If ever there were a conclusive argument against the focus group approach to making pop music, it’s laid bare with ‘Run the World (Girls),’ the first single from Beyoncé’s handily-titled fourth album, 4. In theory, the single should have been a surefire hit: it borrows the irresistible dancehall beat and hook from Major Lazer’s ‘Pon De Floor,’ features Switch and The-Dream behind the mixing board and advances the same sort of non-committal girl power that has earned the Texan singer a smash single every couple of years like clockwork since ‘Bills, Bills, Bills.’ Only one problem: it’s crap.
Beyoncé has never sounded comfortable (or even competent) when presented with a grittier urban track, as the previous album’s embarrassing ‘Diva’ testifies, and it’s hard not to laugh when she starts dropping f-bombs and n-words while reminding us she’s “all hood with this.” More to the point, her more discerning fans may finally have become weary of the delicate fence-sitting Beyoncé operates in that warped headspace between self-confident feminism and ring-hungry damsel-in-distressery. It’s placed almost apologetically as the last of the 12 tracks, though the abiding sense is that it was intended to open the album.
As it happens, another The-Dream production raises the curtain in far more convincing fashion. ‘1+1’ is a sultry production in the vogue of Purple Rain-era Prince, opening with a simple picked chord progression and swimming on Bey’s dexterous falsetto leaps. Lyrically it’s a trainwreck, as we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé, offering up this special gem: “I don’t know much about algebra, but I know 1+1=2.” In that context, perhaps “much” is even a generous overstatement. The science nerd in me would suggest the more accurate (though slightly homophobic) alternative XX+XY=2, though it would be difficult to sew into the narrative.
Perhaps chastened by the uninterested reaction to ‘Run the World (Girls),’ the record is as ballad-focused as Beyoncé has recorded. ‘I Care’ mines similar territory to ‘1+1,’ though the screaming ‘80s metal guitar solo is more Celine Dion than Prince. Second single ‘Best Thing You Never Had’ is a welcome departure, calling to mind Meat Loaf’s turn-of-the-90s material with dramatic mock-Steinman piano strokes. Beyoncé is one of the few singers of the modern pop crew with the chops to channel Meat Loaf and Whitney Houston in successive songs, but she pulls it off with consummate grace, despite the rather clumsy attempt to turn the complimentary line “you turned out to be the best thing I never had” into an insult.
‘Party,’ featuring Andre 3000 of Outkast and production from Kanye West, is as the name suggests the first club track on the album, though early promise soon fades with dull verses and an uncharacteristically lazy rap from Dre. ‘I Miss You’ and ‘End of Time’ are typical R&B filler, but their sequencing on the album kills the momentum built up by the preceding tracks. The latter spoils the sumptuous flow from ‘Countdown,’ a playful dancefloor filler which flies on a chorus evocative of Sign ‘o’ the Times’ very best pop hooks.
4 is an unusually proscriptive title for the album as it neatly sums up the situation: it is, for all intents and purposes, just another Beyoncé album. It’s highly melodic, the songwriting is generally good, Beyoncé’s vocals are outstanding throughout, but as ever it lets itself down simply by being just good enough. The standout tracks she strives for are too few, but it’s yet another good Beyoncé album that will satisfy most fans without really electrifying anyone’s senses. That’s why it will top the year-end sales list regardless of whether it produces the monster hit on which the label’s been banking, but for an artist who desperately wants to produce a great album, Beyoncé has still to deliver on her boundless self-belief.