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The number 4 means something to Beyonce: it's the date of her birth, the date of her wedding; there are even four key changes in the final, teetering chorus of Love on Top to ram the point home. That the title was apparently crowd sourced from fans attuned to Beyonce's yen for numerology smacks of post-justification, but one fact pokes through - 4 is definitely her fourth album.
Following schizo double I Am... Sasha Fierce, Beyonce took a year off but has come back brighter. Dozens of songs emerged from the original 4 sessions and the promo circuit's been leapt on with a vengeance, culminating - at least over here - in the intriguing Glastonbury headline slot (yet to wow us as we go to press). With 4's best bold tunes, Beyonce has spruced up an already handsome catalogue. She's got the armoury to trump husband Jay-Z's perception-altering Pilton turn.
Run the World (Girls) we know, twice over, in Major Lazer's Pon de Floor and in its recent official and unofficial leaks. Strangely, it's tacked on like a bonus after the natural big finish of the Diane Warren-penned I Was Here, when it would've nestled comfortably alongside the opulent M.I.A.-style cacophony of Countdown or End of Time's startling vision of Animal Collective covering Lionel Richie's All Night Long. No matter - the rest of 4 tips towards the powerhouse balladry that caressed her previous album.
And these are exemplars of the form, I Care in particular emoting the house down over a sustained Purple Rain chord. Its near-equals 1+1 and I Miss You tug heartstrings too, the former over magnificent guitar bombast; the latter - a contribution from Odd Future's misfit soulman Frank Ocean - over the kind of subtle tension achieved by Alicia Keys' Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart. 1+1 offers a pointer to Best Thing I Never Had where Beyonce really gets her soft rock on, matching Bon Iver's Beth/Rest in summoning up Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Now there's an odd future.
Less successful are Kanye West and Andre 3000's interruptions ("You got the swag sauce / You drip the swagu," leers Kanye - oh dear) on Party's slick 80s soul, while the overdone glitz of Rather Die Young drags. The rest of 4, though, sparks. Beyonce slips from flirty to fragile to fabulous, and is in terrific voice throughout, reminding us that when she opens up there's no-one else in the game.