Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Better Late Than Never Reviews: 4 - Beyonce

The third album by Beyonce Knowles, I Am...Sasha Fierce, was both a musical and an environmental disappointment. The world did not need her overly precious cover of "Ave Maria," nor did it need an 11-song album printed on two CDs just so an accomplished star could pretend to be her sassy alter ego. After the sensation that was Dangerously in Love and the underrated follow-up, B'Day, her fourth studio album, the unfortunately titled 4, found Jay-Z's main squeeze looking to prove that she did not lose ground to the Katy Perrys and the Lady Gagas of the world. Luckily, the former Destiny's Child songstress chose not to compete on their pop level and made an album that, despite having a few flaws, shows a mature artist who is still capable of churning out effortless body-movers.

Beginning with the Princely, soulful, rock-tinged ballad, "1+1," the 12-song album (yes, more than Sasha Fierce yet contained on one disc) continues quite strongly for 10 tracks. Highlights include "I Care," a bass-heavy mid-tempo joint with Squarepusher-esque airy synth and a nasty guitar solo/Beyonce vocal run (a past weakness that she is admirably restrained with throughout the album), "End of Time," a Michael Jackson-influenced banger with effectively chaotic production by producers Diplo and Switch, and "Party," a Kanye West track whose off-kilter beats and funhouse keys were attractive enough to get Andre 3000 to climb out from whatever rock he has been living under (the erstwhile Outkast MC contributes a verse that will hopefully hold the world over until he decides to put something full-length on wax). The very 80s "Love on Top" also satisfies, with Knowles putting in some of her best vocal work. I even managed to get into the one that Babyface wrote, "Best Thing I Never Had." It had to be the incredibly massive chorus, because I have to tell you: I never thought I would be able to get down with a song with piano that sounds like it was played by John Tesh in his NBA theme song era.

Truthfully, the album runs out of steam in its last eight minutes. "I Was Here" starts out promising enough with strings and distant piano that make it sound somewhat like Trent Reznor's theme for The Social Network. However, soon enough it morphs into the typical Diane Warren track (she wrote the thing, after all), with lame lyrics about making a difference, touching hearts, leaving a mark, and the like. Calm down, Beyonce. You are making some pretty good music; you're not exactly figuring out how to solve the United States' catastrophic debt crisis. And then there is the closer, "Run the World (Girls)," a bare naked, cynical attempt to repeat the success of Sasha Fierce's female anthem "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." This is the sort of marketing as music that has made Lady Gaga somewhat of a laughingstock, and, more importantly, it is scattershot and out of control. It swallows the singer's vocal range whole. Based on the Major Lazer track, "Pon de Floor," this sort of thing should be left to a more aggressive mic holder (see M.I.A. or...M.I.A.).

While Beyonce may not want to make a career in dubstep, the fact that she was willing to give it a try is encouraging. The sound of 4 is one of an artist choosing to leave pop radio to the youngins. Instead, the singer is moving into new territories. And whether the sounds on this album are based on the old or racing fearlessly into the new, they are more often than not successful, creating a full-length that is completely worthy of your attention.

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