Beyoncé 4

Beyoncé 4 0

This just in from the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately department: nervous about the possible lukewarm reception of “4,” Beyoncé’s backers have been urging a Destiny’s Child reunion.

Never mind that Beyoncé Knowles has been the most reliably entertaining pop star of the past 10 years, and one who has earned the right to indulge in some modest experimentation. Never mind that the sprightly, frequently ecstatic “4” is hardly a Fiery Furnaces album, or even a Janelle Monáe album. No, this one doesn’t have enough hits that bonk you over the head with their choruses, a la “Single Ladies,” and when the game is played at its highest levels — as Beyoncé plays it — brand consistency is a corporate requirement.

But while Beyoncé has always been happy to play that game, she’s more than just a brand. She has often managed, through force of personality and talent, to make massive hits out of repetitive, immensely irritating material (“Video Phone” and “Get Me Bodied” come to mind, but there are others). Perhaps she did not want to have to animate any insidious earworms this time around. With the possible exception of the relentless and unrepresentative single “Run the World (Girls),” the songs on “4” are much better-written than typical Beyoncé hits. And unlike the “I Am … Sasha Fierce” project, there’s nothing disjointed about the new set. Even if there’s no “Single Ladies” on it, “4” is the first Beyoncé album that’s a strong, engaging listen from beginning to end, and one that radiates contentment and self-possession even when the star is singing her heart out.

The kiss-off “Best Thing I Never Had” is probably the most likely song to become a Beyoncé-sized smash: it’s a return to the sound and subject matter of “Irreplaceable.” Only this time around, she’s not threatening a wayward boyfriend, she’s patting herself on the back for having the strength not to get involved with one in the first place.

Much of “4” is a celebration of the joy of fidelity — not always the most popular subject on hit radio, but one that Beyoncé inhabits fully. The brassy “Countdown” finds in its number sequence a metaphor for commitment; the soulful “1 + 1” is a lovestruck dedication to a longtime partner. Best of all is “Love on Top,” which recalls New Edition in its giddiness and which modulates upward, over and over, all the way to heaven.

Beyoncé has roped some highly modern collaborators (Jeff Bhasker, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Frank Ocean) into elaborating her vision. This isn’t unusual: she’s always worked with top-flight producers. But for the first time, it feels like she’s driving the bus.

And while she’d threatened an avant-garde Fela Kuti influence in advance interviews, “4” demonstrates that she’s more interested in revisiting the sound of her childhood: Prince’s soul-rock experiments, Whitney Houston album sides, Anita Baker, Shalamar, Jody Watley. If Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” shot for the grandeur of the blockbusters of 20 years ago, “4” reminds us that there was a heck of a lot more to the ’80s than No. 1 hits. And for those disappointed that Beyoncé isn’t trying to conquer the world with each track … well, “Single Ladies” will be playing on the radio in perpetuity.

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4, CD
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