Beyonce - 4 (2011)

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    Sixteen Grammys, six film roles, millions in CD sales, multiple hits and global recognition as a person and performer -- all before the age of 30.  Beyonce has accomplished what many dream about: indisputable wealth, fame and stardom.

    After a while , however, success can become a double-edged sword, because as popular as this one-woman-Diva-Starter-Kit is, foes and fans alike began wondering if the otherwise ambitious entertainer had started to…well…. phone it in. Her third CD, 2008’s I Am….Sasha Fierce, sold millions of copies and inspired a slew of YouTube renditions due to its inescapable single, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” but many became convinced  that Beyonce was sinking into complacency, too comfortable with a proven formula to change or just too lazy---or afraid--- to stretch her boundaries. She and her Destiny’s Child-era fans are aging and taking it to the next phase as adults, so why keep releasing songs that hover between catchy and childish? Shouldn’t a rich and sophisticated globetrotter explore more in-depth subject matter lyrically than hot thugs (“Video Phone”), dropping it in the club (“Single Ladies…”) and ballads with all the depth of a kiddie pool (“Hello”)? True artists experiment and evolve in their careers, and for some, Beyonce simply hadn’t.

    Until now. Taking a page from The Book of Janet, Beyonce severed professional ties with her manager- father, Mathew Knowles, stepped away from the industry and allowed herself to absorb different cultures and musical influences. The title she’s given her latest studio release, 4, turns out to be a deceptively simple one, given all of the edginess and complexity of the contents therein.

    One of the project’s several producers, Ne-Yo, proclaimed months ago that the music on-deck was “another direction for her….In a minute nobody will be in Beyoncé’s lane.” Does this mean that she’s abandoned her signature sound and created a new flavor altogether? Not quite. But what Ms. Knowles has accomplished is combining a variety of styles (classically-composed R&B, electro-styled pop and flashes of old-school soul, with a twist of hip-hop), a who’s who of collaborators (Babyface, The Dream, Diane Warren, Tricky Stewart and Switch, to name a few) and noticeably matured vocals and lyrics, displaying the eclecticism and self-assured swagger that ….Sasha Fierce attempted, but didn’t quite pull off.

    Instead of swinging wildly between the typical  extremes---“empowered Amazon” or “jilted victim”---- Ms. Knowles displays  impressive range, emoting throat-tightened vulnerability in “I Care” as she accuses a cruel lover, over a desolate, drum-driven back beat, of enjoying her misery: “I told you how you hurt me Baby, but you don’t care/now I’m crying and deserted Baby, but you don’t care/ Can’t nobody tell me this is love, you’re immune to all my pain.” “Start Over” could’ve been a soggy ballad, but Ms. Knowles’ delivery is a heady mixture of stoicism and strength:  “I can see that we’re not happy here/So why would we keep pretending when there’s nothing there/Maybe you like it, but I don’t/Maybe you’ll settle, well I won’t.” “Best Thing I Never Had” is the closest she comes to “Irreplaceable,” thanking a loser for the “the gift of goodbye”: “When I think of the time that I almost loved you, you showed your *** and I saw the real you/ Thank God you blew it, I thank God I dodged a bullet, I’m so over you, so good looking out.”

    In spite of 4 being a ballad-heavy collection, there are some engaging up-tempos in the mix: there’s the brassy and ‘boughetto’ Boyz II Men-sampler, “Countdown,” the effusive “Love On Top,” a track that recalls Jonathan Butler’s “Lies” and provides one of her most exhilarating performances to date; and even the most gansta of hip-hoppers won’t be able to resist “Party,” a Consequence and Kanye West brainchild with Andre 3000 that borrows a classic (Slick Rick’s and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di”) to anchor Beyonce’s tangy harmonies about a “one night only” invitation to paradise: “I told my girls you can get it, don’t slow it down, just let it flow….I’ll give it all away, just don’t tell nobody tomorrow/ So tonight, I’ll do it every way….knockin’ til’ the morning light. Cuz’ we like to parTAY….”

    There are still moments that irritate: “Rather Die Young” is too sappy for its own good, and the CD's first single, “Run the World (Girls)” takes her in a bold direction, but is awkwardly executed. “1+1” is hindered by Beyonce’s disorganized and self-conscious delivery, and its stylistic opposite, “I Was Here,” is too low-key to have its intended impact. But those stumbling blocks can be overlooked since 4 accomplished its goal: expanding Beyonce’s skill set into new territory while retaining her appeal and individuality in the process. Highly Recommended.

    By Melody Charles

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