"This is going to be a little different, y'all," said Beyoncé shortly after taking the stage Sunday night for the first of four shows at New York's Roseland Ballroom. "It'll be more intimate."
Different, sure: Roseland, a venerable venue with a capacity of 3200, is much quainter than the venues Beyoncé normally plays. (In June, she performed for an estimated 175,000 at the Glastonbury Festival in England.) But even without the hi-tech trappings of her arena shows or a single costume change (she wore a gold lamé mini-dress from start to finish), a Beyonce concert is a big, blowsy affair, a bit like a Las Vegas floor show crossed with a typhoon. "Intimate" is not the adjective that leaps to mind. By the time the singer and her 19-member all-female backing group finished whipping through the opening number, a snippet of the Jackson 5's "I Wanna Be Where You Are," Roseland seemed a lot less cozy. This is a woman who can make a club feel like a coliseum.
Beyoncé's Roseland stand is nevertheless billed as "4 Intimate Nights," and she did her best to personalize things. "Tonight, I want to tell y'all my story," she announced, and she spent the first third of the show stampeding through her hits, jukebox musical-style, interspersing abbreviated versions of "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Crazy in Love" and "Irreplaceable" with quips and reminiscences. There was self-congratulation, too: Beyoncé's running commentary included a comically comprehensive rundown of her Billboard chart triumphs and trophy-room contents. ("What do you do after 16 Grammys?" she asked at one point.) Diva haughtiness is Beyoncé's prerogative, of course, not to mention a big part of her message: from "Independent Women" to "Single Ladies" to "Run the World (Girls)," Beyoncé's anthems view female self-determination in mercenary terms, conflating empowerment with material success. At Roseland, though, the sound and the spectacle – Beyoncé stepping through raucously elaborate dance routines and belting out the songs with rafter-rattling force – made the songs' feminist message unequivocal. This was grrrl power, plain and simple.
Beneath the brassiness, there was anxiety. Beyoncé's latest album, 4, was released last month, and it landed with a thud. Reviews have been mixed, sales sluggish; the album's first two singles have failed to crack the Billboard Top 10.
The Roseland shows are clearly an attempt to relaunch 4, and Beyoncé devoted the last hour of the 90-minute show to it, playing the entire album in order. She was preaching to the converted: to Beyoncé's obvious delight, the Roseland audience sang along to every word. But she rewarded their loyalty. She delivered "1+1" curled on top of a grand piano, wringing pathos out of the song's whooping octave jumps. "Party" was beatific and lovely; she turned the groovy "Love on Top" into a vintage soul showcase, dropping on bended knee to unleash melismas at the top of her vocal range. She called 4 – her first record since her split with her longtime manager, her father Matthew Knowles – "experimental," framing it an expression of "artistic freedom." Songs like "Countdown," a toothsome mix of hip-hop and dancehall and Afro-beat, made her case. The show ended with the album's most conventional song, the Diane Warren ballad "I Was Here." On record, it's a hollow exercise in self-mythologizing. On Sunday night, though, Beyoncé brought the song to life, singing with a tenacious mix of shmaltz and soul that evoked two of her heroes, Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin. "I was here, I lived, I learned," she sobbed. It sounded less like bluster than confession. It was almost intimate.
Album Review: Beyoncé, '4'