Wednesday, August 17, 2011

4 (Beyonce) (2011)

The Good Grief

In the field of psycho-analysis, we’re told of the four varying levels of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. One step may not strictly follow another in a certain order but in the maelstrom of emotions involved, all four cycles will be completed. One can argue as well that everyone is perpetually in one of these states but the process can only be fully appreciated after it is completed. That sense of completion comes through strongly on 4, the new album by Beyonce Knowles, former Destiny’s Child singer aka Mrs. Jay Z.

Hers is a career that has focused on huge achievements (Grammys, Billboard hits, ect) but none more culturally-relevant than that point in 2003 when she surpassed Jennifer Lopez as the ‘it’ girl of pop music with the release of her solo debut (Dangerously In Love). If that was the bargaining step of her career then it did not come without blows; many felt Knowles through her family involvement had ditched Destiny’s Child to selfishly pursue her own motives. The hits came but outside of Jay Z and NARAS (the Grammy organization) few felt an emotional connection to her. Then came B’day, her sophomore album that explored themes of backlash. It’s her anger meme but with some brilliant and wry tracks like Ring the Alarm and Irreplaceable. B’day did also start to see her tie concepts together with a little black humor---which, often times than not, makes for her best songs (Sugar Mama, Freakum Dress).

By the time I am…Sasha Fierce rolled around the playing field had shifted with the rise of ‘dark-side-of-the-force clones’ Rihanna and Lady Gaga. The album had a monster hit in Single Ladies (Put A Ring on It) but the pretentiousness involved only reinforced a sense of denial: she was no longer queen by might alone.

4 thus is her acceptance that she’s in a different space in her career now. Whereas her music before felt aggressively defending turf and ambition, here she mellows nicely in reflection. At first when I learned that she submitted seventy-two (72) tracks for the album, I felt it was more an egocentric ploy but hearing her cite Fela Kuti and Stevie Wonder as main influences made me realize that she was serious.

And there are great moments of raw emotion here: 1+1 showcases her vocals in its purest form, without any stylistic tricks or heavy padding. It’s the type of song one imagines she warm ups to in front of the mirror before going onstage to belt out the real gems, but here it ends up being a solid highlight. The piped in guitars and atmospherics chime in at just the right levels and Knowles—never one to pull back from excess—surrenders to the moment with ease. When she sings the line, ‘darling/ you got enough/ for the both of us/ so, come on baby/ make love to me…’, it is not mere recognition that her man has strayed but more acceptance that he is not perfect. I Care is a slow tempo groove that, while not quite sexed up to Aaliyah-like levels, rocks its slick production brilliantly. Knowles growls, purrs & throws her tightly-wound format out and, towards the end, when you seemingly hear the horns pipe in, you suddenly realize that it’s her humming a few lines instead. It is a stunning, reflexive gesture…one that puts her in an unprecedented angle of vulnerability. The standout though is Love on Top and its breezy, early-90s r&b killer hooks to accompany her vocal longing. I’ve never heard Beyonce get so lost in a song, for such an extended period.

These three songs demonstrate the real depth she keeps in reserve or, perhaps more precisely, hidden from us. I’m not sure the reason for this but no doubt there is heavy calculation done by her PR team. The other songs are hit and miss concepts: I Miss You is at times gorgeous but never pushes beyond her comfort zone. Best Thing I Never Had feels like a hit but retreads to much into Irreplaceable territory to blast forward into transcendence. Party achieves the impossible: Beyonce bringing the brilliance (except the ‘hey, hey’ chorus which is just annoying) but somehow Andre 3000 can’t hit his part out of ballpark. Rather Die Young is a good Mariah Carey impersonation, which in its own way is a huge problem unto itself.

Her vocals are gorgeous but still, at this stage of her career, it’s alarming how the goal-post continues to shift for Knowles in terms of inspiration. She’s era-less one minute then sultry the very next. Within the niche between these alternating states lies the best of her effort here. That includes the frustrating inconsistency that has been a hallmark of her career. To its credit though, 4 does seem to reveal the final, most personal side of her as an artist and human being. It’s a heady mix of strength and vulnerability…the only tools any artist needs to emerge as a musical icon. Up to now, we’ve had our doubts that beneath the public image there was something really tender and likable about Beyonce Knowles but, with all its flaws and all, 4 will come to be the album that we’ll remember as the first step of her career as an important soul singer, fit to be mentioned alongside her contemporaries.

RATING: 7/10

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