Monday, July 11, 2011

Album Review: Beyoncé - 4 (4/5)

I Am...Sasha Fierce was a big album. Literally--depending on what version you bought (and there were several)--you could have as many as 20 tracks to listen to. The album was calculated to be a success and it was, showcasing the singer as a versatile goddess of pop music, comfortably moving from sweet balladry ("If I Were a Boy"), funky pop workouts ("Single Ladies"), epic love songs ("Halo") and retro dance pop ("Sweet Dreams"). As much as the dual-disc/dual-personality concept felt a little forced, it worked, as Beyoncé conquered charts all over the world, racking up a few awards in the process (including the Song of the Year Grammy for "Singles Ladies").

4 is not that album, but it does draw successfully from what made Sasha good. Although not the greatest vocalist when she was in Destiny's Child, Beyoncé has improved her pipes over the years, which she showed to great effect on Sasha's first disc of ballads. On 4, she sounds even better, delivering a more nuanced vocal performance. That way she dissolves her strongest notes into a vocal growl serves to highlight the raw desire she expresses on opening track "1+1," which was produced by The Dream and Tricky Stewart but sounds like vintage Prince.

Truthfully, the songs that have been released as singles haven't impressed me much, although they aren't unwelcome here. "Run the World (Girls)" closes the album with a drumline rhythm and deep, clubby bass, but its general lack of melody never sounded that great on the radio. As uptempo songs on the album go, it's upstaged by the vocal acrobatics and funky horns of "End of Time." I'm also really enjoying the '80s-era Whitney Houston-esque "Love on Top," which rolls along with a jolly, warm melody that I'm sure would serve as a great Broadway-themed music video. "Countdown" samples the countdown from Boyz II Men's "Uhh Ahh," and it's a real oddball of a song, but I enjoy it too, chock full as it is with brassy horn blasts, layered breakdowns and goofy lyrics.

On the slower side, "Best Thing I Never Had" is a serviceable piano pop ballad, even if its chorus devolves into the same lyrical inelegance Kelly Clarkson displayed on her last album ("It sucks to be you right now"). Most of the other ballads are more interesting, like "I Care," which starts simply with synthesizer notes and booming percussion, before building to its soulful chorus. "I Miss You" also opens gently with synthesizers but has a more restrained vocal. Restraint goes out the door on "Start Over," this album's "Halo."

My favorite ballad though is the retro-leaning "I'd Rather Die Young," a sultry tune with a funky '70s guitar, old-school keyboards, piano and horns. It's an interesting song--way too interesting to make a good single. Also good is the moody penultimate track, "I Was Here." Written by Diane Warren and produced by Ryan Tedder, it has the best pedigree of any powerhouse pop ballad has ever had. It's also the only song Beyoncé doesn't get a co-songwriter credit on and it's nice to see she continues to develop as a songwriting talent.

Although the songs on Sasha Fierce seemed to scream "make me a hit," the songs here don't feel quite so calculated. Despite the cadre of big-name producers, she doesn't chase current trends as much as she did on her last album. There's no attempt to sound like Lady Gaga or Black Eyed Peas (thank god). Credit also goes to the sound engineers, who made this sound really, really slick. I didn't love this album at first--it's charms aren't so obvious, but they're definitely there. After Sasha, 4 showcases a Beyoncé that has nothing to prove, except maybe that she's a legitimate artistic talent.

Best: 1+1, I'd Rather Die Young, Love on Top, End of Time, I Was Here, Best Thing I Never Had

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