BEYONCÉ: 4 (2011)
1) 1 + 1; 2) I Care; 3) I Miss You; 4) Best Thing I Never Had; 5) Party; 6) Rather Die Young; 7) Start Over; 8) Love On Top; 9) Countdown; 10) End Of Time; 11) I Was Here; 12) Run The World (Girls); 13) Dreaming; 14) Lay Up Under Me; 15) Schoolin' Life; 16) Dance For You.
Beyoncé Knowles may be dumb, but she's not stupid. Or vice versa. Whatever. In 2010, she publicly confessed to «killing Sasha Fierce», saying that she was mature enough to merge both personalities — a glamorized way of admitting that the whole idea just sucked, I think, and that the producers did a boring job on the first half and a muckjob on the second. To atone for somebody else's sins, she now decides to move from «conceptually serious» to «spiritually authentic». A right decision if there ever was one, but... too late, too late.
The main ideology behind 4 was to make a good old-fashioned R&B album. Not a sampler's delight, not an electro-pop extravaganza, not a technofest, but a record that would actually bring in some refreshing retro flavor. You know — real musicians blowing real horns, strumming real guitars, a real emotional singer channeling that gospel spirit to hit high notes at full power, that whole deal. The one that made a star out of Aretha Franklin and... uh... Diana Ross? Tina Turner seems a little too far out for Beyoncé's careful imagemaking. «Wild wild» does not get you nearly as many fans, in terms of sheer quantity, as «gentle wild».
However, as you may well guess, there are several problems here that are really hard to beat. First, the trendy keyboards, digital procedures, loops, overdubs, Jay-Z raps, and unbearably repetitive choruses are not really going anywhere. Understandably, Beyoncé did not want to make a thoroughly «retro» album, but rather one that would look forward to the future by means of looking back at the past — a sensible decision for any progressive artist, provided the futuristic component is every bit the worthy rival of the nostalgic layer. But what good is it when a typically Seventies' piano melody is married to a programmed beat and an assortment of carefully sliced, wrapped, and weighted vocal strips?
And the worst thing about it, she can get it right when she really puts her heart into it. ʽLove On Topʼ may be utterly derivative of Stevie Wonder in the verses (and of the Jackson 5 in the chorus, for that matter — her pitch on "you're the one I NEED!" is just plain old little Michael), but it may be the only Beyoncé song in the world that I can freely enjoy from first to last note, with a wonderful groove and chorus that give off happy shiny vibes without sounding too self-conscious or self-important. The song could use a little less obviousness in the production department, for sure (those bass keyboards are way too adult contemporary, although Stevie did use a lot of them in the 1980s), but in terms of melody and sheer emotion, it is beyond any complaints I could think about. The build-up, the come-down, everything perfect.
On the other hand, this is the same album that gave us ʽRun The World (Girls)ʼ, which might just be the worst, tackiest, silliest idea for a single — further developing the «aerobics-as-art» line of ʽSingle Ladiesʼ, only this time in an even more repetitive twist, and with a martial rhythm to boot: G.I. Beyoncé and her Girl Squad taking over the world. As «music», the song is a non-song; as «groove», the song belongs in the gym at best; as «feminism», I'd rather have Ani DiFranco, unless this is actually supposed to be parodic (at least the video for the song definitely bordered on parody, going completely over the top with all of its «military» imagery).
The rest of the record fluctuates between these two points, never quite reaching the same high or sinking to the same low (although the power ballad ʽI Was Hereʼ, donated by none other than the Wicked Witch of the West herself — Diane Warren, sounds just like any other Diane Warren song). The songs that are intentionally retro-oriented are generally listenable — ʽ1 + 1ʼ works as an old torch ballad, tastefully arranged (pipe organ!) and interestingly sung, with Beyoncé taking cute little falsetto «dips» at line ends. But they are actually in the minority. More often, the «retro» feel ends up confined to a few lyrical lines, like the James Dean reference in the appropriately lifeless ʽRather Die Youngʼ, or the "killing me softly" reference to Roberta Flack on ʽCountdownʼ, otherwise just a robotic dance groove.
Retro references aside, 4 gets a special reprimand for containing some of the lady's worst lyrics ever — every time she lays it down on Jay-Z, we get deeply poetic lines like "still love the way he rock them black diamonds in that chain", and songs like ʽPartyʼ do nothing but solidify the stereotype of «spoiled rags-to-riches mentality» for the general public. You have to appreciate, of course, the lady's being so honest with us — her and her folks are rich, posh, decadent, loving it, and giving the people exactly what they want. But for every ounce of real feeling that a song like ʽ1 + 1ʼ is working its ass off to generate, a song like ʽPartyʼ produces two ounces of disgusted counterfeeling. And what is the point of turning "Who run the world? Girls!" into a mind-numbing mantra, if on approximately half of the rest of the tunes she is explicitly "giving you my life, it's in your hands"? "Not only are you loyal, you're patient with me, baby"? ʽDance For Youʼ is neither feminist nor «humanly» sexy — above all else, it sounds like a properly wound-up automaton for mechanical sexual satisfaction. (At least Prince could make it sound humorous).
In the end, this is just another failure to break out of the exoskeleton. ʽLove On Topʼ accidentally comes close to artistic escape, and I have learned to really enjoy ʽ1 + 1ʼ, but the rest is too full of clichés and stereotypes, too market-oriented, too safe-playing, and too swamped with legions of faceless corporate «musicians», «songwriters», and «producers» to even begin matching the surrealist claims made by the artist: "I wanted classic songwriting... bolder than the music on my previous albums... really focused on songs being classics, songs that would last..." — every time I re-read that original statement, the only thing that springs up in my head, for some reason, is the line "me and my boo and my boo boo riding" from ʽCountdownʼ, and I cannot help but wonder exactly how long a line like that would «last» in the musical world. Thumbs down.
Check "4" (CD) on Amazon