The lead-off single “Run The World (Girls)” is an odd harbinger of Beyoncé’s literal-titled fourth album, 4; not because its skittering, Major Lazer-sampling beat has proved much less radio-friendly than what the reliably radio-friendly artist is known for, but because it’s a sparse, futuristic, aggressive oddball of a song from an album full of lush, emotional throwbacks. But even though “Run The World (Girls)” sticks out sonically, it fits within 4’s overall milieu, which sees Beyoncé exploring the more remote corners of her comfort zone, dipping toes into early-’90s R&B, rock balladry, classic soul, and even world music. With the exception of the strutting dance track “Countdown,” which could easily slot in on any of her previous albums, the songs on 4 display Knowles’ desire to expand beyond the boundaries of her established pop-friendly persona, albeit in a safe, pop-friendly way.
A diva of the first order, Beyoncé sells whatever she’s singing, and 4 sees her stretching out vocally, particularly on the heart-rending “I Care.” She’s a skilled chameleon who can whiplash from portrayals of epic neediness (“Rather Die Young”) to empowered kiss-offs (“Best Thing I Never Had”) to late-night randiness (“Party,” which also finds guest Kanye West coining the unfortunate term “swagu”). She brings conviction to even the most tortured and banal love-and-heartbreak lyrics—of which there are many, courtesy of a litany of co-writers. Among them: Diane Warren, contributing the uncomfortably overwrought “I Was Here.”
The hired-gun production, on the other hand, is solid-to-great throughout, and while the mostly mid-tempo album lacks any first-listen earworms, with the possible exception of the delightfully breezy retro-soul number “Love On Top,” 4’s skilled deployment of horns, unexpected synths, tribal drumming, and arena-rock piano and guitar becomes more appealing—or in some cases, more cloying—on repeat listens. Beyoncé’s artistic maturation on 4 features some growing pains, but the album’s polish and her poise go a long way toward masking those flaws.