After a year of lying low, Beyoncé came back guns blazing and her Sasha Fierce hat on with the clanking “Run the World (Girls)” off her aptly titled album 4. While the Major Lazer-sampling single may have redundantly rehashed her faux-feminist message, it at least seemed to be the first shot in experimentation. As rumors of a Sleigh Bells production and Fela Kuti influences abound, hipsters who guiltily listen to her before turning on Radiohead just about passed out and went to Pitchfork heaven. However, the single is a red herring.
Instead of innovation, 4 aims for classic, retro R&B. Instead of frantic messiness, 4 largely satisfies with slow jams. Rather than being a disappointment, many of the songs exhibit a restraint and purity never before seen from Beyoncé. “1 + 1” easily reaches the dramatic heights of Prince ballads. Under glittering guitar strings, Beyoncé poignantly longs for a lover before passionately demanding for him to “make love to me.” After Adele, the song is the purest slice of soul heard in mainstream music in a long time.
Although the song may be titled “Party,” Beyoncé has the bedroom on her mind (“So tonight/I’ll do it every way/Cause knockin’ til the morning light”) with playful ’80s synths and verses from Andre 3000 and Kanye West. From the sounds of it, her marriage with Jay-Z appears just fine.
4 has some duds. “Best Thing I Never Had” rings false as a break-up anthem. “Start Over” meanders and asks to be stopped rather than to start over. “I Was Here,” is the worst offense. Force-fed writer Diane Warren’s most overwrought lyrics yet, Beyoncé sings about wanting to be remembered as a legend. Like the saying goes: show, don’t tell.
The highlights of the album are when she lets a little bit of her Sasha Fierceness out. “End of Time” grooves on a soaring melody of tribal beats and horns. “Countdown” features clattering drums and a playful chorus.
Maybe in retreating from the booty-shaking songs that defined her career, Beyoncé wants to release a classic album. 4 is an adequate attempt. Instead of looking toward the past R&B greats, Beyoncé should look ahead to define her place in music and then, she could finally really say, “I was here.”