She's dangerously in love with boring ballads
It’s not been a vintage year for Beyonce thus far. The whole Gadaffi business was far from the ideal way to kick things off; then it was announced that she would no longer be managed by her dad, Mathew Knowles, who had steered her career since the earliest days of Destiny’s Child; then ‘Run The World (Girls)’ failed – by Beyoncé single standards, at least – to set the charts on fire; and then her fourth album leaked a full three weeks ahead of its release. Still, she takes it with characteristically good grace, and presses on.
The truth is, Beyonce has never been a vintage album artist. A phenomenal live performer, yes, but despite some outrageously brilliant singles, her debut, ‘Dangerously In Love’, was hampered by a lacklustre second half of schmaltzy ballads. Her second, ‘B’Day’, focused more on the up-tempo, and was miles better, but 2008’s ‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’ reversed ‘Dangerously…’’s trick by presenting a dull first half of slowies, saved by a middling second half’s stormer of a lead-off track: ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’. Beyonce making million-miles-an-hour in-yer-face pop singles: amazing; Beyonce doing schmaltzy R&B ballads: nowt to write home about.
So it’s with great, great disappointment that we are forced to report that Beyonce’s fourth album is comprised almost entirely of the latter. It begins with ‘1+1’, a deathly smooth waltz with a truly horrible guitar solo and a beyond-clichéd lyric (“I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one and one is two”) and continues in this fashion for a long, long time. There is one called ‘I Care’. There is one called ‘I Miss You’. They are actually less anonymous than their titles suggest – the former comprised of off-kilter drums and moody synths, the latter ridiculously minimal – but still far from vintage.
You’d think that when, five similarly paced tracks in, a song entitled ‘Party’ pops up produced by Kanye West and featuring Andre 3000, some respite may have arrived, but no: it’s more mid-paced, synth-heavy cheese, with a phoned-in guest rap. It doesn’t make you want to have a party. In fact, soon, as yet more anonymous, barely distinguishable slowies arrive ‘Rather Die Young’, ‘Start Over’, the will to continue listening departs. Beyonce’s cry of “Bring the beat in!” on the at-least-slightly-uptempo ‘Love On Top’, feels like it should be preceded by a “For fuck’s sake, PLEASE CAN SOMEBODY…” The latter song turns out to be a light but pleasant tribute to mid-’80s pop of the Whitney variety, and introduces a mid-album interlude of actually quite good music.
Despite sampling Boyz II Men, ‘Countdown’ pedals a nice line in squelchy keyboards, while ‘End Of Time’ exhibits the much talked about influence of Fela Kuti, and – along with the closing ‘Run The World (Girls)’ – is the best thing here by quite some distance. Sadly, between these two songs comes – you guessed it – another ballad, and this time of the power, showstopper, curtain-call variety. It sounds unmistakably like an X-Factor winner’s single, full of unbelievably trite sentiments. It is called ‘I Was Here’, and it goes: “When I leave this world, I leave no regrets, I’ll leave something to remember, so they won’t forget… I was here”.
Beyonce, of course, has already done more than enough to ensure this is the case. She’d done enough with Destiny’s Child, or with the first 30 seconds of ‘Crazy In Love’, to guarantee her entry into the annals of greatness. But there ain’t too much here that’s going to add to her legacy. Rather, there’s the unmistakable sense of someone treading water, with even the OK bits here sounding uninspired. Not what you want from Beyoncé. Not at all. Let’s hope her Glastonbury performance brings better memories.