Album Review: Beyoncé’s ‘4’ Muddles Its Message

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ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / Getty Images

Beyoncé performs as the headline act during the last day of the Glastonbury festival

When you listen to Beyoncé, try not to focus on her lyrics.

“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is jubilant dancehall pop at its finest, but the actual message—that she “cried [her] tears for three good years” because the man she was with didn’t propose—sounds like something my grandmother would have supported. (Apparently Beyoncé has forgotten the lyrics to “Independent Woman” parts I and II from her Destiny’s Child days, the latter of which preaches “No falling in love / no commitment from me.”)

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In fact, Beyoncé’s catalog includes a slew of seemingly empowering anthems for women that, when examined, don’t actually empower anyone at all. “Ring the Alarm,” her 2006 f-you to cheating men, is actually about a woman who’s more worried about losing her chinchilla coats and beachfront property than her relationship. And now her new album, 4, includes a thundering Major Lazer-sampling Girl Power-esque boot camp number called “Run the World (Girls)” that’s about, well, how girls run the world.


There’s only one problem. Girls don’t run the world.  The week that I first heard this song was also the same week that I read about this summer’s Slut Walks, allegations that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may have used mass rapes as a war tactic, and that two former New York City police officers were acquitted of raping a woman, even though one of them had been caught on tape telling the alleged victim that he used a condom. I’m not saying that Beyoncé needs to perform songs about human rights. It’s just difficult to read the news and then turn around and listen to a song in which someone hollers “Who run the world? Girls!” over and over.

It’s hard to know what Beyoncé really thinks about this; she’s a famously inaccessible pop star. In interviews, she gives bland, seemingly prepared answers and often refuses to talk about her personal life. “I know you don’t want lots of personal questions, like ‘How’s it going?’” Barbara Walters joked when Beyoncé appeared on The View last November and bristled at a question about her husband, Jay-Z. The most revealing anecdote she offered during the entire interview was that she loves her body but still wears Spanx.

The new album 4 is similarly veiled.  Oh, there are love songs, un-love songs, and songs about heartache. The opening track “1 + 1” is probably the finest ballad Beyoncé has delivered in years (If you haven’t already seen the backstage rehearsal video Jay-Z posted, you should watch it) and the “End of Time” is just screaming to be covered by an earnest high school a capella group and posted to YouTube. But that’s all the album offers: well-executed songs performed by a talented woman who refuses to scratch anything more than the surface.

Beyoncé is good at four things:  singing, dancing in high heels, avoiding questions about Jay-Z and crafting superb pop songs with either hypocritical or meaningless messages. “Run the World (Girls)” is probably supposed to be a feel-good song and not a political statement.  But you can’t just declare “Nobody’s Poor!” and pretend that it’s true.

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