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How’s this for an understatement: Beyoncé’s fourth album finds her hollering, “I care.” That’s like a hurricane saying, “I blow.” Beyoncé doesn’t merely care! Her essence trembles with feeling! She seizes with emotion! Her voice flutters with the intensity of a hummingbird! She brims with the creativity that could fill half a dozen albums in the time given to create one (she reportedly delivered a whopping 72 tracks to Columbia in advance of 4). Caring is something you do while sitting on your ass, and we’re talking about a woman who put “bootylicious” in the dictionary by doing virtually everything but sitting.
Beyond these indications, the words “I care” come off as oversimplified because of the force behind them, a torrent of gut and throat. In the face of this ironic delivery, you may wonder if words alone could even describe the inner workings of the storm that is Beyoncé, anyway. Her lyrics are, after all, the most ordinary facet of her output—boxy vessels to get her from point A to point stratosphere.
“I Care” is one of several 4 songs in which deceptive calm gives way to intensity-cum-chorus. Clearly, she will not be contained. She builds tracks like jack-in-the-boxes being wound slowly until out pops Sasha Fierce, her wild-eyed, wild-haired, flying man-eater of an alter ego. Last year, Bey told Allure that she had “killed” Sasha “because I’ve grown and now I’m able to merge [Sasha and Beyoncé].” The result is as volatile as smashing atoms.
On 4, the ballads bang (even the Dianne Warren–penned weepie “I Was Here” knocks harder than anything on 4‘s bloated predecessor, I Am … Sasha Fierce) and the up-tempos clang. The faster songs possess a Fela Kuti influence that she translates into a marching-band aesthetic reminiscent of Destiny’s Child’s 2004 hit “Lose My Breath.” They’re passé in the best way possible—they are mini-parades.
Other references are just as unfashionable. Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” provides one in the tangled collection of hooks that is the whirlwind career highlight “Countdown.” Martika’s “Love, Thy Will Be Done,” is conjured in the Frank Ocean–written “I Miss You,” which boasts a sound design of ambient synths that expand and contract as they progress through their chords, maintaining an even level of intensity throughout. The mid-tempo “Party” sounds right out of the S.O.S. Band’s catalog (its plodding tempo is the only thing that lets you know she isn’t quoting a particularly poetic, desperately meth-seeking craigslist m4m ad: ” ‘Cause tonight/I’ll do it every way/Speakers knocking till the morning light/’Cause we like to party”). “Love on Top” bops around on the easy listening/easier dancing boogie vibe of Raydio’s “Can’t Change That” and New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man”; before it ends, it has ecstatically, hyperactively changed keys half a dozen times.
None of this is cool, per se, thus it all suits Beyoncé. No generation’s King Diva has ever been cool (certainly not in temperament, but also because of the constraints of popularity), and she isn’t one for innovation. She is an executor, and that’s why she can get away with replicating Lorella Cuccarini’s performance art or making an album that, despite all the huffing and puffing, is little more than a snapshot of one woman mid-evolution. (It’s the sonic equivalent of a mountain made from a molehill.) Beyoncé’s art is delivery, and 4 is a gorgeous frame for her voice at its absolute best.
Bey’s lack of coolness is why the pseudo-edgy sampling of Major Lazer in 4‘s failed first single, “Run the World (Girls),” rang false (and why Kanye West’s dorky “Party” pun—”You got the swag sauce, you drippin’ Swagu”—feels about right). “(Girls)” is no more informed or activistic than I Am …‘s first single, “If I Were a Boy,” but at least it’s frolicking in femininity as opposed to wondering, “How much is that penis in the window?” (Evolution is evolution!) Similarly progressive, “Best Thing I Never Had” isn’t as iconic as its reference point “Irreplaceable,” but nor is it as shady. Reducing her sneering, Bey takes the opportunity of a failed relationship to count her blessings (“Thank God you blew it/Thank God I dodged a bullet”). Optimism is helium in 4‘s balloon.
Really, 4 is about joy, and that may prove too much for people who expect our R&B stars to be tortured at least some of the time, who expect life’s lemons to produce sourness instead of lemonade. Few know the details of Beyoncé’s private life, and sadness is relative, but the perception that Beyoncé has had it easy, and thus doesn’t carry the scars to make her authentically soulful, is not an unpopular one. Mary J. Blige, as good of a Bey counterpoint as any, once griped, “There’s no school for organic,” in reference to Bey’s supposedly smooth path and its effect. But if happiness is at the root of Beyoncé’s soul, 4 could be just as much her truth as My Life was Mary’s.
And why shouldn’t 4 find Beyoncé enamored with life? This multimillionaire was well rested when she started recording this thing, having come off a multi-month break; by virtue of the fact that she’s one of the most famous women in the world, her will alone is a force. Girls don’t run the world, but you can see how a woman of Beyoncé’s stature and with her justified self-interest could make that mistake.
But then she’s a tricky one; a few gasps before she assumes de facto world domination, she talks about her place on earth in the most uncertain of terms: “I Was Here” finds her longing to “leave my mark so everyone will know I was here,” as if she hadn’t already accomplished that a decade ago. The way her voice gnaws at this song till it bleeds might make you wonder if her joy comes from within or if it’s dependent on approval from without. But this question only comes up in the fleeting moments that her joy isn’t overwhelming your senses, rendering the distinction irrelevant.