Of course Beyonce “has a voice.” She “knows how to sing.” My decade-long reluctance to embrace her sprung from skepticism of a larynx whose pyrotechnics immolated us, the song, and Beyonce herself. Blessed with the looks and talent that most of us wrongly assume require no nurturing, she’s hopped from “Bills, Bills, Bills” to Dreamgirls without suffering from unnecessary aesthetic pangs. As a performer she’s not narcissistic exactly; she wants us to see her hard work without applauding her sacrifice. In her songs she presents herself as a better role model than human being — a tough Independent Woman who reminds men that they’re not ready for her jelly or to start thinking they’re irreplaceable. Yet her timbre also projects coolness; her songs celebrate the moment of sexual consummation (“Say My Name,” “Naughty Girl”) or its histrionic end (“Irreplaceable”). She has no interest in limning scenarios: that’s none of our business, sport. The shrewdest insight presented by the SNL spoof of “Single Ladies” starring Justin Timberlake was noting how little use Beyonce actually has for other people. The guys’ dancing didn’t put her out; she looked rather stunned, like a woman who extends a hand but gets a hug instead. Could this be why gays have never worshiped her? Odd: in her commitment to slogans, bromides, and catch phrases, Beyonce is actually a better Lady Gaga than Gaga herself.
Luckily the texture of her voice — she’s the only convincing belter in pop music — exudes considerable sensual pleasure. On 4, she and her producers provide the most convincing demonstration of its capacity to seduce. At last she’s got the ballads she was too coy about performing well; for such a megastar Beyonce’s reticence about perfecting the mirror moves required of balladry distinguished her from the competition. Frank Ocean’s cavernous, spare Massive Attack-worthy “I Miss You” might be her warmest performance to date. “Best Thing I Never Had” is an “American Idol” tour de force in the best sense (note the clever insertion of melisma on the “It sucks to be you” refrain), complete with a buried guitar motif that sounds like Marnie Stern snuck into the studio beneath the steamers. When she coos, “Boy your lips taste like a mad champagne,” you can taste the sticky lips and champagne, not to mention the madness. I don’t know whether to credit a better sense of craft: B’Day was the rare contemporary album under seventy minutes and without flab. But all her tricks — her wit, energy, commitment — have the command of a theater piece rehearsed to the beat of a metronome.
In an excellent review, Alex Macpherson notes her fascination with money, an attitude that, in his perfect phrase, “a hedge-fund manager would identify with.” 4 boasts few songs explicitly about filthy lucre — why should it when each song glistens like the rims of a new Benz? In its pursuit of excellence from Ocean, The-Dream, Ne-Yo, Consequence, and Switch, 4 offers a case study in resource investment. Whether it will linger in the imagination as long as B’Day is another story; this one has no left field delight like “Suga Mama.” Ryan Tedder and hack-for-life Diane Warren wrote the worst ballad, and Beyonce herself knows it (the cliches she’s asked to enliven expire like flies around a window). On “Party,” Kanye contributes the worst cameo in a career full of them. But when the compensatory delight of “Love on Top” with its ascending key changes sashays into the most troublesome sequence as the rarest kind of after dinner palate cleanser, I’m prepared to overrate this record.