ALBUM REVIEW: Beyonce - 4

Beyoncé’s latest album I Am… Sasha Fierce.

B- | 6.28.11 | Columbia | Mog | Stream | MP3 | CD

Beyoncé - "1+1"

Suburban nobody Rebecca Black has proved a pop hit can now be all yours for the low, low price of $4,000. Earlier this year, the link to her insipid music video “Friday” (which was written and produced by Ark Music Factory for the above, meager sum) zipped around the internet at an alarming pace, by way of Facebook status feeds and chat windows. The sensation it caused, however mockery-driven, resulted in a great deal of hand-wringing among the arbiters of taste. Black flared-up the thoroughly American debate Idol reignited ten years ago – egalitarianism vs. elitism. In other words, to paraphrase Pixar’s Ratatouille (which had the same debate as its theme), she raised an oft-repeated question: Can anyone be a pop star?

The answer, of course, is hell no.

Rebecca Black has already (mercifully) returned to obscurity, and the impossibility of a successful career in pop music remains unchanged. Black’s success, such as it was, is only notable as a hyper-realized cautionary tale. Lasting pop stardom is exceedingly rare. Even those who manage to bubble to the top for a handful of years eventually enter the pages of where-are-they-now tabloid features, or even worse, stubbornly remain in the cultural periphery via reality television. Continued relevance in the Top-40 world is a tooth and nail struggle. One mega-single has to follow another, and as time progresses, trends must be anticipated and, when necessary, ignored (this is key). Over the course of her 30-year career, Madonna has become the gold standard of managing this task with aplomb. But she is not alone. For every decade of her dominance, R&B has spawned a close contender. In the 1980s, it was Whitney Houston. In the 1990s, it was Mariah Carey. Today, it is Beyoncé Knowles.

In the taxonomy of 21st-century divas, Beyoncé holds the most enviable title: The Natural. Because she makes it all look so damn effortless, her career frequently gets taken for granted. The epitome of class, she’s not nearly as flashy or trashy as her contemporaries. Lady Gaga, her fiercest competition, is far more ambitious. But Beyoncé doesn’t need to wear a skirt steak to get our attention. Her songs suffice. Counting her Destiny’s Child material (and let’s not fool ourselves, Beyoncé was Destiny’s Child in the same way Diana Ross was the Supremes), her catalog is shaping-up to eclipse those of her aforementioned predecessors. If singles like “Ring the Alarm,” “Get Me Bodied,” and “Check on It” sound second-tier, it’s only because Beyoncé has already recorded out-and-out classics like “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies.” Gaga, sadly, still has a ways to go to catch up with Bey.

Beyoncé’s latest album 4 is neither a return to B’Day’s raucous form, nor a continuation of the unfortunate, loosely conceptual I Am… Sasha Fierce. It seems Beyoncé is attempting to deepen her pop artistry along the lines of Janet Jackson’s underrated masterwork The Velvet Rope. Though it contains a few (mostly flaccid) requisite bumpers, 4’s best moments come at lower BPMs. The great case-in-point is opener “1+1,” in my opinion the finest pop ballad since Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” The already repeated Sam Cooke and “Purple Rain” comparisons are accurate, though beside the point. “1+1” is an achievement unto itself. Beyoncé may not know much about algebra, but taken together, the song’s 3/4-time arpeggios, its tender strings, its howling electric-guitar solo, and most of all Knowles’ splendid vocal performance add up to a smoldering and deeply affecting four-and-a-half minutes. That The-Dream gave this song away is not only insane, but an example of artistic munificence on par with “Because the Night” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Amazingly, the inevitable drop-off in quality that follows “1+1” is not always as dramatic as you would expect. “Start Over” and “I Miss You” hit with an equal wallop, though they don’t leave the same sting. 4’s only notable up-tempo numbers, 70s soul-shake “Love on Top” (which thrillingly climbs key changes like ladder rungs) and the feverish “Countdown” (with a horn-line that apes Kanye’s “All of the Lights”) show Ms. Fierce hasn’t been completely benched. The problem with 4 is not its few middling tracks ("I Care" and "End of Time"), but its lows, which are downright abyssal. I suspect even Vanessa Carlton would wince at the twin bricks of Velveeta also known as “Best Thing I Never Had” and "I Was Here." “Party,” so ho-hum that “pajama” should have modified its title, squanders collaborator André 3000. Dré ought to have been the perfect match for Beyoncé, both well-known for the breakneck pitter-patter of their syncopated vocal gymnastics. Instead, his limp and foul dairy-centered interlude is at best an afterthought. If 4 is a commercial failure, lay the blame on lead-single “Run the World (Girls),” the nadir of Beyoncé’s oeuvre.

I hesitate to fault Knowles and her producers for eschewing a perfunctory remake of Dangerously in Love or B’Day, and can only cheer their rebound from I Am… Sasha Fierce. Their aim, to create a “mature” pop album, is no doubt praiseworthy. But by not delivering on the promise of a “1+1,” they only invite us to imagine the beginning-to-end classic 4 could have been. We’re left to get by with a little help from our friend: the skip button.

Stream: Beyoncé - 4