On her fourth album, appropriately titled 4, Beyoncé largely eschews the urban-flavored dance pop which has brought her chart success in favor of a ballad-heavy sound with major influences of 70s, 80s and 90s R&B.
From the opening notes of the slow-burning torch ballad “1+1,” it’s evident that 4 is a very different sort of Beyoncé album. While 2008’s I Am…Sasha Fierce also started off slow, that album was intentionally set up to separate the ballads from the dance tracks. 4 is almost completely about the ballads.
Historically, with a few exceptions (“If I Were a Boy” and “Halo”), Beyoncé’s ballads have paled to her dance numbers. Here, though, Beyoncé finally produces ballads that are not only worthy of her vocal ability, but show an energy largely missing on previous offerings. Among the highlights are “I Care,” with its impassioned performance, and “I Miss You,” where Beyoncé’s understated vocals fit with the song’s sense of longing.
If anything, the few songs offered which attempt to break from the ballad formula are the album’s relative weak points. “Party,” which features an engaging rap from André 3000, otherwise is surprisingly devoid of energy considering the title. “Best Thing I Never Had,” the album’s second single, comes off like a piano-driven rehash of previous hit “Irreplaceable.” Unfortunately, “sucks to be you right now” isn’t quite as effective a hook as “to the left, to the left.”
This leaves the album’s one real forward-looking moment (from a musical standpoint, at least), lead single “Run the World (Girls).” The song closes the album, a surprising position in the sequence considering the previous track, “I Was Here,” feels like an album-closing song. It feels like, in part due to the song’s surprising underperformance on the charts, this was simply tacked on to the end. It’s disappointing, because while “Run the World” fits more with Beyoncé’s previous club banger hits, it’s also different enough from both her previous hits and other songs on the radio to suggest the singer could’ve actually mined some more progressive sounds than she ultimately did with the album.
That minor quibble aside, 4 ranks with B’Day as Beyoncé’s strongest effort to date. It’s an encouraging sign to see her break with the pop trends of the day to produce an album that will likely hold up over time with more ease than her previous efforts.