Beyonce's 4 isn't even out for five more days, but thanks to a leak and a rumor-rabid public, the album's already gone through the first-impression, analysis and verdict phases. And that verdict--again, before the album's even out--isn't looking great. In fact, the lead-up to 4 is beginning to look like the lead-up to Christina Aguilera's Bionic--colossal-voiced singer, a loose Katamari boulder of hype, a dream-team of collaborators both avant and not (Diplo and Switch! Frank Ocean! Sleigh Bells! Darkchild! Fela freaking Kuti!), not all of whom made it to the actual album. And an actual album that, once heard in full, wasn't what people expected.
Ring the alarm! Crank up the chattering machinery of gossip, from gadflies to gadflies with blogs to gadflies with newsprint, aka Page Six of the New York Post. The longer this went on, the more the rumors started to seem more like accepted fact: 4 is a flop. Columbia Records doesn't like it. The label wants Beyonce to cash in on Kelly Rowland's newfound "Motivation" with a Destiny's Child reunion. B's career is over. The Rapture is coming. In the words of New York magazine: stop it!
Of course, nobody's going to stop it--not now, not on June 28 and definitely not afterward. Some ideas, once proposed, just stick, and Beyonce's 4 being a letdown is one of them. Why? A few reasons:
Everything about 4 is defiantly off-trend.
Right after 4 leaked, Rolling Stone writer Matt Perpetua wrote that it was "the sort of album a pop star makes when she doesn't feel she has anything to prove." Weeks after critics' first frantic impressions, that's still a valid thought; in New York magazine, writer Nitsuh Abebe said 4 was "the audio equivalent of finding a nice place in the suburbs." Read: quiet, safe, uneventful. Defiant in its complacency. Easy to call boring.
It's true that many of 4's tracks seep into each other to make one amorphous puddle of soul, but every single album in Beyonce's career, from Destiny's Child on, has contained four killer singles encased by filler. So let's look at those singles. The big ones do one or both of two things: spawn memes--how many times have you said "to the left, to the left" or "you shoulda put a ring on it" lately?--or ride musical trends. Take the four best-performing singles from I Am... Sasha Fierce--you had the hypnotic YouTube bait of "Single Ladies," a Ryan Tedder track on "Halo" when people weren't yet sick of Ryan Tedder, a laid-back, "Big Girls Don't Cry"-alike Toby Gad track and timely gender-wondering on "If I Were a Boy," and the nightmare-disturbia of "Sweet Dreams," perfectly timed right after Rihanna's own "Disturbia" but just before that dark electronic sound really took off. Notice how Enrique Iglesias, mid-comeback,
ripped it off heavily drew upon it for "Tonight (I'm Fucking You)."
Now look at 4, the album. With few exceptions, every track is a neat, technically flawless but dated pastiche of '80s R&B. Old Whitney Houston. Old Prince. Beyonce does update this sound, but through subtle details rather than the Pro Tools spit-shine of, say, Aguilera's Back to Basics. This goes for everything, not just the ballads--even uptempo tracks like "Love on Top" or the just-leaked "Schoolin' Life" live on nostalgia and voice alone. '80s revivalism might be trendy, but only a specific kind is--and the big-beat, candy-colored sounds plucked for Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and La Roux's singles are nowhere to be found on 4.
As an R&B album--a genre that rewards the technical proficiency and emotional heft Beyonce has here--4 is flawless. But B's always been judged on a pop rubric. So when people say 4 doesn't have any singles, what they really mean is it doesn't have any trends. As glorious as "Love on Top" is, there's absolutely nothing like it on top 40 radio, and unless Beyonce pulls out one hell of an event video (judging by the riotous non-event "Run the World (Girls)," this is unlikely), 4 probably won't spark any memes. This puts Beyonce in a weird place--too staid for the Dr. Luke/Stargate/Guetta hit express, but with too much pop-star baggage to fit an Adele-ish authenticity pitch. What's a label to do?
The singles and leaks on 4 occurred in the worst possible order.
It's not just that 4 is untrendy--it's that nobody expected it to be. Go back a month or two, when Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)" dropped alongside Lady Gaga's "Judas." Enter a collective WTF from the world. Both tracks were brash, overstuffed and weird--in B's case, the weirdness was totally lifted from Major Lazer's "Pon de Floor," but who outside of music writers and obsessives knew that?
Now try to imagine a 4 based only on "Run the World (Girls)" and the collaborator list. A lot weirder, right? Maybe even too weird-both singles whelmed at best. So when "End of Time" leaked soon after, it seemed like a corrective--all the clatter and size of B's last single, but with more structure and with iffy empowerment swapped out for luurrrrve.
And then everything happened at once. "1+1" might have seemed like the Big Ballad, Beyonce's voice rending the world for one glorious song--and it was starting to until "Best Thing I Never Had" arrived in a midtempo slump. Almost any track on 4--certainly "I Care," "Love on Top" or even "Schoolin' Love" fished from the bonus-disc deeps--would have been a better choice. Its writer, Babyface, hasn't been relevant in years, and the one memorable line, "showed your ass," is only memorable because it can be turned into a mooning joke. Granted, it's still early to completely judge the song's chart performance, but its Hot 100 peak to date at No. 75 won't quash any rumors. If "Run the World (Girls)" was a single that blew up a bubble of hype, "Best Thing I Never Had" was a pushpin.
People love to deflate hype and egos.
After all, the more air is pumped into that hype bubble, the more satisfying the snap is when the bubble pops. And when you're a musician--particularly a solo female musician--and the public thinks you're a diva, trouble is near. This happened to Christina Aguilera with Bionic, and it's dangerously close to happening (again) to Jennifer Lopez at any moment. (Listen to the Idol-negotation chatter for proof.)
Beyonce's battled a diva image all through her career, from the Ferris wheel of rotating Destiny's Child bandmate drama to the initial scoffing at her Sasha Fierce persona. So it's little wonder certain commentators want to shove her star a few light-years away. What better way to do it than some numbers and some inconvenient sounds?
It's really easy to get carried away with all this.
Let's be real. There's a decent chance 4 might not sell as well as Columbia Records wants, but there's no chance it'll kill or even maim Beyonce's career.
Think about it. 4 is the third of three big pop albums this year: Britney Spears' Femme Fatale and Lady Gaga's Born This Way. (Just look at the volume of Popdust coverage if you have any arguments.). Those two musicians have more than reached the point where their sheer celebrity can buoy you over plenty of flaws. Lady Gaga's reached it--despite Born This Way's successive chart tumbles, mixed critical reception and Joseph Kahn drama, nobody is calling her less of a star. Britney Spears has reached it again--fanbase aside, she hasn't faced this much criticism since the Federline days, but Femme Fatale, if not a sales magnet in tour or album form, still drives conversation and headlines. Nobody is deeming their careers dead after minor or even moderate fumbling.
So those Destiny's Child reunion rumors? "Motivation" is a surprisingly solid single, but Kelly Rowland's nevertheless doing fitness DVDs while Beyonce's doing fitness campaigns with Michelle Obama--in celebrity, at least, they're in different leagues. The Bionic comparison is inaccurate in one major way--it was supposed to be Aguilera's return to reign, while Beyonce's reign is already well-established. While 4 might hinder her sales, in the same way that the sun dipping a few inches might hinder the daytime, the only way it'll tank is if Beyonce suffers the kind of tabloid drama that she's micromanaged out of existence her entire life. But more than that, the album isn't even out yet. You can knit a storyline out of the slightest details, but until June 28, it'll be full of raggedy holes.