There have been many setbacks with the release of Beyonce’s fourth solo effort, fittingly entitled 4. It leaked weeks early, promotion lacked, the lead single tanked, and overall the beginning stages of marketing the record was a music business trainwreck. When you place all of that aside, pop the record in your stereo, and have a good, hard listen, it’s a relief to know that music doesn’t always have to reflect on how it’s presented to the public. 4 is an extremely cohesive record, with some minor setbacks that cause it to sonically be a diamond in the rough.
The one thing that’s obvious with this record compared to the previous efforts by Ms. Knowles is that she’s using her voice in a more strong and commanding manner, which is in part because of her observation during the editing of the I Am… World Tour DVD in which she noted her studio voice is often different in tone than the one she uses when she’s on stage. The outcome is a much more abrasive, triumphant songstress compared to past recordings and comes out quite compelling on the tracks with more emotional subject matters such as “1+1” and “I Care”.
Actually, we’re going to spend a lot of focus on these two tracks, as they’re two of the most interesting ones out of the bunch…
“1+1” – I’d like to call this the most traditional and humanistic song on 4. Interestingly enough, it starts with a fade in of stereo panned guitars with a slapback delay on them. Granted, it’s a quick fade, but it’s still something not heard of too often in popular music, especially on an album opener. There’s also a little bit of noise floor seeping in and out of the track, heard mostly on the organ – which is refreshing to hear considering the extreme amount of noise reduction normally used on Top 40 records.
One thing that stays constant through “1+1” and pretty much through the entire record is that Beyonce’s voice is front, center, and loud, but why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps she’s compressed a bit too much sometimes, but she’s the artist and she sounds gorgeous. The short reverberation on her voice gives the track a bit more depth and the delays at the end of certain phrases are a nice creative touch in the mixing process as well.
1+1 does steer wrong though, in that there are several places where clear distortion can be heard. Check out the 0:30 mark where the entire track distorts, probably because of the high energy between the bass and vocal track at that particular moment. While it’s normally not too difficult to tell how the distortion happened, there are other instances throughout the track where it’s hard to tell whether distortion happens in it because of recording too hot at the sounds source or because of mixing and mastering techniques.
Otherwise? The mix doesn’t sound too shabby and the nice spacey synth pad fade out provides a nice comedown for a track so emotional and nice introduction to what we’re going to hear on the next track.
“I Care” – A warm, slowly oscillating synthesizer and obscure/spacey rhythmic drops begin our tour into this track with heavily coated reverberated percussion providing a strong drive into the track’s first verse. It’s a nice throwback 80’s sound with a modern twist, which is how most of 4 runs.
To give the drums more power, there are two kick drums that thump throughout “I Care.” One, most likely recorded live provides the foundation, while an occasional more prominent, deeper in frequency, and sample based sound comes in conjunction with it to provide an almost bi-polar like sound in that it’s a constant battle (in a good way) between the quieter and louder kicks. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a loudness problem during the busier parts of the song, but in a way it counteracts the quiet verses and causes the songs buildups and breakdowns to flow with less effort.
Continuing with the spacey atmosphere, Beyonce’s vocals have several stunning delays on them. One a slapback, set differently so it only gives a subtle accent on the more strong consonant sounds emitted onto the track and a second longer delay on the end of phrases to carry her voice through the areas where vocals don’t thrive (and occasionally throughout them, as shown more in the 2nd verse). The mixing on the vocals is truly where this track shines and it would basically be an entirely different track in general, lacking power without them.
These two tracks provide the epitome of this album in that there’s great strength in the production and mixing that went into Beyonce’s vocals and also great suffer in taking care of the audio in certain places within them. Another thing these two have in common with each other and the rest of 4 is the presence of live instrumentation, which is something Beyonce’s uniquely had going for her since her sophomore solo record B’day and continues to impress the Pop world by exploring the seemingly dead art of making a record with actual musicians as opposed to sitting in front of Logic Pro and banging out a track.
“Rather Die Young” is a fine example of fusing together an eclectic list of instruments ranging from rhodes, pianos, brass instrumentation, and guitars with a sampled rhythmic sections that provides a hybrid-mix between traditional recording and programming. Not that she has to rely on the old school style of recording, as “Love On top” and “Party (Featuring Andre 3000)” thrive almost entirely off of synths, programming and come off as two of the songs on 4 with the most groove in them.
The craziest and most synthetic track obviously goes to the lead single “Run the World (Girls)” which incorporates a huge sample of “Pon De Floor” by Major Lazer. It’d hardly be an original track if it weren’t for the rumbling bass and overall facelift given by producers Switch, The-Dream, and Shea Taylor. It’s not a creative usage of a sample by any means (if you don’t believe me, click here and just start singing “Run The World” over the beat), but HOLLYYY SHITTT the vocal melody is to die for! Sometimes following the snare rolls, sometimes following the bass, but always standing out and having a mind of it’s own. It truly makes the track special and provides an amazing feeling of empowerment for anyone listening to the track.
Unfortunately, the most creative part of “Run The World” was the track’s opening and was cut from the release of 4. It provided an industrial synth, male rebel yells, and Beyonce vocal manipulation over the sample and gave the track a small experimental edge which saved it from starting out quick like a lead single does. If I had to guess, the intro was probably snipped because the song didn’t survive on radio. I’m sure they included the radio edit of the track on the record for familiarity purposes for those who have heard the song through radio format. (Still, it’s a shitty thing to do and I downloaded the Extended Version so I wouldn’t bitch every time I played it on my iPod. You should do the same).
Also, the Deluxe edition of this record includes three club mixes of the single by Kaskade, RedTop, and Jochen Simms and are pretty nice to listen to if you’ve heard the Major Lazer sample one too many times for one sitting.
Our last stop in this review goes to a track clocking in at less than three minutes, but is perhaps the album’s highlight. “I Miss You” continues along the emotional journey that 4 carries and lends some of the most brutally honest lyrics throughout Beyonce’s entire catalog. “The words don’t ever seem to come out right, but I still mean them, why is that? It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel, but I still need to, why is?” she laments over a swelling synth lead, minimal ambient guitar sounds, and a hypnotic downtempo drum track. Occasionally, haunting effects pop in and out to add to the track’s ethereal depression. It’s a track that packs pure honesty in every single aspect of the track and is sure to go down as one of the best recorded tracks of her career. It’s a shame there’s a bit of distortion here and there on it because of the high energy focus on the low frequencies of the track.
Lyrically? Great album. Instrumentation? Great album. Vocally? Great album. Variety? Great album. Technical audio love? It’s nice, but there shouldn’t be this much neglect on an artists album like Beyonce’s. Also, any catch the “Hand Covers Bruise” by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross from the movie The Social Network‘s sample in “I Was Here”? It’d also be nice if Beyonce listed these things in the credits along with who played what instruments and assisting in creating the wonderful tracks we hear on 4.
Beyond it’s downfalls, it’s still a nice album and if you’re a fan of seeing the business side of things, there is a great documentary up on Vevo called “Year of 4” in which Beyonce tackles firing her father, Matthew Knowles as manager and taking on much more duties all in the name of artistic freedom. Click here to watch!
Album Rating: 3.5/5
“Countdown” and “End of Time” were not mentioned in this review but are also two uptempo bangers that should be noted.
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