There’s a specific narrative we expect from our stars. When they’re young and single, they’re allowed to engage in as much bold, triumphant self-assertion as they want; we like the swagger of it. But once they assert themselves successfully, become the reigning figures in their fields, and maybe even succeed in love and find themselves joyfully paired with some eligible spouse … well, at this point they are expected to relax. They’re meant to fade into some dignified pose of glowy introspection. Continuing to assert their awesomeness would look like insecurity, frivolity, or just plain rubbing it in.
Consider Beyoncé Knowles, the long-running ruler of mainstream R&B. She released her last album, I Am … Sasha Fierce, in 2008, the same year she got married—to Jay-Z, a guy so good at regal maturity that his rap career now involves book panels at the New York Public Library. Knowles, meanwhile, shows up for Oprah’s last broadcast and joins Michelle Obama in the fight against childhood obesity. Not to confuse a musician’s personal life with her art, but how surprised would you be to learn that her new album, 4 (out June 28), sounds more like I Am Sasha Happily Married and Thinking Seriously About the Joys and Tribulations of Making Long-Term Commitments in Life? There’s not much here for the dance floor; it’s the audio equivalent of finding a nice place in the suburbs. Even the clattering, assertive single “Run the World (Girls)” is dedicated to telling other people how great they can be; as for Beyoncé, she’s doing fine, and the only boasts she’ll make are playful ones.
There’s nothing dull or tame about this newly settled mood; there are actually a great number of things to love about it. Ballads have not always been Beyoncé’s strong suit, but the string here is charming: There are giddy, girlish tunes about being with the one you love; mopey, spaced-out songs about not being with the one you love; resigned heartbreakers about realizing exactly how much power the ones you love can turn out to hold over you. And there’s a streak of nostalgia running through the sound, whether it’s the kind of traditionalist R&B that sells Adele albums or the cheery funk of a track like “Love on Top,” which feels as cozy as seventies Stevie Wonder or eighties Michael Jackson. It’s hard not to connect these songs with a habit people have: imagining picturesque adult love soundtracked by the music they heard when they were young and their parents, perhaps, seemed happy.
Much of Beyoncé’s appeal has lain in her over-the-top levels of poise and confidence—her almost machinelike command of the art of being an R&B star. (She makes you experience emotions in about the same way a surgeon makes you not have an appendix anymore, and backed with similarly cutting-edge technology.) But the way she sings about love here—which is to say, love as a grave and weighty life choice that demands hushed music, spotlights, and occasional anguish—means singing about things that can sound more like weakness and dependency. She does a wonderfully convincing job of making this seem like a form of bravery. As if, having asserted herself time and again as independent, single, and tough, it’s now more powerful to choose vulnerability—kind of how humans, having conquered most of this planet, might tackle the vulnerabilities of piloting rockets into space.
The album’s climax, in fact, comes in a Diane Warren–Ryan Tedder ballad called “I Was Here,” and it’s explicitly about leaving some kind of legacy—or, in balladspeak, “a footprint on the sands of time.” Talk about the long term! I suppose this is what we always consider “mature”—moving from fighting for independence to fighting for interdependence, and then maybe winding up a revered grandparent at a family reunion—but leave it to Beyoncé to make it all seem joyous and complicated. If you happen to be the kind of parent who’s always pressuring your offspring to settle down and reproduce, you might think about mailing them a copy of 4.