"The album is definitely an evolution. It's bolder than the music on my previous albums because I'm bolder. The more mature I become and the more life experiences I have, the more I have to talk about. I really focused on songs being classics, songs that would last, songs that I could sing when I'm 40 and when I'm 60."
That's how Beyoncé described her approach to 4, her aptly-titled fourth studio album, on her website upon the LP's release in the summer of 2011.
The album arrived at a transitional period in the superstar's solo career, a career that's since come to be clearly delineated by two defining eras. (That is, if you don't take into consideration her prior work as the luminous lead vocalist of Destiny's Child, which, for the purposes of this essay, we won't.) There's the incredibly commercial, Top 40-friendly period that centers Dangerously in Love, B'Day and I Am...Sasha Fierce—her first three albums—and the highly artistic and exalted current period that centers the self-titled 2013 LP and Lemonade.
And then there's 4.
Though it received a generally warm reception from critics when it was released nearly a decade ago, 4 is an album without a clear home in the either era. The first composed after severing her working relationship with father Mathew Knowles, the material served as a needed reset for Bey, coming on the heels of the mammoth double-album she'd released three years earlier; the one that planted her on top of the world with gargantuan singles like "Single Ladies" and "Halo."
A mix of warm old-school R&B, soul and funk with touches of Afrobeat influence—a direction that flew in the face of the cool electro-pop dominating the airwaves at the start of the last decade—the album was the first in her career that failed to yield a No. 1 single. In fact, none of the singles released even cracked the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100.
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If you were to ask even the most fervent Bey fan what their favorite song from her discography is, odds are it won't likely be something off 4. One listen to the album and it's clear that there were opposing forces at work. You can hear an artist emerging from the chrysalis of commercialism, striving to make things more intimate, more experimental, but still not entirely sure of the vision. And you can feel what would likely be the last stab at control from a label who wanted to keep the cash coming in. It's there in the "Run the World (Girls)," the album's Major Lazer-sampling lead single that acts not as a representative of the full body of work, but an outlier and a naked bid for airplay. It's there in the decision to swap out André 3000 for J. Cole on the official remix of "Party," for whatever reason.
When you consider that an astounding 72 tracks were submitted for approval and the artistic direction shifted from an initial Fela Kuti-inspired approach to the referential and reverential R&B sound, it's clear that there were a lot of cooks in this kitchen, each of them fighting for as much control as possible.
And in the end, it resulted in a somewhat lopsided album that never fully coalesces into anything singular—something that Bey would make certain never happened again starting with Beyoncé two years later. But that's not to say that what is there isn't worth celebrating. Rather, the parts of the whole each stand on their own as glittering examples of an artist stepping, fitfully, into her full power.
It's there in the staggering four key changes and '80s-inspired uptempo R&B of "Love On Top." It's there in the ambitious and experimental arrangement and triumphant production of "Countdown." It's there in the brassy marching band bossiness of "End of Time." It's there the ambient and atmospheric emotion of "I Miss You."
With each successive song on 4, we hear Bey pushing the limits set for her—by radio, by label execs, by her father, by her adoring fans, by whoever—just a little bit further into areas that excite her, that move her, that sing to her. We hear a woman shaking free the expectations that come with a career like hers. And we hear the first promise of the unparalleled greatness yet to come.
When Beyoncé said she was hoping to create songs that were classics, songs that could "last," what she was really saying was she was hoping to craft a body of work that was timeless. And by the very nature of 4 standing outside of even her own career's timeline, she did just that.
And though it may be the album both sold and remembered least, it marks a pivotal moment in one of music's most important careers. May it always be celebrated for that.