"4" does belong in the infamous "transitional" category as a result, but that transition goes smoothly for her even if parts of that audience may find it rough.
Beyoncé has a new album out but you know that already—she’s Beyoncé. Stars come and go, but Beyoncé is positioned to remain popular for the rest of her life. As hard she’s worked to get where she is and as effortlessly as she seems like she’ll stay there, she’s still an artist with an audience and decisions to make about how to manage it. 4 does belong in the infamous “transitional” category as a result, but that transition goes smoothly for her even if parts of that audience may find it rough.
After opening with a slow-paced vocal display, Beyoncé seems poised to explode with energy, but instead continues with several more ballads and love songs. By the halfway mark, the closest thing to “upbeat” comes in the form of “Party,” a light two-stepper with André 3000 and Kanye West that doesn’t quite have the impact that you might expect from this trio of heavyweights. Things pick up again towards the close with “Countdown”—a video-ready number built on a cute Boyz II Men sample—but the decided mode here is “adult contemporary.”
Luckily, though most of 4’s brief track-list is comprised of power-ballads; Beyoncé is better equipped than most to handle that weight. “Best Thing I Never Had” sounds a bit like a jewelry commercial, but should go over well with its intended audience. Meanwhile, “Rather Die Young” is 4’s best foray into grown-up music, channeling Anita Baker-era R&B before Beyoncé pays tribute to Luther over sunny-day synths and finger snaps on “Love on Top.”
There’s something for everyone on 4 but Beyoncé’s desire to crowd-please is ultimately what holds the album back. The Oprah set will respond well to the ballads but might be thrown off by the trendy, disorganized lead single “Run the World (Girls).” Fans of “Girls,” however, might be confused to find it all the way at the end of an album that instead starts with “1 + 1,” a passionate love-song that might normally close it.
In short, Beyoncé commands an audience that’s grown too big and diverse to have a singular taste. Ever the crowd-pleaser, she does her best to make sure no one is left out, but can only split herself so many ways while still giving each her all. 4 doesn’t necessarily stand so well by itself, but as part of the Beyoncé experience, there are enough vehicles here to keep her moving. Eventually, an okay song will become a great video and an amazing live performance, so even if every song doesn’t hit home at first, she’ll get them there eventually—she’s Beyoncé.