Beyoncé's new album 4 is a change of pace for the R&B queen. While her first three solo albums were full of blockbuster jams, 4 is a more relaxed, personal set that emphasizes ballads over bangers and showcases the singer's nuances; it's very much the sort of album a pop star makes when she doesn't feel like she has anything to prove. (She seems, in other words, to have set aside her alter ego Sasha Fierce for the moment.) 4 won't be in stores until June 28th, but since it leaked this week, here's a track-by-track preview of the album's 12 songs.
1. "1+1" - The album opens with its most tender ballad, a slow-burning number that calls back to both Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" and Prince's "Purple Rain" without sounding like a retread of either tune. The song is already available as a single, but it sounds best in the context of the album, where its slow, steady build to a cathartic guitar break is the perfect introduction to a set of mostly low-key tracks about love and heartbreak.
2. "I Care" - "I know you don't care too much, but I still care," Beyoncé sings over cooing background vocals and dense percussion, delivering the words with a devastating blend of sadness and resentment. It may not be an obvious single, but it's one of the finest tracks on the record.
3. "I Miss You" - This is Beyoncé at her most understated. Her phrasing is cool, calm and collected as she sings over a simple metronomic beat and layers of atmospheric keyboards.
4. "Best Thing I Never Had" - "Irreplaceable Part Two," basically. It's a breakup ballad with a bitter, nasty streak: "When I think of the time that I almost loved you / you showed your ass and I saw the real you / thank God you blew it / I thank God I dodged a bullet." Beyoncé's vocal performance brings depth to a straightforward song about dumping a terrible suitor, conveying a compelling mix of wounded pride and genuine heartbreak.
5. "Party" featuring André 3000 - The first non-ballad on 4 is also the only song on the record to include a guest appearance by another star. André 3000 is sharp and effortlessly charismatic on his rapped verse, but the real attraction here is the track itself, which was co-produced by Kanye West and delivers a mellow Eighties-style smooth funk groove.
6. "Rather Die Young" - There's a great melodramatic kick to this song, which comes across like a quiet storm slow jam spiced up with modern drum programming. "I’d rather not live at all than live my life without you" is an unusually self-pitying lyric for Beyoncé, but she sells it well regardless.
Photos: Jay-Z and Beyoncé - Hip Hop Royalty
7. "Start Over" - While the other songs on 4 all have a distinct flavor and give Beyoncé an opportunity to try something new in some way or another, "Start Over" just kind of sits there at the middle of the disc not doing much of anything. It's an inoffensive ballad that doesn't do much for the record aside from break its momentum at the halfway point.
8. "Love On Top" - This song is a shameless throwback to perky, squeaky clean mid-Eighties R&B, and it's a blast. Beyoncé sounds confident and joyful as she sings about a lover who can do no wrong. If you've been craving a modern take on old-school Whitney Houston, this is the song for you.
9. "Countdown" - 4's much-needed mid-album stretch of upbeat tunes continues with "Countdown," a playful, inventive jam that revisits the sassy spirit of B'Day's "Get Me Bodied," but swaps out that song's jumpy rhythm for a heavy brass riff and steel drum fills.
10. "End of Time" - This Fela Kuti-influenced track is one of the most adventurous cuts on 4, with Beyonce singing lovey-dovey lyrics over an ecstatic, beat-heavy arrangement.
11. "I Was Here" - A Dianne Warren-penned showstopper that disrupts the flow of up-tempo songs on the second half of the record, but it works well as a bittersweet emotional climax for the album. "I Was Here" is exactly the sort of blustery ballad you'd expect from a Warren/Beyoncé team-up, but it seems a bit flat and generic in comparison to other more emotionally nuanced tracks on 4.
12. "Run the World (Girls)" - Much like album opener "1+1," this intense club track based on Major Lazer's indie dance hit "Pon de Floor" was a bit underwhelming when it came out as 4's lead single but is exciting as the record's celebratory conclusion. After all those songs about romantic angst, "Run the World" feels totally joyous and liberating.