When last we heard from Beyoncé Knowles, on 2008's I Am … Sasha Fierce, she'd been married to hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z about seven months. That double-album effort found her still indulging her inner wild child with a, well, fierce alter ego.
Two-and-a-half-years later—and three years into her marriage—Beyoncé's fourth solo effort may prove that no one on the R&B scene today (with the possible exception of Jennifer Hudson) has pipes quite like those of this Houston-born singer. And in contrast to Sasha Fierce's single-lady ferocity, 4 delivers a more even-keeled collection of love songs and breakup songs that at times reflect a growing sense of maturity on the part of this 29-year-old diva.
That doesn't mean, though, that she's left behind her infatuation with problematic ideas and imagery.
"1+1" is the first of several odes to the beauty of love. Here, Beyoncé belts out, "If I ain't got nothin'/I got you." That sentiment is reiterated throughout the song: "Don't know much about fighting/But I know I would fight for you." More of the same can be heard on "End of Time" ("I'll be your friend, I will love you so deeply/ … I will love you until the end of time"). "Love on Top" praises a man for making his relationship with a woman his highest priority ("Nothing's perfect, but it's worth it after fighting through my fears/And finally you put me first/ … You put my love on top"). And on "Countdown," Beyoncé again sings about persevering through conflict ("There's ups and downs in this love/Got a lot to learn in this love/Through the good and the bad, still got love/Dedicated to the one I love").
She wisely realizes a deceptive man's ways before committing fully to him ("Thank God you blew it/I thank God I dodged a bullet/… You turned out to be the best thing I never had"). And though a partner's heart has grown calloused, she still longs for the vibrancy of love's early days on "I Care." In similar territory, "Start Over" is about someone trying to convince her man to give a struggling relationship another shot. "I Miss You" explores that simple-but-heartfelt sentiment after a breakup.
The only song on 4 that's not about romance, "I Was Here," finds Beyoncé longing to know she's left a lasting legacy. She longs to leave the world "a little better," convinced that she "brought some happiness."
Unfortunately, Beyoncé has some blind spots when it comes to understanding what brings true happiness. Rolling Stone reviewer Jody Rosen observes, "['End of Time,'] like many [songs] on 4, is a steamily sensual ode to monogamous romance. Beyoncé has been a star for more than a decade, but now she's a 29-year-old married woman, and she sounds like one, singing love songs that are no less sexy for being unblinkingly true to life."
True to life for whom, though? Because many of these "steamy" moments lack any obvious connection to marriage. On "1+1," for example, Beyonce's straightforward request for coupling comes off as pretty risqué: "Right now, baby/Make love to me/ … Oh, make love to me." Likewise, "Party" is definitely pro-love ("I may be young but I'm ready/To give you all my love"), but love, not marriage, seems to be the determining factor when it comes to the timing of sex ("So in love I'll give it all away/ … So tonight I'll do it every way/Speakers knocking till the morning lights").
That song also includes the album's most crude references to sex, courtesy of OutKast rapper André 3000, who invokes the image of bodily fluids to pencil in a picture of an intense sexual experience. "Countdown," meanwhile, counsels ladies to physically express their love ("Grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it"). Mildly suggestive moments turn up on "End of Time" as well.
"Rather Die Young" involves a woman in love throwing caution to the wind. "You drive too fast, you smoke too much," she admits. "But that don't mean a thing/'Cause I'm addicted to that rush/ … I'm giving you my life, it's in your hands/ … 'Cause I'd rather die young/Than live my life without you." Meanwhile, the lovelorn subject of "I Care" excuses her man's uncaring attitude.
Profanity includes two s-words, two uses of "d‑‑n" and the repeated crass lyric, "You showed your a‑‑, baby, yes, I saw the real you" (on "Best Thing I Never Had"). "Run the World (Girls)" arguably exalts a brand of exceedingly aggressive girl power at men's expense while flirting with—but never saying—the f-word. And a couple of words from André 3000 are censored to the point of unintelligibility.
Writing about the omnipresent theme of romance on 4, New York Times reviewer Jon Caramanica notes, "Beyoncé is best when her emotional radar is set to loyalty, for better or worse—sometimes that loyalty is rewarded, and sometimes it's been betrayed, but over all, she operates on the axis of faithfulness. … Beyoncé delivers heartbreak with purpose: to remind us just how overwhelming love can be. Even her breakup songs are advertisements for romance."
Romance all too often means sex, though, in Beyoncé's soulful world of R&B and hip-hop. She rightly sings the praises of long-term love and faithfulness. And when she croons about soldiering on through conflict, you get the feeling that she's probably had to do some of that in her own marriage. Those praiseworthy moments, however, are seriously tempered by frequent excursions into sensual territory and a couple of songs implying that holding on to love is worth any cost—including one's body and soul.
Maturity and positivity are also undermined by revealing images of Beyoncé on the album's cover (which we've cropped for this review) and in its liner notes.