There is a beat-up old minivan parked on my block with possibly the best and also most jank-ass bumper sticker of all time. The bumper sticker was clearly created by an enthusiastic but graphic designedly-challenged individual. It reads quite simply, in black font on a white background: BEYONCE.
I can’t think of a more appropriate singer for whom this touching, homemade declaration of love would be made. Beyonce is one of our superstars. She maintains an aura of glamour and composure in an era when so many other women have been overexposed and exploited by the Internet, TMZ, and our own fucked up need to see them drunkenly stumble over their 5″ Louboutins. Girl’s most naked moment this year did not involve reality television, wardrobe malfunctions, or rehab: it was a backstage video taken by Jigga of her rehearsing, and flawlessly executing, the song “1+1”. A pure, old fashioned star, Beyonce allows us to see our dreams in the reflection of her gleaming American smile.
Sure, sure, she’s been trained from a young age by her Joe Jackson-like father to be a megastar. But Beyonce is that rare combination of manufactured performer and raw skill.
Nowhere has this been more evident than on 4, her recent and fourth (obvi) solo album. This album doesn’t give a fuck about sounding contemporary. The overall production flourishes are closer in style to latter-day Earth, Wind & Fire, or another adult contemporary group of “smoov” musicians than to any recent R&B. There’s a Slick Rick sample on “Party.” “Love On Top” is basically a Jackson 5 song. “1+1” features a guitar solo eerily reminiscient of Purple Rain, cleary the result of producers The-Dream & Tricky Stewart’s Prince obsession. While at first I was shocked by the startlingly out-of-touch production choices, I have now decided that this was a bold move in the right direction. It’s not pandering to commercial interests, because it sounds so incredibly corny. It accurately reflects Beyonce’s recent musical influences, and therefore comes off as a labor of love. But, really, sorry for the red herring, the production is beside the point. The album’s sole purpose is to showcase the expressive, ostentatiously powerful VOICE OF BEYONCE, which it does with aplomb.
So far this album has received very positive reviews from the critics I read: pfork, Sasha Frere Jones, the guy for the NYT. All those critics are men, and I’m honestly surprised they like it as much as I do. 4, like many of B’s hit singles, is essentially for the ladies. It’s about the thrill of succumbing to soul-eating love (see: “1+1”, “End of Time”, “Rather Die Young”), something pretty much only women are excited about. It’s about making an effort even after your man has given up on you (See: “I Care”). It’s about working out your problems and communicating about them (“Start Over”, “I Miss You”). Very occasionally, on the few bangers on the album, it’s about sex (“Party”, “Countdown”). But always, it’s about monogamy, true love, marriage, life-long companionship. To co-opt a phrase: this is some grown-woman shit!
Do you understand how much I love Beyonce? Maybe. But the important thing is that Beyonce understands how much we love her. She delivers on everything we want from her: her voice cracks with emotion, she gives utterance to our pain, confusion, joy, she identifies our nameless if terribly mundane emotional problems with our boyfriends.
I know my subjective, first-person emotional relationship with this music has all the perspective of a 15-year-old’s obsession with, say, Kurt Cobain, or something. But my earliest, most primal instinct is to love music with my heart, and then think about it later. This only happens to me once in a great while these days; I am a grizzled old lady with a cynical ear. But something punched my soul awake on 4. This is music for people who find catharsis in belting along to songs that sound like your howling heart. Now go, be set free by Beyonce’s transcendent pipes.