Saturday, June 25, 2011

Beyonce '4' - Album Review

2011 has been a great year for the pop divas of the music industry: Rihanna and Katy have continued to slut their way to the top of the charts; Britney’s managers have defied all odds and kept her career alive with forced "performances" and remixes; Ke$ha is simply alive; Christina is still allowed to sing live; GaGa finally released her anticipated third album to just as much critical acclaim and commercial success as the controversy surrounding its 99 cent value; and Adele has already solidified herself as the frontrunner for Artist Of The Year by standing still in front of a mic and singing the same song that’s been out since last November. Not one to be threatened by such amateurism, King B had her crown set on 2011 as well. Commoners rejoiced when they learned her album would be released this summer and eagerly awaited for the first single to drop.

Unfortunately, not even her loyal Beyhive could help the flop that was Run The World (Girls). Lukewarm response to the song and video got this era off to a rough start. [Read my review of the song here and Andrew’s thoughts here.] Failed promo singles, too few and too late performances, and the inevitable (3 week) album leak has many in the industry (and fans alike) worried that the buzz surrounding a new album from such a high-profile star is unusually low. Beyonce’s fourth album is rightfully titled 4 --a number that apparently means a lot to her (her birthday, wedding anniversary, Jay’s birthday, the number that didn’t work for Destiny’s Child) --and she has publically addressed that this album means just as much to her.

No longer under the management of her father and with the help of the usual suspects, mainly, Single Ladies-helmed, The-Dream, Beyonce has created an album that’s refreshing, but at the same time familiar for her fans. In interviews, she’s expressed wanting to create a “new genre” of music by combining all of the styles of music she loves. By no means are any of the songs she’s crafted redefining, the obscure productions styles are a different route for the singer. She has named dropped Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson as a few of the artists that inspired her for the writing and recording process. While few of the tracks have the “dazzle” that any of the classics by those two artists have, the retro sound she was going for is evident in most of them.

The album starts off rather unconventional with the soulful ballad, 1 + 1. Right off the bat, it’s noticeable that Beyonce is taking her voice to new heights. Giving us a delivery style that we’re used to hearing from live performances rather than the clean-cut studio versions. “I don’t know much about algebra but I know one plus one equals two” she boldly asserts her lover. 1 + 1 remains rather impressive because of the emotion she conveys and less on a technical level. It won’t be receiving any airplay any time soon but it shows why vocals alone, she is above most of her contemporaries.

Without a doubt, I Care is one of Bey’s best vocals to date. Earnest and convincing, she belts over a slow-thumping beat. At the bridge of the song, Beyonce goes into a falsetto with a near Mariah-like range, further establishing that admiration of her voice is sometimes understated. I Care ends up being one of the stronger slower numbers on the album because of its overall composition. I Miss You has a very serene ambience to it akin to the sound from Alicia Key’s last record, The Element Of Freedom. But for all of the raw, vulnerability in the song, the empty beat doesn’t really go anywhere. Luckily, its short length allows it to end before it becomes too uninteresting. Third song in and you’re probably wondering, where is the club-banger? It should be noted that it doesn’t make its appearance until the 9th track--something many fans won’t be expecting.

From there we get to the most mainstream and commercial ballad on the album, the mid-tempo Best Thing I Never Had penned by Babyface. It’s this albums Irreplaceable only even more confident. “I bet it sucks to be you right now” she croons over a piano-driven beat --lyrics many people can instantly relate to. It’s the album’s 2nd single and has the potential to at least be a Top 20 hit. The old school production via Kanye West saturates the laid back, Party. It has a SWV-vibe about it and features Outkast alum, Andrew 3000, ensuring that Urban radio will eat it up. I can already see my peoples chilling to this one at a summer cookout!

Just when the album starts to find its groove it’s hampered down by mediocre Rather Die Young and Star Over. While the songs have a noticeable mature sound to them they come off as fillers and lack the spark that many of Beyonce’s songs usually have. The ball gets rolling again with Love On Top, a track that has been giving many stans life. A 70’s disco-funk throwback, the upbeat number instantly puts you in a good mood. Where it really excels is the bridge where Bey takes each new refrain to a higher key change. Just when you think she’s reached her peak, she goes for one more and as Andrew would say, it is defining!!!

Countdown is what should have been the first single. It’s the best up-tempo song on the album and succeeds on all levels. Her voice and delivery are on fire and the lyrics are smart and sassy. The hip-hop beat is filled with heavy percussion, lots of horns, and is destined to smash if ever released as a single. It’s so nice to see Beyonce using real instrumentation because with her tone included it gives the songs a much richer sound. End Of Time is another highlight from the album. Think Earth, Wind, and Fire meets Déjà vu. The horn section borrows the themes from MJ's Wanna Be Startin’ Something and it’s here we get that worldly sound Beyonce was has previously referenced. This is one to look out for on tour when she performs it, spread eagle and all.

As with any pop diva, it wouldn’t be an appropriate album without the big, swooping ballad. Beyonce brings in veteran songwriter, Diane Warren for the track I Was Here. Written to be a bigger song than it actually is, the result is a somewhat jaded listening affair. Beyonce makes a statement to let the world know that she’s lived and loved, but Ryan Tedder’s clichéd production is too drab to really care what she is singing about. The set closes with Run The World and it’s an odd placement considering it seems completely unnecessary within the framework of the album.

The best comparison for 4 is her self-titled album, Dangerously In Love. Dismiss the up-tempo songs from that album and much of is standard contemporary R&B. 4 is more a sophisticated version of that album, but without the radio-friendly smashes. Fans of the 1st disc of I Am...Sasha Fierce will pleased to know that that slower tempo and more mellow tracks on 4 are much less mundane, but will be slightly disappointed by the lack of real dance floor burners. The deluxe edition tracks may fill that void. It was reported that Beyonce recorded 70+ songs for this album and it kind of raises a question to what were all of the other songs like. While true, the material on this record is of more substance than her earlier work showing her growth as an artist, the problem lies in its stagnant production.

Overall, it’s a solid record and most tracks stand strong on their own, but even they aren’t memorable enough to warrant higher praise. 4 encompasses a lot of what makes a Beyonce album a Beyonce album which is why she sits above the rest of her R&B peers, but it’s that very reason that might hurt the album. Beysus continues to show why she is force to be reckoned with on stage, now it’s just time for her to demonstrate this within an album again. With that being said, your faves could never.

3 ½ out of 5 Wigs Snatched

Definitely Download:
I Care
Best Thing I Never Had
Love On Top
End Of Time

Available June 28th!

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