It's not bold, but not bad
The sales pitch for a would-be blockbuster album starts months before the release date. And in the case of Beyoncé's 4 (Columbia ***), which arrives Tuesday, the angle was that the long-coming follow-up to 2008's I Am . . . Sasha Fierce (which has "Single Ladies") was going to be a confident, risk-taking affair.
Though she's only 29, the Destiny's Child alpha female has been making solo albums since 2003's Dangerously in Love. And her matter-of-factly titled fourth album was expected to afford the better half of the most powerful couple in R&B and hip-hop the opportunity to get not just "Crazy in Love" but flat-out crazy.
First, the assertive superstar started telling reporters that her main inspiration was Fela Kuti, the Afropop creator who was the subject of a Broadway show that her husband, Jay-Z (along with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson), helped to executive-produce.
Then, word got out that Beyoncé was working with all sorts of collaborators. She was in the studio with Antibalas, the Brooklyn world-beat band that played on stage during Fela! She was working with the production team of Switch and Philadelphia's Diplo. The up-to-six dozen songs she recorded for 4, depending on reports, had her paired with members of explosive electro-rock duo Sleigh Bells and the controversial hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
And some of those helpmates do turn up on 4.
But 4 is hardly the provocative statement of a superstar experimenting and spreading her wings. Instead, it finds Beyoncé taking care to play to her strengths - by playing it safe.
The album's assaultive first single, the banging proclamation of female empowerment "Run the World (Girls)," was in fact built almost entirely on a sample of "Pon de Floor," from Diplo and Switch's reggaefied project Major Lazer. And a member of Odd Future is on 4, but rather than the trouble-making rapper Tyler the Creator, it's the songwriter-producer Frank Ocean, who cowrote "I Miss You."
That craftily produced, fiercely sung, conventional love song is far more indicative of what's on 4 than "Run the World." The latter performed so dismally on the charts, by Beyoncé standards, that Internet buzz has it that her label, Columbia, is preparing for 4 to be a commercial dud and urging the singer to reconvene Destiny's Child in the near future.
That would be an unnecessarily drastic move. 4 lacks much of an edge, particularly for an album whose cover shows its creator dressed as a haute-couture cavewoman, a la Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. When the high-wattage rappers Kanye West and Andre 3000 show up on this album, it's to start a not-all-that-entertaining "Party." And 4 doesn't get around to sounding carefree and joyful until the old-school bop of "Love on Top" arrives, eight tracks in.
But Beyoncé doesn't rule R&B with upbeat club tracks alone. She excels on gloating breakup songs like "Best I Never Had," and you-complete-me odes to conjugal bliss like "1+1," penned with the always-subtle R&B hitmaker The-Dream and sung with winning vigor.
The Diane Warren-scripted "I Was Here" - an "I Am Beyoncé, Hear Me Roar" über-ballad - is as bombastic as you would expect. But some Nietzschean superdivas do bombast better than others.
And nobody does it better than Beyoncé, who doesn't go all that crazy on 4, but still delivers something for her fans to love.