In her latest, Beyonce tries on new hats while relying on old tricks
RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer
3 out of 5 stars
Fans might be scratching their heads with Beyonce’s new album, 4. Where is the explosive power? What is it with all these ballads? But she might be having the last laugh. Her fourth solo album (duh) might not have as many potential hit singles, but by dabbling with different formulas she delivers a respectable package — or at least a fascinating one.
Beyonce has proved she can churn out major pop and R&B hits that are smart, fun and have a certain sass, but she holds back big time on 4, setting a mellower tone with a collection of slower tempo tunes.
She croons old-school on the opener “1+1,” her foray into deeper soul. The song is elegant and a surprise, but the second track, “I Care,” makes a far stronger impression. The more mid-tempo ballad is restrained in her verses, but goes way lush in her chorus. The build-up to an emotive guitar solo feels a tad Michael Bolton-ish, but pulls back to a definitive groove.
Beyonce slyly fuses her R&B vocals over an ambient electronica beat on “I Miss You.” Is it weird this recalls Haddaway’s 1993 song by the same name? She smartly works with the tune to offer the song as a package rather than showing off her voice and results in a lovely moment. Why she has to rhyme I miss you/like every day/wanna be wichu/but you’re away is beyond me. We get it, B — you’re street and glam.
We’re already getting the impression that she’s given the album a top-heavy atmosphere of ballads that might lose listeners, then comes “Best Thing I Never Had,” co-written by Babyface, which doesn’t dispel this. The pace is picked up slightly but the song recalls those overly polished ‘80s “soul” hits found on lite radio stations (echoed later with “Rather Die Young” and “Love on Top”). She’s channeling her Patti Austin-Regina Belle with cheesy background choruses and keyboards. Let’s not discuss the Dianne Warren penned “I Was Here,” which is ready for movie montages and hackneyed trailers.
Sometimes I wondered if Beyonce was trying to get into some serious soul a la Leela James or Sharon Jones, but kept missing the mark with these smoothed-out tunes that don’t lend much to her attempts. With previous ballads like “Halo,” “Listen” or “Irreplaceable,” we could hear her distinct voice — literally and figuratively. Here, she gets lost and although she’s co-written most of her songs, there’s not a unique sense of the diva.
As if she realized that, she pumps up the jam in the final quarter of the 12-song collection. There’s a relief when the beat-heavy “Countdown” hits at track no. 9. Although disjointed, it’s a welcome reprieve from all her emoting. She does far better with her immediate follow-up “End of Time,” by which time she seems obsessed with drumline beats. She’s pulled it since Destiny’s Child with “Breathe” and most recently with “Single Ladies,” but the horns and that Beyonce swagger we’re used to recall the infectious sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”
She weirdly placed “I Was Here” in between the happening upbeat songs and kills the mood. But she closes out with her misfired hit “Run the World (Girls).” Again with the military beats, the song didn’t take the world by storm like she probably hoped, but it puts the energy of the album in overload. I couldn’t stand hearing it at award shows or Oprah’s farewell, but after mellowing out for over half an hour, the song saves the album, ending it with a bang. The girl-power message seems passé but that doesn’t make it less fun.
I applaud Beyonce’s efforts not to deliver the obvious. Face it: We all want another “Crazy in Love,” but instead, she opted to stick to her guns and try something new, even if some of it sounded like it was three decades old. Despite its stumbles and confusing paths, 4 could be the one album we look to as her most daring. •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.