Album review: Beyoncé - 4

Beyoncé - 4 | Album review

When you've had a string of worldwide hits, globe trotted on a highly grossing world tour, gone down in pop history with a song and music video about putting rings on it, and everybody is waiting to see what you can pull out of your wig next for your follow up album - one is left in a rather tricky position to try and top what they've done before and deliver the next big thing. You'd think the Amazonian robot empress from the kingdom of lost wigs that is Beyoncé Knowles would be hell bent on chasing past successes with her long awaited forth studio album. But instead the wig wearing witch of the west has done what none of us really saw coming. She just recorded what the hell she wanted to record, with no regard of big obvious hit singles and well trodden ground. Well, slap a "Work it out" wig on me and call me Cousin Itt. Could Beyoncé have actually taken a risk!?

After an album of varied R&B cuts, an album full of whistles 'n cowbells and a 2 disc album split between dreary numbers and nonsensical hood nonsense, Beyoncé has gone pretty mellow on the whole for 4  managing to strike a rather nice balance between what she's done before with varying degrees of success.

Album opener "1 + 1" is Beyoncé's imitation of Prince. And a fine imitation she does of the Purple one too. This comes as very little surprise given that Tricky Stewart and The Dream are behind the song. Between the two of them, they have pretty much bitten the majority of Prince's discography in some form or other. Whilst this song marks a nice departure for Beyoncé, it's an overlong boring mess. The music doesn't go anywhere. The lyrics sound as though they were written by her nephew. ♪ I don't know much about algeba, but 1 plus 1 equals 2! ♪ Last I checked, that was simple math, not an algebraic equation. And what the f**k is algeba!? ♪ I don't know much about guns but I've been shot by you ♪ I don't need to be a musician to know when a song is rubbish. And that's exactly what "1 + 1" is. Rubbish. When Beyoncé starts screaming ♪ Make love to meeeeeeee ♪ over and over, you'll find yourself laughing as opposed to finding any hint of this song romantic. Jebus knows why this was chosen to open the album. Unless anybody fancies being whisked into a coma, this will immediately get skipped. The backstage rehearsal footage Jay-Z filmed of Beyoncé performing this song is pretty amazing. It's a shame none of it translated onto the album version.

"I miss you" just might be one of Beyoncé's best songs. Never have I heard the Amazonian robot empress sing with such vulnerability and feeling before. I genuinely thought Jay-Z had left a bitch when I heard it. Her tone and her timbre leaves me colder than the heart of Mathew Knowles. The vibe throughout the song feels very Phil Collins. Minimalist and heartfelt, "I miss you" is a wonderful highlight of how despite Beyoncé's songs being known for their brash loudness and aural chaos, that simplicity is where she shines the brightest. The vocal arrangements are far from elaborate. The music is completely stripped down. Yet, "I miss you" makes a much bigger impact than "Run the world (Girls)" ever could. I'd love for Beyoncé to curve-ball everybody and release this as a single, as it shows a side of her that I don't think many knew she had - and I feel people need to be exposed to more. Brilliant song.

"Dance for you" once again see's Beyoncé running one hand all up in Prince's lacefront, with the other all up in Ciara's. "Dance for you" sounds like a Basic instinct leftover. And chances are, it probabaly is. Give it a month and we'll have Ciara's version leak, followed by a Tweet about Beyoncé stealing her shit. And then the surfacing of yet another songwriting scandal on how Beyoncé's name is listed on the songwriting credits when it was written a year before she got it. As sexy and captivating as Beyoncé is in live performances, she really doesn't sell sex well on songs. Listening to Beyoncé croon about sex feels like an awkward lap dance from a woman to whom you just want to wrap your jacket around and toss some dollar at as a good will. The very end of the song when he music switches into a sexy swoon of synths is amazing, Made even better by Beyoncé keeping her mouth shut for most of it.

Every diva's album needs a big ballad number. Dangerously in love had the song of the same name. B'day had "Listen". I am...Sasha Fierce had "Smash into you" and 4's has "I was here". Penned by the legend herself that is Diane Warren and produced by Ryan Tedder, who once again returns into the fold of 4 after crafting one of Beyoncé's most notable singles: "Halo". The song is overblown and over-dramatic, but frankly; the song could not work any other way. Diane Warren pens a song which sums up how Beyoncé has always felt in regards to creating her own legacy. And Ryan Tedder glosses this with lavish production, which is beautifully haunting and rapturous. A great song.

The up-tempo's on 4 are divided between shout-fests of heartbreak and sappy depositions of love. Those  focusing on the heartbreaks are the most familiar in relation to what the wig wearing robot has done before. If "Irreplaceable" was the song from a neck snapper who feels she can do better. Then "I care" is the song from a broken woman who refuses to let her n***a go. Beyoncé sings with an angst which at times seems like genuine pain and frustration. Now, I wouldn't say Beyoncé's completely mastered the art of expressing vocal emotion, but she's finally gotten the memo that growling is not an auto-buffer for pain. At least on this track. "Start over" is just an over dramatic shout fest. The song goes nowhere. Under the care of an artist like Brandy, this may have been able to have had some form of life, feeling and vocal warmth infused into it. But with Beyoncé's weave ensnared all over it, the song just fails. The only thing which should have been started over is this song. Because it's as weak as her mother's clothing line. "Best thing I never had" is "Irreplaceable" part 2. Plain and simple. And pretty unashamedly so. The song opens with a piano riff which rings with the familiarity of Hornsby's "The way it is" (the song which 2Pac's "Changes" famously sampled) and also a bit of the Baywatch theme. The production on this song wonderfully rich, with a piano which twinkles around the octaves for the chorus and then goes to town on the keys for the verses. And just when you think the verses pack enough of a punch, the chorus explodes into a medley of electric guitars, heavy kicks, reverbed snares and sing-a-longs. The whole thing has a very 80's sound about it. And as is the case with "I miss you", "Best thing I never had" features hints of Phil Collins in its execution. As with "Irreplaceable", it's either a song you'll love or hate. Me? I love it. Radio friendly and anthemic.

When Beyoncé isn't shouting over shit gone wrong, she sounds rather bearable. And on each of these instances she latches onto a particular era in music. Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele contribution "Rather die young" is a complete ode to the 70's. Luke Steele's musical influences can clearly be heard throughout the song. Replace Beyoncé's vocals with his, and you could easily be a song from Walking on a dream. Beyoncé's declaration's of love are sung over a backdrop of guitars and piano's, playing very much like a Bacharach composition; before erupting into a lavish 70's horn section and electric guitars. "Rather die young" is a wonderfully classic sounding song. The soft, dream like swoons of Beyoncé's vocals on the verses are almost hypnotizing - exhibiting an ethereal like clarity that you do not to hear from her often, if at all, and it colours the song beautifully. The lyrics are rather odd though. Beyoncé won't even have a man's child, let alone die for him. And Beyoncé can't die anyway. Mathew Knowles done made a pact with Jor-El on Krypton before he jetted her off in a spaceship to the kingdom of lost wigs that she'll live forever. Kanye West and Consequence give Beyoncé a straight 80's throwback with "Party", and she sings the SHAT out of it. Outkast man Andre 3000 also comes out of hiding to contribute a rap. You don't need me to tell you that he came correct. Because Andre 3000 does not know how to put a foot wrong on anything he has a hand in. Beyoncé goes top 10 chart 80's with "Love on top", which sounds like Michael Jackson meets Sonic the hedgehog. It's a cool song with a catchy hook and a familiar sound. But something about the whole thing is just awkward to buy into. It feels too by numbers. And for all the vocal prowess Beyoncé brings to the song, something this 80's and chipper would sound so much better in the hands of an artist like Amerie. "Lay up under me" see's Beyoncé go 70's disco and cover the man responsible for penning several of her hits: Sean "Hear a smash on the radio, bet I didn't pen it unless it's by Beyoncé" Garrett. Both Sean and Beyoncé's versions of the song ring with the familiarity of Michael Jackson, but at two different ends of the same spectrum. Where-as Garrett's original taps into the smooth 'n sexy R&B MJ. Beyoncé's lashes out with the Off the wall, Jheri curl soaked MJ. If you thought "End of time" was an MJ tribute, then you need to hear this. Beyoncé actually sings like Michael Jackson, and the whole production of the song seems geared as an ode to him. Not an amazing song, and pretty forgettable. But still a nice song which fits in with the overall sound of the album. This would have sounded great track-listed next to "Love on top".

A Beyoncé album is not a Beyoncé album without some obnoxiously loud arse songs which has the Amazonian robot empress spitting and weaving her way in between beats in a way that very few other female artists could. Lead single "Run the world (Girls)" is a mess of a song. But the song doesn't so much grow on you, as it does beat you in submission until you find it moderately passable. The Major Lazer crafted beat which drives the song is so hot that you eventually settle for "Run the world (Girls)" being worthy of listening to, just for the beat alone. But no amount of heat that the beat is packing can mask the fact that "Run the world (Girls)" is a mess. Any message of female empowerment gets completely lost in Beyoncé growling about n***a's and money. This is not Beyoncé's best single by a long shot. The only single of hers worse than this is "Ring the alarm". Thankfully this song sits at the end of the album. The mess however continues with "Countdown". A tinnitus inducing pile up of whistles, steel pans, finger snaps and as many Dancehall and hood cliche thrown into the space of 3 minutes as is humanely possible. And if this wasn't enough of a crime, Boyz II Men's "Uhh ahh" is sampled in the song's chorus. If you value the Boyz II Men classic, do not listen to what Beyoncé does to it. It will make you curl up into a ball and ask yourself "Why Lawd...WHY!?" I didn't think Beyoncé could do worse than "Run the world (Girls)", but wig off to a bitch - she did worse. Much worse.

The robot empress does get it right and pretty much delivers a near perfect uptempo in the form of "End of time". This was not a song I was keen on at first. But after numerous listens and witnessing Beyoncé perform the hell out of it at Glastonbury, I now stan for this song, and am a firm believer that this really should have been the lead single off of 4 album in place of "Run the world (Girls)". The song is catchy, anthemic, sweet on the ears, easy to latch on to and is a greater celebration of womanhood than that "Run the world (Girls)" mess will ever be. And to think this song was written and produced by the same team behind that female de-empowerment anthem. Shocking isn't it? The song is driven by heavy tribal percussion, an array of funky horns, vocal repetitions and woah's in all the right places. To sum it up: "End of time" is Beyoncé's "Wanna be startin' something". You'll find yourself dipping into ♪ Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah ♪ accidentally - the song's are that close in terms of vibe. If you can get past the epic build up of the intro and not constantly rewind it (as I do) then you'll find a cracker of a song here. "Schoolin' life" is what 4 should have opened with. Teresa LaBarbera Whites should be givien her P45 for allowing this to be a bonus track when it should have been a single. Beyoncé hops back on the case to do her Prince imitation. But unlike "1 + 1" which sucks a Camel's back foot, "Schoolin' life" ticks every box, and then crosses them for fun. The production is Prince down to the ground, with a musical backdrop which sounds like a bonus track from Purple rain. And Beyoncé's vocals feel so free, untamed and un-polished that it gives the song a real sense of spontaneity and charm. One of 4's highlights. Which makes it rather frustrating that it's slapped onto the tail end of the album as a bonus track.

4 is not the album you expected it to be, but it's a pleasant surprise. The album exhibits some form of the risk you'd always hoped Beyoncé would take on a record, yet not enough of a risk to shout from the rooftops about.

Beyoncé still seems to think that screaming and singing loudly equals emotive projection. There is this layer to Beyoncé's music which prevents you from getting to know her as a human being who feels. It's almost frustrating, because you know Beyoncé is capable of breaking this barrier. But she seems so afraid of doing so. So much of this supposed emotion Beyoncé claims to have injected into this album feels forced. And it's a shame that the one of the two songs on the album where Beyoncé sings with such conviction is the "Run the world (Girls)" of all songs. Musically, Beyoncé still feels as though she's behind her peers, despite having the talent in excess to out sing and outsell all of them. The departures and musical risks that Rihanna, Lady Gaga and even Britney Spears took with their latest studio offerings seem almost revolutionary compared to what Beyoncé offers with this album. 4 is her most consistent sounding album. But does Beyoncé serve up anything new with it? No. Even with Beyoncé recording this album in the mindset of not truly trying to chase the next big hit, there is still something calculated and safe about how she went about this album.

As an artist who has always thrived on radio friendly singles to push albums and front tours, the wig wearing robot going to have a tough time with this album; as there are very few immediate single choices. This album is comparable to Destiny fulfilled in that very same sense. Musically, the album has a really nice integrity about it, but commercially it may not translate into a string of hits given it may not be what the mainstream masses want from Beyoncé.

For all of the amazing moments 4 yields (of which there are some) this album is still not indicative of a woman with Beyoncé's musical dexterity. And at this point, you wonder if she'll ever truly record that magnum opus which everybody wants from her and she probably should have delivered by now. 4 is not that album. But it's a pussy pop in the right direction.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Album highlights
■ I care
■ I miss you J's fave
Best thing I never had
■ Party
■ Rather die young
■ End of time
Schoolin' life
Lay up under me


  1. Superb review.

    However... you don't like Countdown?! I think its one of the strongest cuts on the album, so innovative and unlike anything on the radio! Dannng J!

  2. From some your tweets where you called it '4lop' I thought you were going to rant on this album - I was surprised. Also, I love the gif you've given for the album cover, wouldn't say no to seeing it again in other album reviews with multiple covers :-)


HTML tags for bold, italic and hyperlinks are allowed