Beyonce, '4': 2.5 stars (out of 4)
Beyonce has paid lip service and more in recent years to broadening her musical range. She’s hung out at indie-rock concerts, and this month she headlined the rock-heavy Glastonbury festival in England. In discussing the run-up to her fourth studio album, “4” (Columbia), she dropped hints about mixing genres like a “mad scientist.”
It’s a dilemma that faces every successful pop artist: When you sell as many records as Beyonce has (11 million albums, 25 million singles), does it box you into repeating formulas to keep the franchise rolling? Or do you gain the license to experiment?
Beyonce at least tried to pry open Door No. 2 on “4.” Instead of radio catnip like “Crazy in Love" and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” she’s made an album heavy on ballads and midtempo tracks. As a singer, Beyonce has never sounded more persuasive or vulnerable. Maybe channeling Etta James in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records” is starting to rub off, but she makes something out of almost nothing on the opening “1 + 1,” as she rasps, swoops and demands before giving way to an elegiac guitar solo.
Beyonce’s been recording professionally for half her life, though she won’t turn 30 until September, and “4” has the feel of an artist looking back and assessing what matters. Love, she concludes, is “all we’ll have when the world is through.”
On “I Care,” she delivers indignation and beauty in equal measure, nearly spitting out her disgust before scatting alongside a guitar. “Best Thing I Never Had” turns near-disaster into a gospel-inflected kiss-off. In between, “I Miss You” arrives as a low-key breather, easily overlooked with its forlorn keyboard and beat-box chintziness.
The latter is emblematic of the album’s inexplicable inconsistency. She reportedly considered 70-plus songs and hired a variety of collaborators, ranging from Babyface to M.I.A. producer Switch, and yet the album feels skimpy, half-finished. Even a song called “Party” really doesn’t sound like one with its tepid tempo and uninspired cameos from Kanye West and OutKast’s Andre 3000. “Rather Die Young” is little more than a chorus on repeat and “I Was Here” is another toxic string of cliches from songwriter-to-the-stars Diane Warren (“I lived, I’ve loved … I did, I’ve done”).
Beyonce finally puts a bounce in her step with the goofy “Love on Top” and
“Countdown,” and “End of Time” mixes boisterous marching drums, staccato horns and dipping, diving vocals. It’s an all-too-brief glimpse of the “mad scientist” at work. Maybe next time she’ll get in the lab with some better songs.
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