Beyonce, "4," (Columbia)
"Run the World (Girls)," the first single from Beyonce's fourth solo album, "4," has all the hallmarks of a signature No. 1 Beyonce smash — a bombastic, larger-than-life sound, a call-and-response hook, a heavy dose of girl power and a fierce drumbeat.
Surprisingly, though, it landed with a thud on radio, and the buzz around "4" hasn't been encouraging — there's even talk that the multihyphenate diva could find herself dealing with her very first flop.
It remains to be seen how "4" will do on the charts, but if fans pay attention to the music, then Beyonce should have no worries. If anything, "Run the World (Girls)" is the anomaly of the disc, which has few tracks geared for the clubs.
Instead, Beyonce — just a few months shy of 30 — offers a bewitching blend of ballads and midtempo grooves that show a maturation in the singer's sound. She strips away the much of the musical pyrotechnics that have anchored some of her biggest solo jams for an album more heavy on ballads, and danceable hits that charm, instead of strong-arm, their way into your psyche.
"Love on Top," a buoyant, old school jam that recalls the days when Billy Ocean and curl activator were in, stands among the album's best songs, mixing the sound of horns, synthesizer and Beyonce's beguiling voice to dreamy effect. There's more 1980s inspiration on the sexy laid-back tune "Party," co-produced by Kanye West, thanks to a Slick Rick sample and a retro bass line that slows down the pace, but not the fun. Though the reclusive Andre 3000 offers a verse on the track, Beyonce remains the star on the song, seducing listeners with her powerful pipes.
The Boyz II Men-sampled "Countdown" and the marching band feel of "End of Time" will satisfy those looking for the typical Beyonce frenetic bounce. But it's a love-struck Beyonce, not the dancing diva, who is featured on the bulk of the album, which finds the singer passionately emoting about the love for her man, either from a position of confidence or fear.
"I'm addicted to the rush," acknowledges Beyonce on the semifatalistic "I'd Rather Die Young," while on "Start Over," she offers to reset a relationship rather than lose it. But the most dramatic ballad is the best — "1+1," featuring a blistering Beyonce on a back-to-basics R&B groove that smolders despite its simplicity.
The same applies for "4," an album that has fewer fireworks, but still leaves you starry-eyed.
CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: It wouldn't be a Beyonce album without the obligatory "you go girl" anthem, and she duly supplies it in the rousing "Best Thing I Never Had," which shows again why every man should appreciate what he has — especially if he has Beyonce.
Nekesa Mumbi Moody can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi