With 2008’s ‘I Am…Sasha Fierce’, Beyonce pulled off a feat of transition. The mega-double album, with its slight (but effective) conceit about dual personalities (Beyonce and Sasha Fierce) and the future-shock sound of the second half, turned her from huge (but still jobbing) popstar to arch pop re-inventionist.

Three years on she’s back with ‘4’. Sating our appetite by teaming up with the likes of Frank Ocean (click here for photo evidence), Diplo and Sleigh Bells as well as claiming Fela Kuti, Teena Marie and Florence And The Machine as influences. Naturally our brains almost exploded when we pondered the possible new routes her sound would take. Grot-rock flecked with r’n’b? Afro-beat folk with a feminist lyrical bent?

With apparently 72 tracks to choose from, we couldn’t wait for what these sessions would yield. So when the album leaked earlier this week, we were keen to have a listen.
Here are our initial thoughts.

Beyonce

1+1
The Beyonce ballad to end all Beyonce ballads. With its staid pace, the Us versus The World lyrics and Carlos Santana-style guitar wig out, ‘1+1’ is quite a contrary album opener. Shiny, synthy strings and gently plucked guitars give the music a soft focus, live feel. Vocally, Beyonce’s in full throttle, large-lunged form as she cribs the central lyrical conceit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’. Such is the grandeur of the songs 80s soul feel that you half expect dry ice to start pumping through the speakers when the chorus kicks in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNO72aCnVr0

I Care
Ballad number two, but this one’s got significantly more going on for it that ‘1+1’. The verse sees a thin synth line is paired with a sparse drum beat, while the chorus sneaks in a muted saxophone line as multi-tracked Beyonces do their best “la la la”‘s. The lyrics are some of the most interesting on the album with Beyonce playing the masochistic straggler over lines like; “Ever since you knew your power/You made me cry.”

I Miss You
Built around a swishing keyboard backing and a simple, clock-ticking beat, this is a slight, but catchy slice of neo-soul which makes a nice, bombast-free counterpoint to the previous two songs. And although we’re still in ballad-ville, Beyonce drops the “whoa, Bodyform” vocals for a more restrained approach. Interestingly, for those who see Beyonce as always casting herself as the ball-busting, super-woman in songs, ‘I Miss You’ finds her passive, almost psychotically missing an errant ex.

Beyonce

Best Thing I Never Had
Some have suggested it’s like a sequel to ‘Irreplaceable’ and certainly its girl-done-wrong lyrics like: “You showed your ass/And I saw the real you/Thank god you blew it/Thank god I dodged a bullet,” could have you shaking your head like a guest on ‘The Ricki Lake Show’. Musically, this harkens back to ‘Halo’ or ‘Scared Of Lonely’ with the cascading piano work and Ryan Tedder-like drum beat. Rather worryingly, though, when the chorus swooshes in, one can’t help but be reminded of the theme from ‘Baywatch.’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuYrRebvFHc

Four slowies in a row then? This could be Beyonce’s most ballad-heavy collection since Destiny Child’s swansong ‘Destiny Fulfilled’. Perhaps Sleigh Bells got lost on the way to the studio…?

Party (featuring Andre 3000)
A mid-tempo, 80s-flecked song which sees Beyonce making good on her promise that the album would be influenced by the likes of Teena Marie. “Top down with the radio on/And the night belongs to us,” she trills in a care-free, Destiny’s Child-style, as someone who sounds suspiciously like Kanye raps about “swag sauce”. Andre 3000 drops a characteristically charming mid-track rap, as the vintage-sounding keyboards and drum machine party like it’s 1986. Not quite a ‘banger’, but getting there.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYVWoi72Ow4

Rather Die Young
An attempt, you’d imagine, to get close to the smoky soul styling of Anita Baker, but it is spoilt by some rather drippy lyrics (“You’re my James Dean/You make me feel like I’m 17”) and a Andrew Lloyd-Webber/jazz-hands chorus. Frustratingly, there’s a lyrical reference to some deeper emotional fires burning (“Nobody understands what we’ve been through”) which, instead of being explained further, are overturned in favour of some romantic mulch.

Start Over
An overblown chorus with hair-rock aspirations (processed drums and Evanescene-style piano riffing) spoil a rather interesting verse which echoes ‘I Care’ in its mix of hissing synths and minimal percussion. A bright spot comes in the last minute of this trouble-in-paradise tune, when a chastised Beyonce sings the intriguing line: “I know I called you selfish/But that’s a lie,” over a simple piano line. But like ‘Rather Die Young’, it is rather buried under sonic bluster.

Love On Top
Echoes of Janet Jackson’s ‘Whoops Now’, Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’ and ,erm, the theme from ‘My Two Dads’ here. With its jaunty, nursery rhyme style rhythm, peppy saxophone and 100 watt smile lyrics it jars against the albums rather somber tone. In fact if ‘Love On Top’ were a person, it would be the type who’d say “CHEER UP! IT MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN!” before forcibly ruffling your hair.

Countdown
Much better. Starts off with an reggae-ish beat, before a sample from Boyz II Men’s ‘Uhh Ahh’ kicks in and it turns dancehall. There are some nicely disorientating chord changes here, too. In fact, this is the first song on the album which follows the lineage of Beyonce’s great ‘let’s dance to this’ songs (‘Single Ladies’,’Get Me Bodied’). Also notable for the excellent use of ‘BOOF!’ as a lyric. The only song, apart from ‘Party’, that you can imagine making moves towards the dancefloor for.

End Of Time
An off-beat bass guitar and honking trumpets skirt around a military drum beat here as B reprises the rapping/singing vocals style from the ‘Say My Name’ days. The sound of several disparate influences coalescing to create something fresh serves as a little taste of what all those much talked about collaborations promised but have thus far failed to deliver. And the chorus still reminds us of ‘Valerie’ by Steve Winwood.

I Was Here
Something like a new-age ballad here, with Beyonce yammering on about leaving footprints in the sands of time, as watery synths shimmer in the background before the chorus cracks that pesky rock whip again. Shades of a “retirement song” if those rumours about her leaving the industry to become a mother are true. Fine, but does ‘4’ really need another soft focus ballad?

Run The World
Although this under-whelmed us on its release, it comes as a much welcome change of pace for ‘4’. Diplo’s ‘Pon De Floor’ beats provide a much needed respite from the rest of the album’s super mellow tone.

Verdict
With the cast of brilliant minds involved, we’re largely disappointed that ‘4’ places the emphasis on middle of the road balladry instead of the strange-pop she can do so well. An oddly sequenced tracklisting doesn’t help, nor does the impression that with 72 tracks to choose from, her de-facto setting is air-punching serenades and not, as it turns out, spangly, avant-garde pop.
Come back Sasha Fierce, all is forgiven.