Beyonce, '4' (Columbia)

8
4
Critical Mass
Release Date: June 28, 2011
Label: Columbia

by Mikael Wood

Nearly 15 years into a career with all the indicators of a future lifetime-achievement award, Beyoncé is so sure of her place in pop's ruling class that she waits until the final track of her new studio album to present "Run the World (Girls)." "My persuasion can build a nation," she declares, relegating to postscript status a message most artists would position front and center. Then again, maybe Beyoncé relegated "Run the World" to last because it's the worst song here, a lumpy redo of Major Lazer's "Pon De Floor" that somehow manages to make the singer sound less powerful than she has in years. Beyoncé can do hectic just fine -- see the appealingly overstuffed "Independent Women Part II," from Destiny's Child's Survivor. But "Run the World" doesn't marshal its electro-dancehall intensity in the service of anything. It's all sound and no fury.

Happily, Sasha Fierce takes five elsewhere on this often-gorgeous collection of ballads and mid-tempo cuts rich with echoes of late-'70s/early-'80s pop-soul. (With its creamy keys and skyscraping vocals, "Love on Top" imagines a perfect genetic splice of Whitney Houston's debut album and Michael Jackson's Off the Wall.) The lack of in-your-face future-funk arrangements isn't a sign that Beyoncé has lost her appetite for domination; indeed, as a singer's showcase, 4 will probably end up bested this year only by Adele's 21.

But in slow-to-bloom songs that are as preoccupied by love's pleasure ("1+1," "Rather Die Young") as by its pain ("I Care," "Best Thing I Never Had"), this one-time single lady seems hungry for a satisfaction deeper than conquest. That she finds it before stooping to the hollow provocations of "Run the World" should warm the heart of anyone who still believes in putting a ring on it.

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