An Ode To Beyoncé's Most Underrated Album: 4

In 2011, Beyoncé's 4 resulted in her lowest first-week sales to date. The Washington Post called it her "fourth-best album, as in her worst." NME wrote that with 4, Bey was "dangerously in love...with boring ballads," and Entertainment Weekly's review proclaimed that "even star students get the occasional B."

But I remember the release five years ago a bit differently. The first time I listened to 4, I remember feeling relieved that Bey had left the pop-diva formula of her first few albums behind her. I mean, I love "Get Me Bodied" as much as the next girl, but even as an Independent Woman, the I'm-An-Independent-Woman songs were beginning to feel expected. In 2011, she was officially emerging from the cocoon of Destiny's Child, her father/manager, and her cut-and-dry, made-for-radio anthems. Finally, she was giving us a fresh sound — and getting personal.

Remember: Before 4, Beyoncé had been notoriously private, keeping her actual life at a cool, safe distance from her art. "Single Ladies," her ode to single-dom, was released months after she married her long-term boyfriend, Jay Z, and she was still mostly avoiding talking about their marriage in public. But 4 gave us "1+1," the ballad dedicated to her husband that still, years later, brings her to tears in concerts. It also gave us the honest "I Miss You," the I'm-Head-Over-Heels banger "Countdown," and the Diane Warren-penned "I Was Here," about wanting to be remembered after you're gone. (That last track, in particular, was much-maligned, but I don't care. At the time, it felt like the most intimate Bey had ever gotten with us and it gives me goosebumps every listen.)

The night before I attended Beyoncé's Formation World Tour stop in New York a few weeks ago, I began my usual Bey concert ritual, playing all of her albums in order, beginning with Dangerously In Love. My favorite part of this pre-show tradition is always when I get to 4. After listening to Dangerously In Love and I Am...Sasha Fierce, it's especially clear that 4 was her butterfly moment. She could've continued to play it safe and coast, but this was the crossroads where she finally picked a direction and went for it, shedding that comfortable cocoon of her past.

Without 4, there would be no Beyoncé, no Lemonade. Without declaring a sexual fantasy for her man in "Dance For You," she may have never arrived at "Rocket." Without experimenting with her Southern party roots in "Party," we may have never been gifted "Flawless," and perhaps the emotional "I Care" gave her the eventual strength she needed to release "Pray You Catch Me" and "Hold Up." And "Run The World"? That one totally gave birth to "Bow Down" — and is like a distant, proud ancestor to "Freedom."

Sure, there's a tune or two on 4 I could agree are boring ("I'd Rather Die Young" is overly saccharine, to put it nicely). But this album is full of gems, like everyone's favorite wedding song, "Love On Top" (which was just named one of the most popular wedding songs by Billboard, FYI). I don't know about y'all, but now when I hear "Love On Top," I picture a glowing, pregnant Beyoncé grinning from ear-to-ear and rubbing her baby bump. It was 4 that introduced us to a Bey with emotions, a Bey that would begin to have an influence on the fashion world, a Bey who was transformed from a music-industry puppet to a fearless, empowering artist.

So, while Beyoncé and Lemonade both feel more relevant to my current life as a grown woman — and remain on repeat from the bathtub to the gym — I still give them a break every once in a while for 4. Yes, it was a pivotal moment worth reflecting on for Bey — but perhaps it was for me, too.
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