In a world where a purveyor of cheap urban-dance trash like Rihanna can be honoured with an award for best female R&B singer (over Marsha Ambrosius and Jennifer Hudson no less), it's little wonder that Beyoncé's "4" has many fans and critics scratching their heads. This is an album that refuses to contribute to the slow and depressing death of soul music. With the exception of "Run The World (Girls)", which sounds like it was tacked on as a last-minute afterthought to give Beyoncé something to perform on Oprah, there are no tacky urban-dance hybrids or sample heavy club bangers. Instead, "4" looks back to the sweet soul music of the 70s for inspiration (think Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5) with surprising splashes of 80s synths that could have been lifted straight from Prince's "Purple Rain".
It's a heady mix of pretty ballads, sexy slow jams and funk-heavy floorfillers that prove you don't need to recycle the same old beats to make people move. The emphasis is on meaningful lyrics and quality vocals - giving "4" a timeless feel. I've always loved Queen B's voice but it's a revelation here. She resists the temptation to oversing - displaying a raw emotion that was missing from her earlier work. Bey's transition from pop star to the saviour of R&B is as sincere as it is convincing. Singers often talk about reinventing themselves but very few have undergone this kind of radical change. There are rumours that the Columbia Records begged the diva to re-record "4" but she refused. I hope it's true. This is Beyoncé's coming of age. Her "Impossible Princess".
While the album is low on radio ready smash hits, this is by far her most cohesive work. It might not sell like "I Am... Sasha Fierce" (although I have a suspicion it might end up surprising everyone) but she doesn't need top 10 hits to stay relevant. Beyoncé's status as the greatest entertainer on the planet is assured regardless of chart position. Tacky remixes and shock tactic are better left to riff raff like Rihanna and Britney. Bey is clearly more interested in making great music and there's plenty of it on "4". This is as close to flawless as modern music gets. Think the ballad disc of "I Am... Sasha Fierce" mixed with the best of "B'Day" to get some idea of the genius that awaits you. Here is my track by track review of 2011's best album.
"4" is a soft, lingering kiss of an album. While lesser divas release songs about S&M, threesomes and disco-stick riding, Beyoncé brings the romance. Jay Z must be doing something right because his woman is seriously loved up. When I first heard "1+1" on American Idol I got chills. When I heard the aching beautiful backstage rehearsal, I had pretty much settled on Bey's album opener as my wedding waltz. The usual cynics have ridiculed the lyrics and, while I agree that the song occasionally veers into soppy territory, so does Adele's "Someone Like You". But she's fat and British - so I guess that's ok then. All that "I wish nothing but the best for you" bullshit. Bitch, please. You just stalked his arse! But I digress. "1+1" reminds me of a pared back Alicia Keys track with a slight twist of country. I love the guitar. I love Bey's vocal. I love the whole damn thing and wish it was a single. A live version needs to be released because it's ten times better.
This took a couple of listens to click with me. Produced by Jeff Bhasker (best known for his work with Kanye West), "I Care" is a strange song. It's quite dark in sound and subject matter. Think of it as the clinically depressed cousin of Kylie's "Better The Devil You Know". Beyoncé pretty much pleads with her man to stay even though she knows he doesn't really give a shit about her. Not exactly an upbeat radio hit then. But after a couple of listens, "I Care" really worms its way into your head. I loved the menacing brass, quirky hooks and layered vocals. The chorus couldn't be more simple but it is oddly hypnotic. This is turning out to be something of a fan favourite, so I guess it appeals to the pathetic, lovesick loser in all of us. Not single material in my book.
I Miss You
I'm probably alone here but "I Miss You" is my favourite song on "4". The lyrics to this subtle love letter of a song could have lifted from my journal - and knowing Bey's sticky fingers, they probably were! Joking! There's a rawness and honesty to "I Miss You" that cuts straight through me. Beyoncé pulls right back and almost whispers her way through the bittersweet, confused lyrics. "It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel but I still need to - why is that?" Bey muses. Girl, if you find the answer, let me know. Billboard's most successful artist of the millennium is really opening up and taking off the strong, independent woman mask that defined her previous albums. I love this new soft side and think Frank Ocean - who is currently having a hit of his own with "Novocane" - deserves a lot of credit for helping bring that out. The production here is minimal but precise and perfectly suited to the song. We need to thank Solange for introducing her slightly more successful sister to Shea Taylor. He worked wonders on "Hadley Street Dreams" and should be forced to contribute to all Knowles albums from now on.
Best Thing I Never Had
What can you say about the album's second single? The Babyface penned ballad is the safest track here. It is basically a rehash of "Irreplaceable" for 2011 but that doesn't make it a bad song. I personally wish she had gone with "End Of Time" or "Countdown" or even "1+1" after "Run The World (Girls)" but, after a slow start, this appears to be doing the trick. It's sitting at number one on UK iTunes and is starting to make serious inroads on the Billboard Hot 100. The main thing that "Best Thing I Never Had" has going for it - apart from a sublime vocal performance and meaty chorus - is the universality of the lyrics. I think the lyrics strike a chord with people and the understated production makes it sound fresh in comparison to overproduced ballads like "California King Bed" and "Impossible". It's also a total grower. I like this more every time I hear it. Fingers crossed the video is a monster. There's a lot riding on the success of this song.
Party (featuring André 3000)
Kanye brings his usual swagger to this fun excursion into hip-hop/pop territory. I love the summery feel and deceptively sexy lyrics. That line about milk dripping down to her knees makes me blush! I love that Bey finally gets to unleash a little and show off some of her crazy range. She sounds amazing on the fun chorus and it's nice to hear her sing something frivolous after the highly emotional songs that come before it. The André 3000 rap initially feels a little disjointed but Kanye is a mad scientist of the highest calibre and he brings it all together nicely. Despite the love "Party" is receiving from fans, I hope it's not a single. One "Videophone" - ie. the worst single in her career - is enough for Bey! It is a great album track though and I keep coming back to it.
Rather Die Young
This song slays me. It's such a staggeringly fierce diva anthem. Co-written and co-produced by Australia's Luke Steele (of Empire Of The Sun fame), "Rather Die Young" would have effortlessly slotted into any early 70s Diana Ross album. "You're my James Dean, you make me feel like I'm 17" croons Bey before launching full throttle into the chorus. I ache for the way she sings "I'd rather not live AT ALL than live my life without you". It's Motown. It's big hair. It's sequined-gown fabulousness. Unfortunately, Beyoncé hasn't been performing this in her festival gigs, which is a real shame. I think this is a complete anthem and one of the album's most striking songs. It's romantic, oozes soul and gets stuck in your head after the first listen. Drag queens will be performing this for decades to come. Exquisite.
Beyoncé turned to the giants of yesteryear for inspiration on "4", so it's no surprise to see her channel R&B legend La Toya Jackson on "Start Over". Not only is the title a clear homage to Toy's recent autobiography soundtrack EP, the sound has the same breezy, tropical sound that she coined in the early 80s. The only difference is the tone. There is something quite sinister about "Start Over", which is strange because it is a love song. Written by hit machine Esther Dean, this is - surprisingly given her involvement and Shea Taylor's beautiful La Toya inspired production - easily my least favourite song on the album. It's like the R&B equivalent of Enya. Pretty and soothing but ultimately forgettable and kind of pointless. "Start Over" is pleasant filler that really should have been replaced by one of the brilliant bonus tracks.
Love On Top
If bright and happy Bey is your thing, then look no further. "Love On Top" is one of the cutest songs of 2011. It's a retrotastic mid-tempo jam with sweet lyrics like "your lips taste like a night of champagne". A lot of fans are calling for this to be a single. I think the old school, Motown inspired production would scare radio programmers but I'm on board just to see what she comes up with in the video. For me the highlight of this deliriously romantic pop song is the vocal. Beyoncé sounds like Mariah circa "Emotions". You know when she would throw that dog whistle around on the occasional uptempo number. Her voice gets the full workout from soft whispers all the way through to a wail that would make Mimi proud. Like many songs on "4", I think "Love On Top" is probably too niche to be a massive hit but if it clicks with you then this will probably be your ring tone for the next two years. I love it.
After a slight dip, "4" gathers serious steam with the mind-blowingly amazing "Countdown". This is everything "Get Me Bodied" wanted to be but couldn't quite pull off. Don't get me wrong. I love that jam but it needed a beefier chorus and slightly less drag-tastic lyrics to be the chart-ruling anthem Bey needed at the time. "Countdown", on the other hand, has a glorious sing-a-long chorus that sits perfectly between the fierce verses that spill some of the best lyrics in recent memory. It's hard to pick a favourite line but "all up in the kitchen in my heels - dinner time!" and "grind up on him, gurl - show him how you ride it!" would be right up there. Props to Esther Dean. Another highlight is the Boys II Men sample. Shea Taylor hasn't gone overboard (like Switch on "Run The World"!) but it's great to hear "Uhh Ahh" reborn into something as fresh and fun. With the right video and dance routine, I can see "Countdown" being a huge hit. Rihanna could never.
End Of Time
Keep your fingers crossed that this is the third single. I have to admit that "End Of Time" took a while to click with me - the brooding, extended intro distracted me - but this is "Run The World (Girls)" done right. It's a truly original blend of genres and sounds that sounds like it was concocted by a mad scientist in a lab somewhere. I love the driving drums, heavy brass and fierce vocal. This is breathtaking pop music that pushes boundaries and More important that the killer beats (courtesy of Diplo and Switch ie. Major Lazer), are the lyrics. This song is upbeat, catchy and meaningful. Bey sings:
Come take my hand, I won't let you go
I'll be your friend, I will love you so (deeply)
I will be the one to kiss you at night
I will love you until the end of time
And my heart melts. This is the album's big hit if done right. Beyoncé's performance of the song at Glastonbury was some next level shit. All she needs to do is repeat that on a handful of American talkshows and she has her number one hit.
I Was Here
I don't know about "I Was Here". The idea of Diane Warren and Ryan Tedder contributing to the same song makes my blood run cold. The potential for saccharine lyrics and recycled beats is enough to make Celine come out of retirement. The finished product, however, is surprisingly understated. It is a pretty song but I think someone who is yet to achieve greatness - like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry - should have sung it. This is about leaving your mark on the world. Bey had already achieved that by the age of 19. I do like that she gets to unleash her powerful pipes but again this is one of the songs I would have swapped with one of the killer bonus tracks. Not bad but not as good as the quite similar (in theme and production) "Save The Hero" from "I Am... Sasha Fierce".
Run The World (Girls)
What can you say about this mess? It sounds like five songs thrown into a blender without a chorus. Bey now has a lock on the award for the least commercial lead single of all time. I still think this was tacked onto the album to give her something "anthemic" to sing on Oprah and the BBMAs because it doesn't fit the rest of album at all. The strange this is - I genuinely love "Run The World (Girls)". At first I think I was just trying to convince myself that it was good because, well, it's Bey but now I think it's completely iconic. I love those crazy Major Lazer beats and the lyrics still make me laugh. Ghetto Bey brings it hard singing about girl power and not being faded. That combined with a crazy post-apocalyptic girls gone wild video complete with the pantsula dance choreography makes for one crazy arse package. For better or worse it's probably my favourite song of 2011.
I hate it when artists keep all their best shit for the bonus tracks but Bey is well and truly guilty. Make sure you get the deluxe edition - you have no choice in Australia - it's definitely worth it.
Lay Up Under Me
This is probably the album's most commercial track. Co-written by Stargate and Sean Garrett, "Lay Up Under Me" is another blindingly romantic love song about making your man happy. Only instead of being a standard ballad, it's a quirky mid-tempo affair complete with trumpets and a cute chorus that harks back to the late 80s. "Lay Up Under Me" is flawless pop music. I love the slick production and Bey delivers another exquisite vocal. I just wish it was on the album proper. This deserves to be a single.
You know, I honestly thought The-Dream should have retired after killing what was left of Mariah's career on "Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel" but I take it all back. Christina Milian's cash cow finally shows some of his "Single Ladies" brilliance on "Schoolin' Life". This adorable Prince inspired synth-fest is a very odd pop song. Beyoncé basically gives out life lessons over a beat that could have been lifted from "Lovesexy". She tells the 20-somethings "time really moves fast, you were just 16" and the sexy-somethings "that body ain't always get you out of everything". It shouldn't work but it's pop perfection. I just wish I could make out the lyrics. What does she tell the 40-somethings and 50-somethings? These pearls of wisdom are too important not to heed! One of my favourite songs on the album.
Dance For You
If anyone ever has the nerve to ask me what separates Beyoncé from the rest of the urban-pop crowd, I would slap them and then play "Dance For You". This gorgeous, 6 minute long mid-tempo ballad is a masterpiece. It has been described as an update of Destiny's Child's "Cater 2 U" and that's true to a certain extent. The theme is similar only this time around the doormat lyrics have been omitted. Instead, Bey brings the romance in a very adult way. It's about showing appreciation and gratitude - topics that are all but ignored in modern music. I can't even get my head around Beyoncé's vocal on this. She goes from spitting out lines like a machine gun to swooning and cooing, before giving her pipes a full work out. This would be a brilliant single if they can edit it down by two minutes without ruining it. Absolutely beautiful.