Memo to Jay-Z: Beyoncé is probably about to start poking pinholes in your condoms. Because unless she’s playing catchup with Adele and not quite comprehending the numerology behind her LP titles, Beyoncé has started referring to her albums by birth order, and she’s definitely building up to something. The predominately intimate, ballad-heavy 4 sees her fertile and ready; I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday down the line, she described this set as the one closest to her heart. It’s certainly going to dilate the cervixes of the demographic among B’s fanbase who can’t hold it in whenever she howls out a slow-burning torch song. In 46 minutes and 12 tracks, 4 suggests a full-term nine months.
From the opening lines of the crushing “1+1,” Beyoncé’s voice is ripe and, well, full-bodied, and the glow continues through until the climax of the album’s first single, the shocking underperformer “Run the World (Girls),” when Beyoncé growls, “Buoy, you know you love how we’re smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children…then get back to bidness.” Around her, snare drums paradiddle like so many rugrats skittering about in a kindergarten classroom and a multi-tracked army of B chants, “Who run this mother?” Though in its new context, the sugar-speedballing “Run the World” couldn’t sound more like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, the album on the whole couldn’t be more maternally forthright if it rubbed cocoa butter on its bulging tummy. It couldn’t be more hormonal if it demanded midnight grocery store runs for rum raisin ice cream with a honey Dijon sauce. The tracklist isn’t so much filled with baby-making jams as it is populated by little R&B fetuses, and Beyoncé’s voice is the midwife.
Given the atmosphere of procreation, I admit I should be a little more alienated by the heteronormativity of, say, “Rather Die Young,” in which Beyoncé faux-passively demands, “What I’m telling you, I’m giving my life, it’s in your hands/And what I’m gonna do is be a woman and you can be a man.” But what can I say? There’s conviction behind both her forceful delivery and the rapturous drama of the deep house-tinged piano chords. In B’s career-long negotiation of the not-at-all fine line between supplication and empowerment, I haven’t heard many more convincing assertions that compliance is a woman’s prerogative. It might just be that the total foreignness of this attitude is perfectly reflected in the dark, undulating urgency of the song’s bridge.
Its perfect and totally inverted fraternal twin is easily “Love on Top,” a bright, breezy tribute to the freshness of mid-’80s, pre-new-jack-FM R&B circa pre-crack Whitney Houston and pre-wack Anita Baker. Beyoncé sounds giddy, albeit still aggressive, at the prospect that “after fighting through my fears…finally you’ve put me first.” It might just be the fact that the lyrics give her the chance to say the word “baby” about two-dozen times that has her so goddamned happy, but the spirit carries both her and the song into a Stevie Wonder-reminiscent climax of continually rising key changes that, fortunately, force Beyoncé out of her scold range and into some winningly girlish soprano whoops.
Beyond “Love on Top,” “Run the World,” and “Countdown” (a hyperventilating number that sounds like a parody of Beyoncé’s more militant hits from the tail-end of the Destiny’s Child era, but with a nice interpolation of Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” countdown), the album is otherwise dominated by mid- to no-tempo tracks, which, vocally speaking, gives her enough rope to hang either her doubters or herself (as in the MOR misfire “Best Thing I Never Had,” which only works if you presume the “I bet it sucks to be you right now” kiss-off is actually aimed at anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot of the song itself). And if there are any among the former who aren’t moved by “1+1,” a yearning power ballad whose refrain “Make love to meeeeeee” seems suspended somewhere between afterglow and madness, I guess it really does suck to be you right now. Because, though I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ babies, 4 frequently makes me want to get all gynecological. My body, my choice.