Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Album Review: Beyoncé - "4"

Sometimes the most popular people really are the coolest. While paint-by-numbers lothario Trey Songz, Eurotrash rap-singer Taio Cruz, and popular convict Chris Brown continue to go through the motions, hip-hop/R&B's true leaders remain restlessly innovative. In a trend reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder's rebellion against Berry Gordy's iron-fisted grip on the Motown sound in the early '70s, today's titans (and especially titanesses) have evolved from boardroom-controlled automatons to truly unique artists.

Five years ago, Rihanna sampled Soft Cell and was distinguished primarily by her lack of singing ability. Today, she's putting out S&M-themed videos and belting with the best of them on songs like "Only Girl (In the World)." I've made plain my appreciation for both Drake and Kanye West - and, to be fair, they were pretty cool to begin with - but they've only improved (and gotten weirder) with age.1

Beyoncé, diva though she's always been, has lagged behind slightly album-wise. The girl's always put out great singles ("Single Ladies," "Ring the Alarm," "Irreplaceable," "Crazy in Love", "Halo"), but her irritating habit of sounding like Celine Dion from time to time kept her full-lengths back from greatness.

With its consummate balance of fun and maturity, 4 is far and away Ms. Knowles' best record and a piece of work that cements her status as the diva to beat.2

4 opens with what may be the album's strongest song, the towering, absurdly catchy "1+1," a masterstroke that somehow manages to be both a Sam Cooke tribute and a sequel to "Halo" ("I don't know much about algebra" is sung over sky-high synths and soaring strings rather than the polite arpeggios of Cooke's "Wonderful World")."I Care" and "Start Over," two of the album's other big ballady-types, aren't quite so stirring, but only because "1+1" is so dominantly great.

You like it -> Ring on it. Obvi.
"1+1" is a mission statement of sorts, presaging both the album's balance between homage and innovation and the fact that Beyoncé is going to sing her butt off on this thing. Jennifer Hudson may have blown her out of the water when the two costarred in Dreamgirls, but I have a hard time thinking Beyoncé couldn't hold her own today.

Elsewhere, Knowles demonstrates her continued ability to have a good time on record rather than just say she's having a good time ("Friday," anyone?). "Party" is a slice of sublime, MJ-influenced pop, with a great Kanye West beat and an even better verse from Andre 3000, who thankfully seems to have come to his senses and gotten back to rapping. His wordplay still dominates: "And that they fell in love with rap/Black like havin’ your cousin back/Blue like when that rent is due/Cream like when I’m lovin’ you."

"Countdown" weirdly juxtaposes a Boyz II Men sample with the eponymous countdown - in atonal robot-speak, naturally - but works anyway. "Love on Top" continues the MJ lovefest, right down to Beyoncé's pronunciation of the word "stars," and it happens to be catchier than anything Jackson himself produced in the last decade of his career.

4 isn't an unqualified success. Knowles hasn't entirely escaped her strange Dion-worship, and the Diane Warren-penned "I Was Here" is just as turgid and corny as you'd expect from the writer of "Because You Loved Me" and "Music of My Heart." Bleh. And second single "Best Thing I Never Had" doesn't pull off its Bruce Hornsby homage nearly as well as Bon Iver did, and ends up sounding somewhere between a Vanessa Carlton song and an ad for Invisalign.

Mostly, though, 4 is tremendous, melodramatic fun. And, most importantly, it sets the tone rather than merely conforming to it. You go, girl.

1 This isn't true of, say, modern rock, unless you think Seether and Train are at the top of their class creatively.
2 The Roxy Music-inspired cover art doesn't hurt, either.