(To be released June 28, 2011)
Beyonce's fourth album, the creatively titled 4, leaked a month early. Everyone else has reviewed it at this point; eh, I figured I might as well weigh in too.
Sorry I'm tardy for the party.
The blogosphere nearly imploded a couple of weeks ago when the album hit the 'Net, but I dragged my feet on checking it out. I may have a PhD (Playa Hater's Degree) but even I can't deny that Beyonce is the No. 1 pop artist in the world - and has reigned on top for quite a few years now. Still, she's never had a definitive five-star album. In fact, besides 2006's B'Day, her albums haven't really moved me.
One reason for my apathy is Bey's schizophrenic personality. Even though she's released scores of songs since 1997, B. Carter has only shown us two sides of her soul: domineering diva that demands wedding rings and teases dudes via video phone; and lovelorn lady with her head in the clouds, dreaming of halos and how things would be different if she were a boy. Her last album, 2008's I Am ... Sasha Fierce, encouraged that divide - each disc was dedicated to one aspect of her Two-Face-like persona.
Before its release, word around the campfire was that 4 was a "step in a new direction" and featured "bold new sound" - you know, the usual pre-album-release rhetoric. Surprisingly, there is truth to that. 4 sounds nothing like any Beyonce album you've ever heard.
Despite contributions from a wide array producers (including The-Dream, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Diane Warren) most of the album has a consistent sound - sort of a bizarre blend of big band and Mowtown R&B. And Bey's vocals are very forceful on nearly every track this time around.
No, no, no. Sorry Fantasia, I said "forceful," not "screechy." Beyonce teeters the fine line of hard inflections and flat-out hollerin'. 'Tasia needs to learn that trick.
4 works best when Beyonce borrows a bit from her Sasha Fierce and her, um, Sasha Tame personalities. The best song on the album, "I Miss You" is more than a just a sappy longing for love. Bey's forceful vocals give it an edge that transform the typical pining into desperation and frustration. Those layers provide a different feel - a depth that Bey has long needed. "I Care" isn't as stellar, but follows that same blueprint.
"Best Thing I Never Had" is more or less "Irreplaceable Part 2," with tons more emotion heaped on. Expect to hear it on every radio station from now till December - "Sucks to be you right now" will be the catchphrase of the summer. The funky "Party" (featuring a Keith Sweat shout-out!) is a nice 80s throwback - even Andre 3000 emerges from the side of a milk carton to provide the usual outstanding verse. Again, Beyonce peppers the song with her new inflections: "I told my girls you can GET IT" - trust me, it works a lot better than you'd imagine.
The album is predominately ballad heavy, and unfortunately Bey often slips into her un-Fierce comfort zone. On tracks like "I Was Here" and especially "1+1," even her new vocal tricks ("one plus one equal TWO!") can't save them from sounding like rejects from the I Am... album.
On the other side of the coin, "Run The World" is a typical growling girl-power anthem, straight from the Sasha Fierce playbook. Like I said a couple of months ago, it's too loud and frantic - in fact, there's too much emotion here. It's way too tough to digest with Bey going ballistic like the Tazmanian devil. But Fantasia probably thinks it's too low-key.
4 doesn't successfully merge Bey's Jekyll and Hyde, but it does keep her promise of giving us a new sound. 4 is no B'Day, but it's also like nothing else out there right now.
Who runs the (pop) world? Beyonce. If you don't believe that, she'll yell at you - but sound great while doing it.
Best tracks: "I Miss You," "Party," "Best Thing I Never Had"
3.5 stars out of 5