DAVE DAVIES, Host:
Beyonce Knowles is one of the most glamorous crossover stars of the current era. Her pop, hip-hop, and R&B hits and their videos have become ubiquitous.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says that in this context Beyonce's new album titled "4" is something of a risk. It's not merely a collection of new songs, but a personal reassessment of the kind of pop star she wants to be. Here's his review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "START ALL OVER")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I feel weak, we've been here before. Cuz I feel we keep going back and forth. Maybe it's over, maybe we're through. But I honestly can say. I still love you.
Maybe we reached...
KEN TUCKER: 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, she's in escape mode.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I MISS YOU")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I thought that things like this get better with time. But I still need you, why is that? You're the only image in my mind. So I still see you around.
I miss you, like everyday. Want to be with you, but you're away. Said I miss you...
TUCKER: 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 "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."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1+1")
BEYONCE: (Singing) If I ain't got nothing, I got you. If I ain't got something I don't give a damn, cause I got it with you. I don't know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two. And it's me and you, that's all we'll have when the world is through.
Cause baby we ain't got nothing without love. Darling you...
TUCKER: 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 all this 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CARE")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I told you how your hurt me, baby, but you don't care. Now I'm crying and deserted, baby, but you don't care. Ain't nobody tell this is love. But you're immune to all my pain. I need you to tell me this is love. You don't care if that's okay.
Well, I care. I know you don't care too much, but I still care.
La la la la. Oh, I care. I know you don't care...
TUCKER: 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 were prominent on the song I just played, "I Care." Now listen to the way 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF TIME")
BEYONCE: (Singing) Come take my hand. I won't let you go. I'll be your friend. I will love you so deeply. I will be the one to kiss you at night. I will love you until the end of time.
I will be your baby. Promise not to let you go. Love you like crazy. Say you'll never let me go. Say you'll never let me go. Say you'll never let me go. Say you'll never let me go. Say you'll never let me go.
TUCKER: 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.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the Beyonce's new album "4."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TOP")
BEYONCE: (Singing) Bring the beat in.
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show on our Website at freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.