Beyoncé’s new album fascinates me because rather than deepen, complicate, and expand her sound as it is intended to, it really acts as a textbook example of the limits of bombast.
Since B’Day she has decided, for whatever reason, that every song no matter what the genre, theme, or tempo deserves to get the same vocal treatment – loud with occassional growls that are intended to convey conviction but really just scream effort*. But it didn’t really matter much before because she was singing songs that didn’t have any real meat to them anyway.
On 4, that’s not the case and her inability to sing in service of the song creates a really fascinating tension in a few places. In fact, the great songs work because the producers attempt to minimize her default bombastic approach to suggest more emotion that she’s capable of conveying herself.
Take “Rather Die Young,” a dynamite song where Beyoncé sounds downright beguiling and touching on the verses, even as she sings the hook and the bridge at an 11 when a 6 or a 7 might have worked just fine. Her vocals are wisely supported by a bouyant background vocal arrangement that help sell the song’s message despite a lead vocal that insists on overselling.
Or “Love on Top,” which gets by on a rhythm so infectious you don’t much care that the ending vamp features Beyoncé screaming her way through a series of key changes that suggest the approach is the only way she could accomplish the feat.
Or “I Care” which dials down her lead vocal so even though she’s screaming and muscling her way through it, it exists in the same spacey atmosphere as the rest of the song.
With 4, Beyoncé proves yet again that nothing is more important than Beyoncé herself, not even the songs she singing. So it’s ironic that the Beyoncé she wants to sell now is an emotive, soul powerhouse.
She fails of course, but it’s a really intriguing failure with a few really good moments** where it almost works.
*”Resentment” seems to be the template Beyoncé is using. It’s a great song, but there is absolutely no reason for her to sing it as hard as she does. Why she’s chosen to mimic this approach ad nauseum escapes me.
**I also really love “Lay Up Under Me” and “Party” and admire Frank Ocean’s failed attempt to turn Beyoncé into his emo clone on “I Miss You.”