Beyonce isn’t known for her subtlety. She approaches her music with the nuanced attack of a sledgehammer, singing with a throaty, supersized voice and morphing into her alter ego, Sasha Fierce, whenever her ambitions get too big for one persona. Who cares if she stands 5 feet 6 inches? The girl is larger than life.
On “4,” her fourth album as a solo artist, Beyonce attempts to rein herself in. She drops the Sasha Fierce doppelganger and focuses on ballads, saturating the album with mid-tempo tracks about love and vulnerability. Even “Party,” which sports a cameo by Andre 3000 and lyrics about “music knockin’ ‘til the morning light,” sounds more like a funky slow jam than a club banger.
At the end of the day, though, Beyonce can’t help but overdo it. She originally wrote 72 songs for the album, overwhelming the Columbia Records execs charged with whittling her material down to a concise tracklist, and she takes a similar approach to her lengthy list of producers and co-writers. The liner notes read like a lengthy “who’s who” of contemporary music, running the gamut from Diane Warren (who wrote “I Was Here,” the only track not attributed to three or more composers) to hip-hop titan Kanye West. More than 20 others receive credit on the remaining songs.
Yet the more cluttered the playing field, the more Beyonce stands out as a unique ringleader. She excels at everything big and bombastic, and she finds ways to inject her amped-up Beyonce-isms into even the slowest of songs. She howls along with the guitar solo in “I Care,” tracing every interval with her voice, and follows the beautiful, understated verses of “Rather Die Young” with an unexpectedly full-throated chorus.
There’s a reason that 2008’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” sparked the biggest dance craze this side of the Macarena, and it wasn’t because the choreography was easy to mimic. It was the bizarreness of the whole thing, the straight-faced exaggeration of the dance moves, the way Beyonce treated her lascivious dance steps as though they were Bob Fosse routines. And you know what? It worked.
“4” is no different. Beyonce mixes up an odd brew of ‘80s-flavored R&B, gutsy pop balladry and neo-Afrobeat, and she gulps the whole thing down with a self-satisfied smirk, seemingly suggesting that if you don’t like the taste, it’s your loss.
“4” may be hard to swallow at points, but its wacky moments are the reason Beyonce still stands out in an industry flooded with self-empowered female singers. Move over, Lady Gaga - there’s a new freak in town.
Horses and High Heels
When years of hard living have decimated your voice, the only thing standing between you and retirement is the guts to dream up an entirely new way of performing. Frank Sinatra developed an elastic delivery, playing with rhythm and timing during the final stage of his career. Levon Helm turned to rural folk music after recovering from throat cancer, singing songs that were as weathered as his own vocal cords.
Marianne Faithfull, her lilting alto now transformed into a masculine, rough-hewn baritone, has lived one of the most checkered lives in rock ‘n’ roll. She’s been a folk singer, an addict, a longtime partner of Mick Jagger and the supposed inspiration behind many songs, from the Hollies’ “Carrie Anne” to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” On “Horses and High Heels,” she’s a whiskey-soaked torch singer, crooning elegant songs in a voice that’s deeper than those of many of her ex-boyfriends.