In the overlapping worlds of pop and R&B, it’s dance tracks that drive sales. R&B practitioners, both mainstream and underground, have dutifully fallen in line, expanding contemporary soul’s parameters — and bettering their chart position — by injecting a cold shot of European techno.
But Beyoncé Knowles knows that in a post-Marvin Gaye world of committee-scripted piecemeal discs, it’s ballads that make albums. Inspired by Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, as well as several decades of classic American R&B, Queen B’s fourth album finds her looking over her shoulder, cutting back on hip-hop backbeats in favor of complex syncopations and the lithe melodies of classic soul.
Like 2008′s I Am… Sasha Fierce, 4 begins with a knockout slow-burner: “1+1,” a guitar-led torrent of desire that recalls Prince’s cataclysmic “Purple Rain.” Knowles has always been a showy singer, even in her early days with Destiny’s Child. But rather than maximizing on melisma or overdosing on AutoTune, she instead exposes the grain of her voice, emphasizing emotional and physical stain. Chronicling a love that’s grown one-sided, “I Care” is even more agonized: The Neptunes’ Chad Hugo brings a beat that evokes Grizzly Bear‘s falling-down-the-stairs rhythms and compliments the singer’s uphill battle against a lover’s gravity.
More ballads follow, and they’re not happy: Like most of the songs they precede, “I Miss You,” “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Start Over” suggest that Beyoncé’s true self shines through when she’s pushed to an unstable, unsafe space. She’s at her best when she’s so pissed off, so heartbroken, or so certifiably crazy-in-love that she seems to momentarily drop down from the stratosphere to walk with the rest of us mortals. We like it when our empowered, empowering divas take control by losing it, and that’s what this one does throughout.
But it’s not all heartache. There’s a refreshing ease to “Party” — the smooth alliance with Kanye West and André 3000 — and the Aretha-echoing, jaunty romp “Love on Top” that contrasts sharply with the strident horns and martial rhythms of the album’s other uptempo tracks, “Countdown” and “End of Time.” Those curveballs, along with the Major Lazer-inspired “Run the World (Girls),” transcend the matrimonial trials and tribulations that dominate 4‘s deliciously melodramatic first half.
This is Beyoncé’s most ambitious and assured record to date, and its mission statement comes from an unlikely source. Hit-maker Diane Warren has authored more than her share of bloated power ballads, and in its melodic structure, “I Was Here” doesn’t deviate far from her proven formula. But it starts with what sounds like a quote from Brian Eno‘s “In Dark Trees,” and although Beyoncé can’t stop herself from adding a few unnecessary vocal flourishes, there’s plenty of other unexpected quirks in the production, some of them even drawing from indie rock. “I want to leave my footprint on the sands of time,” she sings, and it’s a curious metaphor because successive waves always wipe sands clean. But Beyoncé is her own force of nature, and if there’s any current R&B chart-topper capable of defying natural law, it’s her.