearly did not entirely write the album for the profits it would bring in. Instead, the vulnerability first introduced in the slower, impassioned “I Am… half of her third album reemerges in “4.” Beyonce is all grown up now and takes the time to reflect more on what she’s experienced than what she has yet to do.
Ironically, where Beyonce falls flat is in attempts at her previous style. The first single of “4,” “Run the World (Girls),” features uninspired lyrics – albeit an empowering message – haphazardly thrown over the popular electro-hit “Pon de Floor” by Major Lazer. Another upbeat attempt, “Party,” also disappoints; though the addition of Andre 3000 adds to the song, Beyonce simply doesn’t bring enough of the raw vocal energy she usually delivers to her more popular tracks, leaving “Party” strangely suspended between her upbeat and slower songs.
Unexpectedly for many, her exploration with deeper topics comes with remarkable success. Though the songs are more sentimental, Beyonce generally brings power to each and every one of them, creating an album full of successfully varied sound and thoughtful songwriting. One of the best songs of the album is the first, “1+1,” a slow ballad very obviously written about her hubby, rapper and music mogul Jay-Z. Beyonce expresses some lyrical poeticism, singing, “I don’t know much about algebra/But I know 1+1=2/And it’s me and you/That’s all we’ll have when the world is through.” The best by far, though, of “4” is “I Was Here,” the second-to-last song and final ballad, in which she contemplates the power and humanity of the individual, simultaneously delivering a particularly fantastic vocal performance.
“4” might not feature Beyonce’s traditional barrage of hits, but it’s a wise album, expressing a more thoughtful side of a woman usually seen as a larger-than-life personality.