Only Beyoncé Knowles really knows why 4 is structured so oddly. The more up-tempo tunes, ostensibly designed to draw in listeners, are lined up, almost one after the other, near the album's end -- the final track is her current single, the exotically rhythmic Run the World (Girls).
By loading the front of the album with midtempo cuts and full-on, chest-thumping ballads, 4 comes off as strangely mellow, almost narcotic. Perhaps it's because the Houston-born Knowles often seems to be an artist in transition throughout these 12 songs, trying on a variety of styles in an effort to figure out her next step.
There's the eerie Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey hybrid ( Love on Top) and the half-hearted stabs at '80s nostalgia ( Start Over, and the Kanye West-produced Party, which manages to waste both West and guest vocalist Andre 3000). Knowles also drapes herself in anthems intended as intimate but that slip into bombast without too much effort; I Was Here, a Diane Warren special, is riddled with mournful strings and enough vocal histrionics to stop Christina Aguilera in her tracks.
Perhaps weirdest of all, especially for a performer who has managed to stay slightly ahead of the pop-music curve, is that 4 enlists several forward-thinking producers (Diplo, The-Dream and Waco's own Symbolyc One) and hardly utilizes their skills. There are a few moments of risk-taking -- the aforementioned Girls; Countdown has some interesting brass textures -- but this record is far from adventurous. In a pre-release interview with Billboard, Knowles reeled off an extensive list of musical inspirations for 4: Adele, Florence and the Machine, Prince, and Fela Kuti, among others. She also spoke of how she wanted more of a "hip-hop style" for the new album.
These aspirations appear to be, at best, wishful thinking or, at worst, lip service. In the past, Knowles has proven herself capable of bending the pop music form to her will, often creating a vibrant new dimension in the process.
That singer has gone missing this time around, with a record that often feels creatively uncertain.