With 4, Beyoncé applies her work ethic to emotions

In the video for Run the World (Girls), the lead single from Beyoncé Knowles's fourth solo album, it is her use of revolutionary motifs that is most striking. Flags, flames and raised fists form the backdrop for a clip in which Beyoncé's crew of female dancers are presented as an outlaw gang of wild women, and the singer herself as their bejewelled warrior queen. To drive the point home, their ostensible adversaries are men clad in full riot gear, a literal representation of how a patriarchal society polices the behaviour of women who attempt to exist outside of its rules, as Beyoncé's dancers seem to.

Its final scene seems to jar with this picture, though, with a dance battle that ends with Beyoncé's gang facing the riot police - and saluting them. Whether intentional or not, it's a telling detail - for Beyoncé is no revolutionary and never has been.

The clue should have been in the song's title: Beyoncé's girls are the ones who run the world already (and the police are suddenly cast as mere foot soldiers, the dance-offs regimented training sessions rather than conflict). Far from fighting the power, Beyoncé - whose rise from eldest daughter in an upper-middle-class Houston household, to undisputed leader of the most globally successful girl group of the past two decades, to megastar in her own right with the ear of the president of the USA has been completely seamless - embodies it.

In the global environment of the pop industry, Beyoncé is akin to a hedge fund, and not just because of her enormous success. Her distinguishing characteristic as a celebrity has been her intense sense of privacy - particularly notable in our panoptic age, wherein a public figure's personal life is considered to be part of their cultural capital. In contrast, Beyoncé's determination to keep her relationship with Jay-Z out of the headlines is such that it took a week for the press to realise their wedding had actually happened.

As an artist, meanwhile, she has consistently displayed the kind of attitude towards money that any hedge fund manager would identify with: not just generic bling braggadocio, but a deep and abiding interest in the stuff - and the role it plays in the minefields of modern courtship. Unromantic, maybe, but true to life considering the recurring statistics for relationship breakdown caused by financial issues.

Throughout Beyoncé's career, she has been both at her sharpest and her most emotionally resonant when focused on the economics of a situation: delineating the myriad ways in which dating dynamics turn on money in her Destiny's Child days on Bills, Bills, Bills and Bug-A-Boo; using her spending power as the ultimate expression of lust (and self-gratification) on Suga Mama; and, on Irreplaceable, being cut deepest by the sight of her boyfriend "rolling her round in the car that I bought you".

There's also a ruthlessly competitive edge to Beyoncé's endeavours: it's particularly noticeable that she has never permitted another female artist to guest on any of her albums (give or take a Shakira duet appended to the re-release of B'Day). When she states that "girls" run the world, it is hard not to suspect that she means "I". On the evidence to date, it is not as though she sets particularly high standards for her male guests: approaching Kanye West guest verses with trepidation has become an all too familiar feeling, and sure enough, midway through 4 he manages to almost single-handedly sink Party with the truly dreadful line, "You got that swag sauce, you dripping swagu."

Like the financial masters of the universe, Beyoncé has both the talent and chutzpah to carry off the above without getting into the messy business of baring her soul. But she's also more than aware that, in R&B, she's working in a field where the ability to convey emotion is of paramount importance. Unlike many of her contemporaries who have abandoned the genre for the more commercially reliable sounds of electropop, she displays a fierce loyalty to it.

In the months before 4's release, it was trailed by exaggerated statements about its sonic invention, with Beyoncé claiming to be "mak[ing] my own genre of music" amid rumours of collaborations with tinnitus-inducing indie favourites Sleigh Bells. In light of this, it's gratifying to encounter instead a determinedly classicist, ballad-heavy R&B album that nods to historic greats - Stevie Wonder, Prince, Whitney Houston - without ever sounding overly in their debt. It's even more gratifying to hear Beyoncé pull it off - mostly by allowing herself to sound more vulnerable than ever.

Though Beyoncé's aptitude for balladry has improved over the years, it is nonetheless a revelation to hear her pull out all the stops on cuts as bare as 4's opener, 1+1. Over a simple, arpeggiated riff and brushed drums, as tactile as fingers running down your neck, she pledges unwavering devotion with such commitment that any casual listener would freeze in their tracks. "I don't know much about fighting, but I - I know I would fight for you," she declares, simultaneously capturing the epic scope of the feeling and the intimacy of the promise. By paring the song down, Beyoncé finds that she is even more able to capture the listener in the unblinking headlights of emotion.

A similar strategy underpins the various takes on the R&B ballad found on 4. They are marked out by straightforward, bold titles - I Care, I Miss You - that correlate to spare, stripped-down arrangements and close-mic vocal recordings that preserve every raw crack of feeling: those moments when Beyoncé's voice breaks with emotion on 1+1, or begins singing along with the guitar solo of I Care as though words have become insufficient. There is no skirting around in evasive details or navel-gazing: as though setting herself a challenge, Beyoncé leaves herself with nowhere to hide. On I Care, she pivots around the title to the point of monomania, fixating on it as though conjugating it - I care, you don't care - will solve her problems.

The interior monologue of I Miss You, meanwhile, may be the closest she has come to expressing genuinely wrenching trauma. Written by Frank Ocean, the R&B songwriter whose affiliation with Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All has made him one of the most touted emerging artists of the year, Beyoncé alternates between addressing herself and the memory of a dead friend.

Singing as though to herself, caught in the spaces opened up by Ocean's trademark drifting synths, it is a song that perfectly captures the paralysis of grief. Elsewhere, Beyoncé puts this uncharacteristically subtle dream state to alternative use on Rather Die Young, affecting a naive girlishness over one of the album's most conscious period pieces: its debt to 1970s soul is obvious, but its starry-eyed sweetness harks back to a particularly innocent type of Broadway musical, too. It's this innocence that lends the song its edge of danger, as Beyoncé obliviously romanticises a death wish disguised as puppy love.

Often, the emotional divide between pop and R&B ballads and uptempo tracks is such that it renders the album as a whole slightly jarring. It's impressive, then, that on 4 they make up a coherent body of work.

The album's home stretch is a delirious, delightful rush - but the celebrations of Love On Top,Countdown and End Of Time are underpinned by the emotional wringer of I Care and Start Over, all peppered with references to those earlier struggles.

If anything, this serves only to enhance their joy: it feels fully earned and vividly real, expressions of a love's longevity rather than mere flings despite their lightheaded playfulness. It helps, too, that they are three of the finest moments of Beyoncé's career.

Countdown is a reggae-tinged roller coaster of melodic switch-ups, rat-a-tat rhythms and backing vocals springing out of nowhere that demands to be accompanied by a street dance routine. "Me and my boo, and my boo lip-locking; all up in the back cuz the chicks keep flocking," swaggers Beyoncé with the verve of a woman for whom a decade-long relationship feels as fresh as a summer crush. Meanwhile, Love on Top climaxes with not one, not two, but four ascending key changes that lift the song from irresistible to ecstatic. Sonically, it's reminiscent of early Whitney Houston; spiritually, though, one is reminded of Madonna's Open Your Heart, another song that achieves joyousness through sheer force of will.

4 is not an album for those still hung up on R&B and pop as a vehicle for forward-thinking, innovative production values. But then, Beyoncé proves that ultimately, it's not really about being a revolutionary in any case. It's unsurprising, too, that someone to whom power comes so naturally and easily should have a more internalised, individualist conception of bravery. Tellingly, there's another thread that runs through 4: the motif of putting hard work in to overcome emotional difficulties, the application of the Protestant work ethic to resolve relationship crises. Beyoncé may be opening up over the years, but one suspects she'll always be a hedge fund at heart.

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.

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