Almost a decade has gone by since the release of Beyoncé’s biggest artistic transformation. On June 26, 2011, Beyoncé released her fourth solo studio album, “4.”
“4” is Beyoncé’s most musically diverse work to date. Other popular albums, including “To Pimp a Butterfly” or even “Lemonade,” function beautifully as cohesive concept albums — they deliver experiences that resemble the cinematic. While not a concept album but still a collective masterpiece, “4” tells the story of Beyoncé reaching a clarity of individualized artistry, focusing on lyrical themes on self-empowerment and deep monogamous love.
The difference with “4” and the rest of the work she has put out lies in the album’s musical variety. The tracks range from sparkling 80’s pop to pulsing marching band sounding brass lines to melancholic ballads to 90’s soul.
While the aforementioned albums are jam-packed with some of contemporary hip-hop’s most artistically progressive tracks, they largely fall under similar sounds or genres from song-to-song. “4” breaks this barrier. Listening from top to bottom, it reflects the cohesion of crafting an album as a work of art rather than a collection of potential hits — which is a common practice in music today.
The music alone reflects the artist’s roots. Bey has always been queen of the Top 40, but if you take a closer look, “4” straddles both her palatable Destiny’s Child/Sasha Fierce days and her newer, more complex and narrative works (particularly “Lemonade”). Her 2011 album is far more minimalist than much of her prior production-heavy music, and with intimately personal lyrics. It’s as if this was her first debut as an artist as opposed to solely a performer. “4” is the first album she released after breaking free from her dad-ager. It also came after a hiatus in her career "to live life [and] to be inspired by things again." Beyoncé took time to travel the world and reflect on her self-inflicted high standards and relentless work ethic. This resulted in “4,” Beyoncé’s most intimate, honest and deeply personal work as a solo artist.
Bey was not unaware of her progress. “[‘4’] is definitely an evolution. It's bolder than the music on my previous albums because I'm bolder,” she wrote on her website. “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."
Her comment on “4’s” enduring qualities is an unconcealed nod to the track on the Deluxe Edition “Schoolin’ Life.” In this track she asserts herself as not a teacher, preacher or doctor, but nonetheless possesses the ability to teach something to anyone at any age. “This is for them twenty somethings / time really moves fast, you were just sixteen / this is for them thirty somethings / that didn't turn out exactly how your mom and dad wanted you to be.” She gives insight into her own upbringing as well, accompanied by a beat that integrates disco and uptempo R&B, making it a hair-flipping, let-loose dance track.
The sugary-sweet bubblegum sound reaches its peak with “Love on Top,” which flaunts her vocal range with the concluding 90 seconds of striking key changes. Glittered throughout are equally lively dance tracks like “Countdown” and “Party,” which features both Kanye West and Andre 3000. These anthems are filled with soul-fueling snare beats and fresh bass lines, creating more depth than any of her previous work.
On the other end of the musical spectrum are tracks like “I Miss You” and “1+1,” held together by glistening keyboard melodies and Frank Ocean-inspired serenity— who helped write “I Miss You”— that never dilute her signature belting vocals. These more mellow tracks are her at her best —yet most underrated— and showcase her seemingly infinite artistic ability. The angelic vocal harmonies serve as something spiritual.
Somewhere in the middle are songs like “Rather Die Young” and “I Care” — different variants on how these two seemingly opposite musical ends come together. “Rather Die Young” channels older soul-fused R&B— something like a crossover between Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys. Then there’s the single “Run the World,” the lead single from the album. It’s a war cry, with a strong African drum beat and enlivening chants of female empowerment. “My persuasion can build a nation/ endless power/ our love we can devour/ you'll do anything for me,” she croons with seduction and assertion in the chorus. However much variation the album has, the conviction is unwavering and constant.
What makes “4” Beyoncé’s greatest album is its existence as a personal exemplification of her ranging abilities as an artist. So deeply influenced by her personal experiences, “4” was the intoxicating introduction of what we would see from her in the years to come.