Beyoncé’s ‘4,’ a professional and personal triumph, remains timeless at 5

Beyonce_4

June 24, 2011.

Beyoncé released her long awaited fourth album on June 24, 2011 – the anniversary of the release her debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. In many ways, 4 was like a rebirth for Beyoncé – creatively, personally and professionally. She had parted ways with her father as a manager, she had spent the last three years as a wife and was, at the time of release, pregnant, and she had made the decision (after winning 16 Grammy’s) that she would do whatever made her happy. Naturally, the fans reacted in a big way to the release of the album. To commemorate it’s 5th anniversary, EST. 1997 writers Andrew and Vincent share their differing perspectives on the album, and its songs.

Andrew:

I was a part of Sony Music while this album was rolled out and had a hand in the promotion. While I can’t and won’t claim an actual hand in the creation of this album, let me tell you, I worked it hard, from the release of “Run The World (Girls)” all the way to the album. I first learned that the album was happening in October of 2010, when someone at the label who has worked with B before, mentioned that she had just been called back in to participate in the creation of the album. That was all we had to go on for a good amount of time, until late April when we started working “Run The World (Girls)”. We started with the iTunes link, and then as information was revealed, we were promoting pre-order links, the video, and that incredible Billboard Music Awards performance.

Then “Best Thing I Never Had” dropped and promotion grew. One of the coolest things was that we received big ‘B’ stencils and a can of red spray chalk, to tag areas in our markets. Not going to lie, it was a little mortifying, but fun none the less. The big excitement actually came once the album dropped and we got to participate in store checks. Because the label wanted some firm information on the album’s placement and sales in big box stores, we were sent into the field. I’ll never forget mis-reading the e-mail, which said that we just had to check for 25 copies and move on. I was in Best Buy in south Philly, and their entire stock of copies was out. 384. That’s how many copies of 4 I counted that day. The best part of that was that my recap email circulated amongst a few VP’s at the label and a few even commended my work. Everything for a reason.

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Once the release date passed and store checks were completed, promotion was far from over. We continued to receive awesome promo materials, including Beyonce 4 fans, and red B bandanas to hand out. They were quite the hot commodity, although I have one of each left for my own personal collection. We continued to promote anything that hit from the album, from other video releases, to the Elements of 4 DVD all the way into 2012. Though the album was not a massive commercial success, it stands as my favorite Beyoncé album to date and something I’m eternally proud to have been part of it, even if from a distance.

 

1+1” A smoldering opener is a memorable opener. It immediately evokes notions of the classic soul with her all-out delivery, yet it never even climaxes. She just sings her face off for four and a half minutes. The studio version however, pales in comparison to the iPhone video Jay-Z took of her rehearsing the song before American Idol. The rawness of the performance made it a viral moment, and drew some more attention to a great song.

I Care” Everyone was calling this the Adele moment of the album, because 21 was still killing it on the charts. The heartbroken tone of the lyrics, drum arrangement, and incredible vocals all do somewhat echo the tone of 21, but had that album not been what it was, this would be classified as a cross between pop percussion and R&B chords.

I Miss You” is EASILY one of my all-time favorite Beyonce songs. The Frank Ocean-penned tune’s melancholy tone, the simplistic drum beat, and vocal arrangement are unforgettable. I consider it a master-class in vocal production and doubling. The idea to focus on a softer vocal in the front of the mix and place a strong, soulful track underneath is nothing short of genius, and demonstrates B’s prowess with vocal control.

Best Thing I Never Had” I have such mixed feelings about this song. It is such a re-hash of the “Irreplaceable” theme, and the video was just, far from exciting (cue buzzing). However, over the years I’ve grown to really enjoy it.

Rather Die Young” With a slight nod to doo wop in the guitar progression and syncopation of the title’s place in the hook, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of the aforementioned doo wop, R&B and a pop polish.

Start Over” One of the album’s most underrated and forgotten songs. The beat and synth progressions are determined, growing, climbing, and turning as B sings to a love lost and proposes wiping the slate clean and giving things another go from the start. It remains the only song from the standard edition of 4 that had never been performed live, although arguably it would fit great in the current climate of The Formation Tour.

Love On Top” Undeniably an iconic moment for the B. The song was already a standout track on the album with it’s unapologetically 80s vibe and accompanying video, but the pregnancy-reveal at the MTV VMAs solidified this song’s place in Beyoncé’s career history. Oh, lest we forget the unrelenting key changes that dominate the final minute and a half. Vocals for weeks.

Dreaming” this is criminally underrated. As the Japan bonus track, and sole song that was unreleased in any other territory, it’s relatively unknown. However, the airy piano, throbbing bass drum, and isolated main vocal all make for a stellar mid-tempo.

Vincent:

While Andrew was lucky enough to have been a fan who was also involved in the label side of the album’s promotion, I can only tell y’all about my experiences as a regular ole fan. Beyoncé described 4 as representing her most defining moments, and oddly enough, it ended up doing the same for me, too.

It all began with the release of “Run the World (Girls)”. I was studying abroad in Paris, and some terribly low quality recording of the track leaked in advance of its official release. I remember being frantic trying to make out what the hell she was saying, and my fellow Beyoncé-fan friends who were in Paris with me were hype too because I had that exclusive Beyoncé tea. However, as if that weren’t enough, it turned out that Beyoncé was in Paris at the same time we were! One of my friends was walking down the street and saw a commotion nearby, and it was because Beyoncé was out on her hotel balcony doing a photoshoot that ultimately ended up as part of the 4 promotional materials. The album’s artwork photoshoot was done on the rooftop of that hotel in Paris, as shown in the Year of 4 documentary.

Not only that, but Beyoncé, Jay and Solange’s son Julez went to Disneyland Paris just DAYS after my friends and I were there. Can I tell y’all how upset I was that I missed seeing Beyoncé, at Disney, in Paris?! If I remember correctly, Beyoncé also found out she was pregnant while she was there in Paris; or she said Blue was likely conceived while there. I forget, but it was one of the two. So, while Andrew was galavanting around NYC promoting 4, I was chilling in the same city as Beyoncé while on vacation and doing its photoshoot.

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Soon after, “Run the World” was officially released and slayed my entire existence. Beyoncé had never done anything like this before and I loved it. It was definitely out of character for her, but I was happy she was moving in a different direction. The song also ended up becoming the theme song for my first ever Spring Break trip — to Mallorca, Spain. My friends and I bopped around the beach to “Run the World” and even did a photoshoot inspired by it. I’ll spare you the photos, and me the embarrassment. Just know that the stanning was real.

The next official release off of 4 was “1+1” and it came at quite an emotional time for me; it was released on the day of my cousin’s funeral. He passed away from cancer in May 2011, shortly after I returned from Europe. The night Beyoncé dropped “1+1,” I was at the funeral when I received the notification. When it ended I went out into my car and listened to it, and, at least for a moment, I was able to feel comforted and uplifted. I still think of that moment whenever I hear the song. It was another song off of 4, though, that became so important to my family and I while dealing with the loss of my cousin: “I Was Here.” When the album leaked, I didn’t want to listen to it, but one of my friends suggested that I take a listen to “I Was Here” considering what I was going through, so I did. “I Was Here” is a beautiful, Diane Warren-penned ballad about leaving behind a meaningful legacy. It is quite eery to hear her sing about something so somber, but it is a beautiful message.

Because of that, it became our family’s anthem for my cousin, and for me it was almost like a supernatural moment. I am not the most religious person and for a moment I seriously considered the coincidental timing of this song entering my life as being more than coincidental. I used the song in a tribute video I made for my cousin, and ended up getting the phrase “I was here” tattooed on my wrist on my 21st birthday – not because of Beyoncé, but because of my cousin. The tattoo artist traced my cousin’s handwriting from an old notebook, to write “I was here” in his handwriting. That September, I had my fifth and most recent “meet and greet” with a pregnant Beyoncé at the Pulse Fragrance launch at Macy’s in Herald Square, NYC. At the event, before we took our photo, I told Beyoncé about my cousin and the reason for my tattoo as I showed it to her. She let out a big “awwww,” told me that it was beautiful, and reached her arm around me to embrace me from her chair, and then we took our photo. Of course, I thanked her for the song and it was such a special moment.

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End of Time” was another song fans got to experience before the release of the album, and the song quickly became one of my favorite Beyoncé songs, if not THE favorite. The Fela Kuti inspired, undeniably danceable bop has become a highlight of her live shows and of her catalogue. It encapsulates everything that makes Beyoncé’s music great – the energy, the relatable lyrics, the powerful vocals, the unique and varied musical influences and the fast-singing that became one of her trademarks beginning in 1997. “End of Time” has it all, and even with the awesomeness that is LEMONADE, “End of Time” was still a standout performance during The Formation World Tour. I remember when the song dropped and we were all trying to figure out what was being said by the little voice at the beginning, and my friends and I came up with “don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me.” To be honest, while I 100% believed it at the time, I am not so certain anymore. Regardless, I still say it whenever I listen to the song. However, now, I have the live performance ad-lib, “put yo’ hands together” ingrained in my memory too.

“End of Time,” along with “Girls,” “1+1,” “Crazy In Love” and “Single Ladies” were all on the setlist for Beyoncé’s free Central Park concert for Good Morning America on July 1, 2011. My best friend (and sometimes-EST.1997 writer) Shannon and I waited on the sidewalks of Central Park for 8 hours overnight to witness this performance that kicked off the 4 era in a big way. It was a hot mess in so many ways, because y’all know the Beyhive is a mess, but it was worth it in the end. It was the first time I got to see songs from 4 live – that is, until later that summer at Roseland.

I went twice to the Roseland shows because, for once, the tickets were affordable and it was general admission. I knew it was going to be special being that it was in such a small theater, so I had to experience it more than once. Had it been 2016, I would have went to all four shows, but I was still a college student so my coins were not quite in full formation. Nevertheless, I scrounged up the $260 or so required to go to two shows and I perched on the sidewalk outside of the Ballroom for about 8 hours each day waiting to enter. The first night went off without issue or injury; we waited and got to see Beysus and our lives slain. I was no more than 5 or 6 feet away from my Queen and I was thrilled to get to do it again a few nights later. However, my second show was not as smooth — it rained, bitch. No, it fucking POURED and the assholes at Roseland would NOT let us inside. It was maybe thirty minutes before the doors were scheduled to open when it downpoured and they left us out there to soak like wet dogs. We were pissed. We stormed the entrance to hide under the overhang, and they would not let us in. By the time we got back in line and eventually inside, we lost our prime place in line and ended up not as close as we hoped. But whatever. We were still no more than 10 feet away from King B and she slayed us thoroughly. At the second night, my suspicions that arose during the first night were confirmed in my mind. I could tell that Beyoncé was pregnant. She wore that questionable ass curtain over her stomach and any time it flipped up in the air she’d quickly push it down to cover it. Not like her, at all… and a few weeks later at the VMAs, she confirmed it. I was a proud stan for knowing she was pregnant. My big, Beyoncé-related “I told you so!!!” moment.

The era was by no means traditional in the way that Beyoncé promoted (or, rather, didn’t promote it) but it was no less special than all the rest. 4 was her best album to date and a huge leap in the creative department as well as professional. With 4, Beyoncé was acting as her own manager through her own company, Parkwood. Not only that, but she was not catering to commercial audiences. 4 has a much more nostalgic, throwback sound and most of it is not too radio friendly, save “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Love on Top.” Another super throwback moment was “Lay Up Under Me,” an assuming, one-of-many, ode to Jay-Z. It features the lyric “part of this fortune, boy I owe you, for always being there to talk to.” It is cute, but also a bit paint by numbers as far as throwback tracks go. I suppose that’s why it was regulated to bonus track status. Still, it is an enjoyable bop that makes you want to skate through the roller rinks of yesteryear.

Just as there was no shortage of the throwback sound on 4, there was also no shortage of the lovey-dovey moments. “Countdown” and “Party,” while ratchet, are both love songs indeed and both throwback to different sounds. Both harken the richness of 90s R&B and mix it with the flavor of the past. For “Countdown,” it goes back to 70s soul, and for “Party,” 80s funk and hip-hop with the Slick Rick sample. André 3000 appeared to add to the 90s nostalgia as well (and J. Cole for the video because basically he’s 90s hip-hop lost in the 2000s). They are both highlights from the album and Beyoncé’s overall catalogue. For me, personally, these two songs along with several others on 4 acted as the soundtrack to my first love. It’s been five years now, so thankfully I am able to disassociate the songs now, but when I think back I still remember how these songs were indeed the soundtrack to our relationship. Now, however, I can look back fondly.

Similary, the Prince inspired, sensual strip tease that is “Dance For You” fit that bill as well. One of the sexiest songs Beyoncé had released up until that point, and perhaps the more sophisticated sister of “Speechless,” “Dance For You” definitely deserved more credit and recognition. However, in New York at least, it was inescapable on R&B radio. At least Beyoncé recognized its greatness and worthiness by legitimizing the song with its chair dancing, office chair dance moment of a video:

Finally, my other favorite song from the album, “Schoolin’ Life” became an odd theme song for my senior year of college, which ran from September 2011 to May 2012. So, not only was 4 the soundtrack to my first love, but also to my senior year of college. “Schoolin’ Life” is such a damn jam and sounds as though it was pulled straight from the Purple Rain vaults or something. It was funny to me that not only did Beyoncé say “I’m not a teacher, baby, but I can teach ya something” (I went to school to be – and now, am – a teacher) but she also went on to say “who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?!” (I was about to finally get mine). However, I love the song and love to answer and say, “well, I do sis because I ain’t you!” I was also salty as hell that she performed it at Revel but not Roseland, as I previously mentioned – I missed Revel.  Also, keeping with the college soundtrack, “Run the World” was particularly useful for it’s “raise a glass for the college grads” lyrics. Best believe I played that song and raised my glass when I graduated.

In short, with 4 Beyoncé created a soundtrack to one of the most important moments in her life that became the soundtrack to several important moments in my own life. While, since 1999, she and Destiny’s Child have always been the ever present soundtrack, the events during 2011-2012 to which 4 provided my musical backdrop were especially defining for me. So, thank you, Beyoncé, for this impressive body of work that is still great today and is as timeless as you hoped it would be. I am still debating if 4 or BEYONCÉ is my favorite Beyoncé album… but its a pretty close tie for sure. Be that as it may, Self-Titled would not have happened without 4 breaking down all expectations and barriers of what a Beyoncé release should sound and function like. No more did Beyoncé care about promotion, having a commercial sound or chart positions. With 4, she focused on highlighting the entire album; the body of work. And for that, I commend her, and 4’s role in that achievement.

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