Snap Review: The Mixed Message of Beyoncé's '4'

A first reading of the superstar diva's latest album, which leaked online yesterday

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Beyoncé Knowles' "Run The World (Girls)" is an exclamation of a song. Marching band beats! A video with explosions! A chorus that goes, "GIRLS!" But as the first single from the singer's upcoming album, 4, it brought questions. Where's the melody? Has Beyonce entered the militant sloganeer phase of her career? Is this pop's belated answer to M.I.A.'s similarly frenetic "Boyz"?

And, uh, do girls really run the world?

A resounding "no" to the last question from a YouTuber with the handle "NineteenPercent" set off a round of blog chatter in May as to whether Beyoncé was a feminist or a poser. In a sorta-joking, mostly serious tone, the vlogger called out Beyoncé as a "liar" for "promulgating historical inaccuracies to impressionable young women ... lulling them into a false sense of achievement and distracting them from doing the work that it takes to actually run the world."

Then came additional pre-release teaser songs from 4 that hinted at a different, more traditional direction. In particular, the aching stax serenade "1+1", which debuted on American Idol, played like the antithesis of "Run The World (Girls)." The song's title nods to codependency, but its lyrics portray straight-up dependency. "Darling, you got enough love for the both of us," Beyoncé mews. She is incomplete without her man. She, by herself, does not run the world.

"Run The World (Girls)" and "1+1" seemed to clash, but Beyoncé has caused this kind of whiplash before. In 2008, she released the double album I Am... Sasha Fierce. One disk was low-pulse R&B fluff. The other, the one devoted to her alter-ego Sasha Fierce, was uptempo and declaratory, delivering the club-conquering, man-scolding "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)." 

The entirety of 4 leaked Tuesday afternoon, and at first review, it appears Beyoncé may have played the same trick again. "1+1" opens the album; "Run The World (Girls)" closes it. In between, there's an unmistakable if gradual turn from melancholic Top 40 ballads to the confrontational snap of military drums and giddy proclamations of love. Is this I Am ... Sasha Fierce part 2?

Not quite. The course of 4 documents a progression, a maturation, of Beyoncé's worldview. Through these songs, she tries to reconcile her abject devotion to a man and her desire to be a girl-power champion. Three tracks in, on the spare confession "I Miss You," she sings about pining for some guy when he skips town--and feeling self-conscious for doing so. "It hurts my pride to tell you how I feel, but I still need to," she croons before asking, "Why is that?" This is the question that preoccupies the album.

Beyoncé has always been at her best while the digging specific, well-drawn conflicts out of the generic topic of romance. 2003's "Crazy In Love," sonically and lyrically, nailed the condition described by its title. 2006's "Irreplaceable" rendered a one-sided breakup in hilarious detail. On 4, the situations are rarely as sharply defined. Critics may fixate on the album's many, many platitudes. But there, at least, seems to be a conceptual basis for those platitudes. With "1+1," she's lying by a man's side, marveling at her absolute reliance on his touch. By "End of the Time," track 10, a line like, "Come take my hand, I will never let you go," comes off as a reversal, an assertion of Beyoncé's own irreplaceability. At the start, she's stricken by her own emotional vulnerability; by the end, she's empowered by it.

Payoff comes on 11th song, the epically loping "I Was Here." This is Beyoncé's existential moment, where she hits upon the justification for how she can claim to be an independent woman and yet feel so totally at some dude's mercy. Through carpe diem--loving who she wants, in the way she wants--she can exert power over how the rest of the globe views her, controlling her destiny into eternity. "This world will see that I lived, I loved," she belts. When the floor-shaking, mantra-driven "Run The World (Girls)" then kicks in, it's no longer a question or an exclamation. It's synthesis.

4 is out June 24 on Columbia Records. Pre-order it on iTunes here.