, June 30th, 2011 12:00
Who run the world? If you watched her stepping on stage against the backdrop of a glowing pyramid at Glastonbury then you'd be hard pressed to answer anything but Beyoncé. One half of music's ultimate power couple, BFFs with Michelle Obama, a run of hit singles and now a headlining set at THE music festival; Beyoncé's ratcheted up enough accomplishments to fill up multiple careers – and she's yet to hit 30.
She might be an overachiever but the work is clearly paying off. In an era where the musical tribal divides of old are officially a historical footnote, the overwhelmingly positive response to her Glastonbury performance is a clear sign that everybody now loves a bit of Beyoncé. She's just that right kind of rare, generational superstar with the total package appeal that make A&R men squeal while the rest of us stare in glowing awe as the superwoman in a bodysuit tells us all to put a ring on it.
The spotlight is, of course, now shinning on Beyoncé and 4. Early rumors surrounding the album revealed a Who's Who of leftfield beatmakers and musicians not normally associated with a mainstream R&B and pop artist reportedly working on the record. Depeche Mode and Fela Kuti were all tossed around as possible influences on 4's sound. There's been a sneaking suspicion among those paying close attention that this could be one of those mythical moments when a triple AAA superstar users their considerable clout to veer off into a bold, new and (whisper it now) risky direction, while dragging the rest of us along for the ride.
With not a single David Guetta flavoured euro-trance beat in sight, the Major Lazer sampling first single, 'Run the World', appeared to confirm the rumours. It's staccato military rhythms and cries of "who run the world" offered an exhilarating glimpse of a world free from pop's current fixation with the 'soar' (see Daniel Barrow's recent piece for the Quietus for a full definition of that term.)
So, with even Gaga's musical output failing to match the boldness of her visual aesthetic, does 4 finally take the bold step forward for pop hinted at during its gestation? No.
For all the buzz and cries of pop salvation surrounding it, 4 finds Beyoncé sticking to the same mix of MOR ballads and future funk pop single she's been lucratively touting since her debut. '1+1' opens with Beyoncé going vintage Tina Turner as she flexes her upper register over a lone guitar melody and Hammond organ. 'I Miss You' features Frank Ocean (Odd Future's resident practitioner of smooth) on writing duties and the result is a gleaming dose of 80s-inspired electro soul. Sleepy Jackson/Empire of the Sun mainstay Luke Steele lends a writing-hand on 'Rather Die Young' while Kanye and Andrew 3000 pop up on the synth-funk heavy 'Party'.
Interspersed between all of these is a series of forgettable songs doused in a light pop-gloss, apparently designed to serve as little more than an opportunity for Beyoncé to remind us what she's vocally got. It's not until the final few songs that 4 beings to pick up the tempo and introduces the production tics hinted at on 'Run the World'. 'Countdown' charges ahead with a repeating blast of stabbing horns, 'End of Time' breaks out the marching band drum beats and 'I was Here' temporarily veers back to ballad country before paving the way for closer 'Run the World'.
The future unfortunately doesn't start with 4. It's not to say that the album is a failure. Beyoncé may be giving us more of the same here but a Beyoncé album that treads water is still a Beyoncé album, and few of her peers can currently match her. Steady on then but as other writers have rightfully commented, the entire album is haunted by a sense of what brilliant possibilities could have been and that's a point that can only be echoed here.