Settling down can be a dangerous gambit for a pop star. When Usher married his stylist and released 2008’s Here I Stand, a collection of tunes about newfound love and spending nights in watching movies and eating Chinese food, he was greeted with his first major critical flop. Pursuing themes of marriage and monogamy landed the singer woefully out of step with the randy pulse of much of contemporary pop music. We like our stars tart, their songs lascivious. Beyonce has been married to longtime boyfriend Jay-Z since 2008, and while on some level 4 is the requisite exploration of unconditional love and devotion, she and her talented band of cohorts walk into the proceedings with a spirit of experimentation that saves the day. She may have gone from “If you like it then you should’ve put a ring on it” to “I’m all up in the kitchen in my heels/ Dinner time”, but she’s not going down without a fight.
Before rock and hip-hop mutated into the mutually exclusive camps they are today, it wasn’t uncommon for an artist to release a record that contained swatches of both genres without ultimately owing allegiance to either. Much like the work of ‘80’s artists like Lionel Ritchie, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and more, 4 has an ostensible musical template (rangy, midtempo R&B), but it drags and drops styles at random. The album opens with a pair of slow-burning guitar ballads like the rockist “I Care,” where Knowles effortlessly scats along with the multi-octave guitar solo. Gears are immediately switched for the Frank Ocean penned “I Miss You”, which pairs a simple vocal melody with ambient synth swells straight out of a Phil Collins song. Elsewhere on the album are the swinging “Love on Top,” the Caribbean drum-n-bass hybrid “Countdown,” and album highlight “End of Time,” a joyfully vibrant collision of Afrobeat and Latin jazz. 4’s only constants seem to be its theme of marital bliss and Beyonce’s raw vocals.
Knowles isn’t the only one to credit for 4’s success, though. Her collaborators put in work. Diplo and Switch delivered their Major Lazer single “Pon De Floor” to be transformed into “Run the World (Girls),” the album’s martial female empowerment anthem and only real bit of dance floor fodder. Kanye West and Jeff Bhasker’s instrumental for the Andre 3000 assisted “Party” bubbles with synthetic funk. “Power” producer Symbolyc One and Babyface get their Bruce Hornsby on for “Best Thing I Never Had,” whose fleet piano work accompanies Beyonce’s rousing performance with panache. Bhasker and Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele pack “Rather Die Young” with retro-leaning flourishes and propulsive boom bap in equal measure. Late in the album, One Republic singer Ryan Tedder adorns the soaring waltz “I Was Here” with strings, guitar tremolos, and forlorn pianos. 4 finds its star flanked by a coalition of luminaries from every corner of the music industry.
During the writing and recording of 4, Knowles stated that it was her intention to create her own genre of music. While the album falls short of revolutionizing modern music, it does succeed in tossing out the rulebook and exploding into a dozen directions. 4 doesn’t know what it wants to do beyond shaking things up, but none of these tracks is a hard sell thanks to Bey’s near mastery of her instrument and the capable talents of a wildly divergent cast of collaborators. 4 is the sound of one of the biggest pop stars in the Western world expanding her sound without a care. You’d be hard pressed to find a big ticket R&B album quite as restless, tuneful and fearless this year.