If albums were judged solely on vavoomish cover art and peek-a-bum snaps in the liner notes, Beyonce would get an A+++ every time out. On Ms. Knowles' fourth album, conveniently titled 4, the wonder-womanly star shows off a dazzling art-directed amount of gam, bosom, abs and rump. Inside, she dresses up as a party girl, a runway model, a poolside flirt and, well, someone hanging from ropes in boy shorts and a bearskin rug. Not quite sure what she's supposed to be in that one. Maybe a circus performer. Maybe an air freshener.
It's all very slick, very hot, but it also illustrates Beyonce's Achilles' heel: her need for style over substance. It's as if the album art came first, the crummy songs later. As a singles artist, Beyonce is effective: Crazy in Love, Irreplaceable, Single Ladies. But in long-player form, the 29-year-old too often tries to appease all audiences — young, old, urban, suburban — without really catering to any one of them. Her albums are a few songs deep at best, and now they're not even that.
The first two singles from the 4 album have been startling commercial flops. Run the World (Girls) is a marching-band-beaten mess, a musical style she's bitten way too many times; it's irritating and disjointed, crass and phony, with B acting tough. The Best Thing I Never Had has a nifty tumble-down-the-steps rolling beat, but lyrics that were penned on the way to the studio: "So when I think of the time that I almost loved you / You showed your a-- and I saw the real you." The big punch line? That song was written by seven people!
Those are probably the most radio-friendly cuts on the 12-track album. Head-scratchers include Countdown, with its marching-band (again) brass, and vocals that don't match the beat. Plus yet another marching-band track, the spastic End of Time.
Is there a drum-major somewhere who stole B's heart?
Several ballads fall flat, although Diane Warren's I Was Here has a certain carpe diem grandeur. The album's best track is Love on Top, a sunshiney circa-'81 R&B vamp, a female version of George Benson's classic Turn Your Love Around. It's so clean-sounding, you can't help but wonder if Beyonce would rather just do an '80s covers album.
At this rate, it would be the most honest record she's made. Plus imagine the photo fun she could have with leg warmers.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/popmusic.