Album Club is an irregular series that looks back on an album that matters.
4 is not Beyoncé’s most artistically challenging record but it is her most important. Her output should be seen as pre-4 and post-4. Prior to 2011 Beyoncé was a genre artist having recorded and released a string of killer pop/R&B singles but then came the shift.
4 is much harder to place sonically than Dangerously In Love, B’Day and I Am.. Sasha Fierce, it has everything from hip-hop and soul to pop-electronica and elements of Afrobeat. Yet despite its disparate influences it was Beyoncé’s first successfully cohesive record. What tied the tracks together wasn’t the sound but the overarching presence of a new Beyoncé – a popstar set to embark on her imperial phrase, now supremely confident of her place in pop’s landscape. This was Beyoncé 2.0, the genesis where we’re at today. Without 4 there would be no surprise releases, no video albums and most importantly no Lemonade – her greatest record to date.
There were a number of changes in her personal life. She had parted, professionally, from her manager and father Mathew Knowles and wanted to take direct control. Writing on her website, she said: “The album is definitely an evolution. It's bolder than the music on my previous albums because I'm bolder. The more mature I become and the more life experiences I have, the more I have to talk about. I really focused on songs being classics, songs that would last, songs that I could sing when I'm 40 and when I'm 60.”
After taking a year out, 4 was also shaped by Beyoncé’s desire to change pop music. In an interview with Complex she said: “Figuring out a way to get R&B back on the radio is challenging… Everything sounds the same on the radio. With 4 I tried to mix R&B from the ’70s and the ’90s with rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of horns to create something new and exciting. I wanted musical changes, bridges, vibrata, live instrumentation, and classic songwriting.” At the time, commercial music had been shaken by the arrival of GaGa. RedOne’s eurodance production, or influence, was everywhere – 4 was an antidote. There were horns, guitars and drums – it was an album that didn’t try to hide or mask its human input.
At this point in her career she could have churned out more of the same, but this was the biggest popstar on the planet experimenting with sounds. 4 was idiosyncratic and for the first time it seemed we fans were being allowed the briefest of glimpses into Beyoncé’s mind-set and her tastes, what shaped her. A stark contrast to I Am… Sasha Fierce, 4 didn’t feel like a record shaped by a record label committee. 4 was a confidence builder, it freed Beyoncé to make bolder artistic choices. 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade are stronger, rawer records but it was 4 that opened up Pandora ’s Box.
4’s worthiness shouldn’t overshadow the fact it contained some of Beyoncé’s greatest singles. It total it spawned 8 singles from the Major Lazer sampling “Run The World (Girls)” to the genre-blending “End of Time”, it was an unrelenting run. 4 also marked the end of Beyoncé as a singles artist. In an era when we’re repeatedly told “the album is dead, long live the single”, Beyoncé has eschewed convention and now presents her album fully-formed.
The album isn’t perfect, it’s definitely flawed but 4 is the bridge between the artist that exploded onto the scene with “Crazy In Love” and the blindingly and intimidatingly talented performer of today. It’s the moment she stopped being a popstar and became an artist.