News circulated this week that execs at Columbia, Beyonce's record label, were scrambling to cover their assets ahead of a dawning realization that the diva's fourth album might be a dud. "They're very nervous about Beyonce's new record," an insider told the New York Post. "It doesn't have the hit songs that her fans are used to. They asked her to make changes, but she said no." There's even talk of reassembling Destiny's Child in a desperate bid to sacrifice a cash cow before the end of the fiscal year.
Fans, as always, should pay no attention to the moneychangers' wringing of hands. If a record label is nervous, in fact, pay attention; it's probably worth it. Sure, Beyonce's first new single, "Run the World (Girls)," was a left-turn shocker for fans -- that bleating Major Lazer sample, the skittering island rhythms and too-fast, too-furious dancefloor gambit -- but it's not wholly indicative of the new album, which is built largely on something else that's not necessarily been B's strongest suit: smooth and solid balladry.
If anything, "4" has more in common with "21."
Adele's "21," which topped the charts throughout much of the spring, is a torchy breakup album, laden with belting, bawling and the hellish fury that comes from a young woman scorned. Beyonce is 29 and married, but she's already lived a lifetime. Ten years into a monolithic solo career, after Beyonce Knowles lead Destiny's Child to the top, she's a 16-time Grammy winner, a movie star and half of the hottest power couple in showbiz. She doesn't have to be defiant. She can relax now, and on "4" she wisely does, ruminating over relationships without firm verdicts -- she's confused, conflicted, very human. "If I got with you, would it feel the same?" she asks in "I Miss You," a moving wisp of a song (co-written by rising Odd Future star Frank Ocean) that purrs with emotions as contradictory and reluctant as its puttering beats and slow, sighing synths.
The music of "4" is often this subtle and surprising, certainly more creative. Front-loaded with cool keyboards and easygoing melodies in the first half, then marching through a Caribbean parade at the end, "4" smacks of an artist with clout casting about for fresh inspiration but ultimately doing what she wants and not letting a record label dictate many artistic decisions (thus the panic now).
She recently told Billboard about her fishing expeditions while making this album: "I recorded more than 60 songs: everything I ever wanted to try, I just did it. I started off being inspired by Fela Kuti [Nigerian pioneer of Afrobeat music]. I actually worked with the band from [the musical] 'Fela!' for a couple of days, just to get the feel for the soul and heart of his music; it's so sexy and has a great groove you get lost in. I loved his drums, all the horns, how everything was on the one. What I learned most from Fela was artistic freedom: he just felt the spirit. I also found a lot of inspiration in '90s R&B; Earth, Wind & Fire; DeBarge; Lionel Richie; Teena Marie ... I listened to a lot of Jackson 5 and New Edition, but also Adele, Florence + the Machine, and Prince. Add in my hip-hop influences, and you can hear how broad it is."
Broad, indeed, and definitely dabbling, but showcasing less of a split personality than the silly marketing distractions of her manufactured alter-ego, the not-missed Sasha Fierce. Here we're back to the Beyonce of "B'day" -- lean, lithe and not always the woman you demand her to be. From the opening, "1 (Plus) 1," she establishes a tension that remains taut throughout much of the record; her vocals are urgent, backing off ("Don't know much about algebra," she sings, glancing at Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World") and begging ("Make love to me!"), all while the music stays steady and soft, barely more than a few piano chords and a baseline Coldplay-in-Africa plucked guitar riff. The music tames her savage beast, and love conquers all: "Just when I ball up my fist I realize that I'm laying right next to you."
The push and pull continues through mostly mid-tempo treats, many of which try a little sonic experimentation thanks to a varied bunch of forward-thinking writers and producers, such as the Neptunes' Chad Hugo on the sad but superb "I Care," with palpitating beats and lone synth note underneath, and Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele co-producing the heavy drums and definite Earth, Wind & Fire influence of "Rather Die Young." "Party" is a breezy get-together, accented with scooping, gliding multi-tracked harmonies that almost make moot the idea of a Destiny's reunion. The song features Andre 3000 and writing/production from Kanye West, but it's so laid-back you'd never guess.
"4" starts moving near the end, picking things up with the cheery Jackson-esque pop-disco song "Love on Top," then careening into an ethnic club for "Countdown" (staccato horns and steel drums, and a literal count backwards as if it were the 10 days of clubland) and "End of Time" (more rigorous martial beats, like a New Orleans second line). It all careens into the preposterous noisy squall of "Run the World (Girls)," which alienates fans and harasses hipsters in the same breath and is a heckuva way to end an otherwise relaxed, personal set showcasing a diva's softer side.