Lady Gaga may have stolen her crown, but Beyonce Knowles is still pop music’s biggest paradox. No artist gives us so much while leaving us feeling so unfulfilled.
She sings as if she’s trying to shatter every windshield, wine glass and contact lens within a five-mile radius. She dances as if she’s trying to punch stiletto-shaped holes in the stage. But after all that belting and stomping — as thrilling as it can be — we never feel any closer to the steely 29-year-old superstar. And we never get the sense that she’s actually lived her songs.
On Tuesday, Beyonce drops “4,” as in her fourth album. It’s also her fourth-best album, as in her worst.
Both cool and low-key, its subdued tone suggests that she’s turning an intimate new leaf. Surprise! She isn’t. Instead, Beyonce sounds more precise and distant than ever, making these mid-tempo tunes feel vexing at first, then dull. Unlike Sade and Prince — her mysterious, ultra-private forebears — Beyonce is becoming a puzzle that might not be worth solving.
The album’s oomph is drained instantly with the Prince-pantomime of “1 + 1.” It’s a stark ballad about desire, but Beyonce’s pleading comes from the emotive one-size-fits-all comfort zone that’s become her default. “I don’t know much about fighting,” she sings in a fiery, too-familiar voice. “But I know that I will fight for you.”
She spends the rest of the album fighting to make her words sound more believable. But with “I Miss You,” it’s hard to know which Beyonce to trust. Over an airy, puttering beat, she double-tracks her apologies to an absent lover: One Beyonce coos softly in our ear while the other wails for our attention from a distance. “The words don’t ever seem to come out right,” the battling Beyonces sing. “But I still mean ’em.”
Fans are used to this sort of thing. With her 2008 album, “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce,” Beyonce introduced an alter ego to help explore her wild side — which was actually the side we’d been exposed to all along. The album was split in two with Ms. Fierce specializing in the dance-floor urgency that made Beyonce’s 2003 debut, “Dangerously in Love,” so riveting. Meanwhile, we learned that the “real” Beyonce was into bland, pseudo-triumphal balladry, a trend she unfortunately continues here with the mascara-smudging piffle of “I Was Here” and “Best Thing I Never Had.”
She’s still at her best when she’s singing in the service of others. “Run the World (Girls)” is a classic Beyonce empowerment anthem where the message is as dizzying as the beat. As if leading a college marching band into a Caribbean street carnival, she belts out a disjointed feminist salvo, saluting a generation of women who “bear the children” and are “smart enough to make these millions.” It’s the final track on “4,” putting an exclamation point on an album that doesn’t really deserve one.
And whether it was intentional or not, “4” puts Beyonce in the company of other pop greats who have used that same number to celebrate their respective arrivals at new creative summits. Gap Band, Zapp and Led Zeppelin each released enduring “IV” albums that memorialized some of their finest hours.
Beyonce’s “4” won’t go down in the books like that. It smacks of a once-great blockbuster movie franchise sadly spinning its wheels.
“Run the World (Girls)”