There are stars for whom hit singles becomes insurance policies: familiar rhythms, hooks and phrases that can be counted upon to reawaken audience excitement at any time in concert or on the radio. This is material that can be repeatedly reused in different combinations to create similar yet new hits. For other stars, however, those hits can become hindrances, traps — things to be escaped. For much of Beyonce's fourth solo album, 4, she's in escape mode.
In these songs, she starts from a position of trust and loyalty, which is then either rewarded, or — more frequently — betrayed. This is usually the only area in which Beyonce becomes melodramatic: not in her singing, but in her extravagant portrayal of the pain she endures when someone does not live up to his promises.
"I don't know much about guns," she sings on the song "1+1," "but I've been shot by you," and to make sure you know that hurt, she pushes the final word "you" up at least a full octave, as though she absorbed the shot during the recording. In about two lines, Beyonce exceeds in drama just about everything she achieved in her acting in the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls.
Whereas R&B singers from Aretha Franklin to Mary J. Blige used the pain of being romantically deceived as occasions for controlled rage — icy fury — Beyonce is moved to confess more, to open up about how much she was expecting this all to work out and now what is she to do?
You can hear this in a song called "I Care," whose lyric almost masochistically recites the ways in which the dirty-dog guy lied, ignored and grew indifferent to the singer, even as she admits she still loves the bum. Again, it's not so much the plainspoken lyrics as it is the heartbreak in her voice — the way the anger melts into agony — that makes the performance so effective.
Although much of style and vocal attack of this collection could have derived from soul albums from the '70s and '80s, one element that marks it as a contemporary document is Beyonce's reliance upon beats, not keyboard or guitar lines, to accompany her voice, to do the work of melody. Those drums are prominent on the track "I Care." And she uses a marching-band vehemence behind her on "End of Time," one of a number of songs in which her voice and the percussion remain in almost equal prominence.
This album is uneven. There's a horrible piece of schlock written by Diane Warren called "I Was Here," a statement of purpose so over-the-top, it sounds like a parody. Another song, "Run the World (Girls)," is almost embarrassing in the way it chases the immense popularity of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." "Run the World" is tacked on as the last song on the album, as though it was a hasty concession to mass taste, but something Beyonce has moved past and so cannot really put her heart into.
She'll turn 30 in September; she seems to be looking ahead to the future, not the past, to build something like a legacy. Not many singers her age have that sense of clarity and purpose. It's what helps this album 4 to seem at once so passionate, so perplexed, and so intriguing.