This week, Beyonce's fourth studio album — appropriately titled 4 — is the number one album in the country, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It's an accomplishment each of the singer's four solo albums have managed.
Ann Powers sat down with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne to talk about the singer, who can legitimately claim two titles at the moment: Queen of Pop and Queen of Hip-Hop. Forget Gaga's quirks and Britney's controversy — Beyonce runs this town by setting her sights on one goal regardless of genre: she wants to be a great artist.
"She's a massive star, and yet in a strange way, she's overlooked in plain sight," Ann says. "If critics fault Beyonce, they often do it because she seems to not have a center, or she's hard to read, a mystery to us. But I think the reason for that is what matters to Beyonce is actually the music. Not the statement she's making or whether or not she's in the tabloids, certainly, but being a great, long-lived artist in the style of Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross. Those are her role models."
Ann says this makes Beyonce's music a way into the world of pop for hip-hop fans, and simultaneously a way into hip-hop for pop fans. Her longterm aspirations for longevity, and for the kind of multifaceted and flexible career of her idols, mean Beyonce will be around for a long, long time. And though Beyonce has crafted a personal, inimitable musical style — "like Broadway meets the jump rope game in Brooklyn" — her overall persona remains a little slippery.
"This record has been getting kind of mixed reviews," Ann says. "And I feel like part of it is we as music critics have become so used to reading pop stars as brands. So we look at Lady Gaga and we know what she means: she means 'freak,' you know? We look at Katy Perry and she means 'screwball.' Well, what does Beyonce mean? She means 'artist,' going for different styles."
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now for some entertainment that's much more family-friendly, the latest CD from Beyonce.
She is, of course, the singer who gave us hits like "Single Ladies" and "Irreplaceable," and she helped introduced the very useful phrase bootylicious into the English language.
Her fourth release - called simply "4" - is the number-one selling album this week.
We called up NPR music critic Ann Powers to get her take on it.
ANN POWERS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Let's start with a little from the album. We're going to hear "Run the World."
POWERS: Absolutely. Get up and move it.
(Soundbite of song, "Run the World")
BEYONCE (Singer): (Singing) Who run the world? Girls. Who run the world? Girls. Who run this mutha? Girls. Who run this mutha? Girls.
MONTAGNE: So, Ann Powers, is Beyonce really running the world right now?
POWERS: I think Beyonce is running the world, and a lot of us aren't aware of it. Here's the fascinating thing about Beyonce. She's a massive star, and yet, in a strange way, she's overlooked in plain sight.
Beyonce may not sell as many units as Lady Gaga is right now, or generate as much controversy as someone like Britney Spears. And one of the great things about Beyonce is that she is kind of almost like a looking glass, "Through the Looking Glass" mirror for fans of either hip-hop or more mainstream pop. She's associated very deeply with hip-hop. She's married to one of the most important rappers of all time, Jay-Z, and her music is infused with that influence. So she's really an entry point into all different styles of music.
MONTAGNE: Okay. So let's talk about that, mixing styles. That, kind of, in a way, you might say is her style.
POWERS: True. And if critics fault Beyonce, they often do it because she seems to not have a center or she's hard to read, a mystery to us. But I think the reason for that is that what matters to Beyonce is actually the music.
(Soundbite of laughter)
POWERS: Not the statement she's making or whether or not she's in the tabloids, certainly, but being a great, long-lived artist in the style of Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross. Those are her role models.
MONTAGNE: Why don't you pick one tune that you would say reflects another musical diva, and let's hear a bit of it.
POWERS: Well, that's easy because she starts off the album with a very straight-forward nod, I think, to Aretha Franklin. It's a song called "1 Plus 1."
(Soundbite of song, "1 Plus 1")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I don't know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two.
POWERS: And boy, she really goes for those Aretha, gospel-style high notes in this song, not to mention the kind of depth of emotion that Aretha is, of course, known for.
(Soundbite of song, "1 Plus 1")
BEYONCE: (Singing) 'Cause baby, we ain't got nothing without love.
MONTAGNE: Boy, I'll say.
POWERS: It's intense, you know, and we don't expect that from Beyonce, because she does project this incredibly perfect persona. But I think she knows that to be a great solo artist, you have to show some soul and some emotion. She's done it before, but here she's really striving to do that a lot.
MONTAGNE: So, in a sense, capturing some of the styles that people already love, is that a shortcut to reviewers' hearts?
POWER: Well, it's funny, because this record has been getting kind of mixed reviews. And I feel like part of it is we, as music critics, have become so used to reading pop stars as brands. So we look at Lady Gaga and we know what she means. She means freak, you know. We look at Katy Perry, and she means screwball.
Well, what does Beyonce mean? Beyonce means artist going for different styles, trying new things. Truthfully, though, she's invented one pop style that I think is impossible to imitate that's completely associated with her. It's like Broadway meets the jump-rope game on the street in Brooklyn, you know. And this is in the song "Countdown."
(Soundbite of song, "Countdown")
BEYONCE: (Singing) If you leave me, you're out of your mind. My baby is a 10. We dressing through the nine. He pick me up with eight. Make me feel so lucky seven. He kiss me in his six. We be making love in...
MONTAGNE: Okay. NPR music critic Ann Powers talking about Beyonce's newest album "4."
Thanks very joining us.
POWERS: Thanks so much, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.