I bought Beyoncé’s deluxe edition of “4” from Target on Wednesday and about halfway through, I had to stop the CD. (Yes, I resorted to dinosaur technology, but I couldn’t wait until I got home and it’s now on my iPod) Not out of frustration or because I didn’t like it. I was just overwhelmed by how good it was; how different it was from anything I’ve heard in years, possibly since Lauryn Hill’s album. Just like “Miseducation” it was a fearlessly recorded album with little or no regard for things like “radio-friendly” tracks. Lauryn’s songs were played on the radio, but they were vastly different from all the crap being played before and after her singles (Have you really listened to those background vocals? That attention to composition was incredible) and it was obvious when she recorded them radio play wasn’t really on her mind–just making music. Beyoncé, a 16-time Grammy winner, brings that same veracity for the craft and catharsis of performance to her latest album, which is expected to be the #1 album in 14 countries without even getting a top 10 spot on Billboard.
I understand why critics have touted the concept, while shying away from actually saying if it’s good or not because nothing out there sounds anything like it. The sound on the previous three albums was one popularized by Beyoncé, but it had a generic quality that was beneath her talents. But that’s what people would rather hear because they’re used to it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those albums, but I always knew she was holding back. Sometime during her year off, which can be seen in the mini-documentary “Year of 4,” she realized the same.
The sounds in “4” samples heavily from the 1970s and the 1980s, but doesn’t completely rip off the time periods by taking a modern twist. The track “Party” makes you want to get in a time machine and go back to the 80s when house parties were almost on the same level as a hip club and everything seemed a little more laid back. There are showy ballads, like “1+1,” “I Was Here” and “Start Over.” As opposed to her last album, which was full of anthemic dance tracks, this one only has a couple (and they’re not really dance tracks), namely “Love on Top,” “Party” and “Schoolin’ Life” (a bonus track on the deluxe edition).
This isn’t a complete deviation from the Beyoncé we’ve seen in the past. She’s still got her gritty-southern gangster side in “Countdown” (Me and my boo in/my boo coupe riding”), her vulnerable side in “I Miss You” (“I still need you/why is that?”), her sassy side rears its head in “I Care” (“I know you don’t care too much/but I care”) and her sexy side (“I’ll give it all away/just don’t tell nobody tomorrow”). But she’s doing it without worrying so much about how others want her music to be and focusing solely on what she wants it to be.
I wouldn’t call the album perfect. Some of the lyrics don’t flow too well and a few of the beats are all over the place, but with such a great voice, she can pull it off where others would have failed.
Just like Rihanna needed “Rated R” as a way to transition into the next phase in her life, Beyoncé needed this album. But it came off way better than Rihanna’s, serving more as a beacon of light for any artist who’s been afraid to make their own musical path. It seems that Beyoncé needed this album to show the world she could really made a mark doing something other than making you dance at the club or helping you get over a break-up. Like she croons in her ballad “I Was Here”: “I just want them to know/that I gave my all, did my best.”