Beyoncé’s been a diva since back when she was too cool to be a diva. But 2008’s too-boring-to-be-so-schizo I Am… Sasha Fierce was when the bubble popped. She of the inventive beats and kitchen-sink bells and whistles for her melisma to snake around (the car alarm in "Freakum Dress"!) wanted to be an American Idol, all voice and no personality. We’d seen it coming since Dreamgirls’ awful hit "Listen," and it made us a lot more nervous than the Destiny’s Child split ever did.
4 is her olive branch, where she pushes away from the middle, and back to basically clawing at every edge she’d ever grazed—including that diva side. "1 + 1" unveils her new mastery of all trades with the best, biggest power ballad since, what, Aerosmith’s "Cryin’"? Christina Aguilera, for instance, has never pushed her voice into such squished, weird corners as Ms. Knowles when she elevates the word "you" to seemingly unreachable octaves at the end of each stanza. If she ain’t got you, she ain’t got nothing, that’s nothing new. But the chorus’ big, brazen openness ("Make love to me!") is the stadium-powering warmth we always hoped she would generate, rather than a pushing-30 feminist-teen-star’s threats to rub up on another guy if you don’t wife her up. Not that she can’t do cold—"Irreplaceable" was as triumphant as it was vicious—it’s just difficult to make harshness your métier in pop music, at least on a consistent basis. So "Run the World (Girls)" simplifies the obligatory "Independent Women" sequel into a shoutout ready for Rhythm Nation 1814, sampling Diplo’s Eastern click-clack for spice. "Countdown" inverts her marching-band pretensions with a numbly spoken countdown chorus cinching the horn- and drum-filled verses like a bursting corset for one of her best tracks ever.
4 balances these sides deftly every which way, especially the bottom half, with the resonating panacea "Start Over," the key-shifting New Jack bounce of "Love on Top" and a surprisingly tolerable Diane Warren dirge. It would be an easy peg for her career best if not for two stinkbombs, from a douchey Kanye dripping "swag goo" and a get-over-yourself tribute to the guy she’s happiest she dumped. But tunes like the Frank Ocean-assisted "I Miss You," as deliriously sweet as anything she’s done, make me reconsider. She wants to please, without sacrificing her right to scold. She only wants to run the world if she can run it with you.