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CD Review

Beyoncé sets her softer side free in low-key '4'

(Michael Becker/Fox via Reuters)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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Beyoncé Knowles is the kind of pop star who had to invent an alter ego in order to unleash her inner wild child. On 2008’s “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce,’’ she debuted a friskier R&B sound with songs about being a diva, which she proclaimed was “a female version of a hustler,’’ and getting down and dirty on a video phone.

She couldn’t quite commit to a full makeover, though. The double album had its flip sides: The thumping club cuts and Top 40 hits, including the ubiquitous “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),’’ were tempered by another disc of dignified ballads. Beyoncé proved she could have it both ways, too. For everyone who loved “Single Ladies,’’ at least half of them were also captivated by its euphoric counterpart, “Halo.’’

If anything, “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce’’ reminded us that Beyoncé can be naughty, but we tend to like her because she’s nice. Of all her peers, she’s the one you won’t see sloshed in public or wearing a slab of sirloin to an awards show.

Maybe that’s why Beyoncé’s new album seems so suited to her talents. The title “4’’ corresponds to the number of solo studio albums she’s made, and it is mellower than we’ve come to expect from her. The album, which will be released Tuesday, is certainly not the obvious follow-up to a smash record meant to redefine her as a bad girl. It exceeds those expectations.

Give it time. On first listen, “4’’ plays it safe, but really it plays up her strengths. There are no single ladies cavorting and dancing in synch on this album. Those ladies now seem to be wrestling with the ups and downs of a serious relationship. That’s a reality perhaps reflected in Beyoncé’s personal life; she married longtime boyfriend Jay-Z in 2008.

This album is also one of Beyoncé’s most natural efforts, standing out for the simple fact that it doesn’t try to stand out. Its 12 songs are often rooted in neo-soul, the kind Maxwell and Erykah Badu were recording for baby-making soundtracks back in the ’90s.

In fact, an old-school charm breezes through several songs. “You’re my James Dean / You make me feel like I’m 17,’’ Beyoncé purrs on “Rather Die Young’’ before the chorus kicks in and you swear Labelle is backing her on those heavenly harmonies. “Love on Top’’ sounds like the pretty young thing of Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.’’ grew up to make a sequel to that 1983 hit.

Kanye West and Andre 3000 turn up on “Party,’’ a proudly retro slice of R&B that comes pretty close to sounding like a parody by the Lonely Island or Flight of the Conchords. It’s also an irresistible summer jam that I haven’t been able to stop humming for a week straight.

“Run the World (Girls),’’ the first single, now sounds like a ruse, a castoff from “Sasha Fierce’’ that doesn’t belong on “4.’’ It’s at odds with the key objective of showcasing Beyoncé’s softer side, letting her burrow into the material in a way that’s rarely been captured on her records.

For once, the production doesn’t hijack the songs and become the focal point. With a few exceptions (the unbearably trite “Best Thing I Never Had’’), everything here is tasteful, sometimes even a bit tense. On “1+1,’’ over a crush of electric guitar, Beyoncé’s voice sounds frayed, as if she has sung these words again and again to a man who refuses to understand them.

“I Was Here,’’ a collaboration with Diane Warren and Ryan Tedder, introduces a new strain of her balladry: an ethereal marriage of R&B sensuality and stuttering indie-rock guitars. It’s “Halo’’ on steroids — or Valium.

Already there have been rumors that Beyoncé’s label, Columbia Records, is concerned about the commercial appeal of “4.’’ And truthfully, it’s hard to imagine which of these songs could be blockbuster hits. The radio-friendly “Countdown’’ and “End of Time’’ are contenders.

Still, it’s strange to think such a low-key and effortless album poses such a high risk for a star of Beyoncé’s caliber. But that’s just it — “4’’ is the work of an artist who can finally afford an occasional curveball, especially one that delivers such a plush blow.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.