The brilliance and boredom of Beyonce Knowles

R&B’s paramount songstress remains fearless on her fourth release, but it comes at a cost.

Andrew Penkalski

 

Beyoncé âÄî âÄú4âÄù

Label: Columbia Records

Top 40 has witnessed a feminine renaissance in the past several years, and Beyoncé has led this parade towards an all-inclusive approach towards public image since DestinyâÄôs Child began denouncing bugaboos over a decade ago.

Back in 1999, Knowles and company delivered a burst of inspired fresh air amidst the creeping proliferation of Britney Spears and the shallow sea of pop starlets. Knowles was the empowered Gloria Gaynor to SpearsâÄô Sandra Dee sexuality, and it was this diminished focus on a female vocalistâÄôs hyper-sensualized image that now allows Lady Gaga to leave the house in a rainbow of garbage bags or Ke$ha to only shower monthly.

Amidst these transitions, Beyoncé has never wasted opportunities to diversify her persona. From her earliest trumpets of fearless passion on âÄúCrazy In LoveâÄú to the tender-tense personalities of 2008âÄôs âÄúI amâĦ Sasha Fierce,âÄù Beyoncé  has never demonstrated timidity while toying with her creative guises. This persistent confidence is the source for each highlight on the R&B queenâÄôs latest effort, aptly titled âÄú4.âÄù ItâÄôs also the cause for the bulk of its shortcomings.

How âÄúRun The World (Girls)âÄù became plucked as the LPâÄôs lead single is a bit of a head scratcher. The trackâÄôs producer, DJ and M.I.A. collaborator Switch, built a barren dancehall track from little more than a Major Lazer sample âÄî a subtle touch of promotion for one of SwitchâÄôs pet projects. BeyoncéâÄôs brash proclamations carry a dulled oomph when occupying such a vacant space in what ultimately sounds like a misguided re-appropriation of The Beastie BoysâÄô similarly titled ode to juvenile lust.

The decision to promote âÄú4âÄù on the merit of âÄúRun The World (Girls)âÄù wouldnâÄôt be so damn frustrating if the album wasnâÄôt littered with such contrasting gems. Standout track and second single âÄúBest Thing I Never HadâÄù shows BeyoncéâÄôs ability to succeed on honesty over the synthetic, primary-color pallet of her club-ready tracks. The track is one of the albumâÄôs many moments that favors ballad methodology over machine-gun hooks. While the latter form of unbridled passion has long suited Beyoncé, such stylistic digressions towards blind aggression are less focused on âÄú4.âÄù ItâÄôs an album that highlights her ability to howl rather than holler.

ThatâÄôs not to say Beyoncé remains incapable of crawling from beneath the weight of lovelorn subject matter. The Kanye West-produced âÄúPartyâÄú pits double-vision âÄô80s synths against the divaâÄôs breezy cadence. Andre 3000âÄôs dazed bridge âÄî a winding trip of MC precision and pleasure-drenched slipperiness âÄî makes up for the albumâÄôs carefree shortcomings.

There are also the gutsier offerings like the minimally-composed âÄúI Miss You.âÄù Here, her hushed vocal wanderings play in competitive concert with a more emblazoned backing harmony. The drumline-focused âÄúEnd of TimeâÄù may be the albumâÄôs only song that sounds unquestionably Beyoncé.

And even with these consistent and now-expected strides forward, the album could have benefited from a trimming of the more lovelorn fat. Save her 2006 misstep with the unflatteringly catty âÄúRing the Alarm,âÄù Beyoncé has tended to toe the prettier line of progression. While âÄú4âÄù never turns too ugly, it also never charms as strongly as any of her previous work. If âÄúI amâĦ Sasha FierceâÄù was BeyoncéâÄôs radio-friendly approximation toward mad artistry, âÄú4âÄù shows her stabilized rebirth. ItâÄôs just a shame that her brave brand of soulful mania was a technique that should not have left her arsenal.

 

Two and a half out of four stars