NPR Music’s Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it’s personal. For 2021, we’re digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn’t just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
In this life, I’ve been fortunate enough to love Beyoncé Knowles-Carter since the womb. That’s not hyperbole: “No, No, No,” Destiny’s Child’s debut single, came out 10 days before I was born and, naturally, was the first song I ever loved. I grew up alongside Beyoncé’s career — first CD: a poorly burned disc of The Writing’s on the Wall; first singing toothbrush: featured “Survivor;” first ringtone: lifted from the bridge of “Irreplaceable.” Trust, my love runs deep.
Bey and I were both shy, thus underestimated, Black women from Texas, so I considered her my older, significantly cooler cousin until the 2008 I Am … Sasha Fierce crisis. Not a flop, but a betrayal. A scattered crossover attempt bridging the essentials of soul with the highlights of pop, her third studio album chiefly appealed to mainstream contemporary audiences. Heavy in the way of acoustic ballads and mid-tempo folk, Beyoncé stepped into her fated, and flattened, role as a global pop sensation, welcoming new white listeners and consequently turning away from an established Black fanbase.
Then came the era of 4. Far removed from the possibility of a sophomore slump but still in that precarious, all-eyes-on-B position, Beyoncé found herself in a pivotal career moment. Changes were in order. First up was Beyoncé’s decision to sever all professional ties with the man who had guided her career since the early days: her father, Matthew Knowles. Second was a hiatus. In 2010, she embarked on her first significant career gap in 15 years to become “inspired with life” again. Lastly, a trial. Disappointed with the state of contemporary music at the time, Beyoncé tasked herself with a challenge of getting R&B on the airwaves again. Remember, this was the summer that oontz oontz music had a breakthrough with electronica, house and dance ruling over airplay and live music.
Vulnerable, Beyoncé experimented; this time around, her goals weren’t just dominating the radio and shattering records — instead, this album tested the waters so Bey could go on to explore the depths of the ocean.
In the months leading up to 4’s release, I was suffering through my first year of teendom. Femininity made me anxious, and I spent my time feeling shame for daring to be a girl. I could not understand the package of gender performance — created from beauty standards that centered whiteness and sold to young girls as a one-size-fits-all deal. Seemingly rigid and enforced by constant surveillance, gender, or maybe the point of it, eluded me. I worried about my hair (it had to be perfect but in a casual way so that no one would call me self-absorbed); I worried about my clothes (they had to draw attention away from the fact I was fat without making me look like an unfashionable loser); I worried about my laugh (it couldn’t be too loud and obnoxious because people would think I felt things and it couldn’t be too quiet and mouse-like because then they’d think I had no personality). I hated the color pink, hung around people who eagerly insulted me and told boys they were hilarious even though they weren’t. I was the worst kind of liar: one who suppressed the truth from myself, and then everyone else.
Before 4 dropped, every interaction I had outside my head failed. Miserably. It was the summer after seventh grade: a year I spent in and out of detention, arguing with anyone who wasn’t my English teacher and writing on my jeans with a permanent marker. Home was not a haven, and school was not a refuge. I was rebellious with a desperate desire to belong. I wanted to be understood, received sans judgement, and had no tools in my belt. Until 4.
The expanded edition begins with “Love On Top,” an effervescent track with four key changes wherein Beyoncé establishes that she can always surpass herself. But 4 never felt like an attempt to show off technical prowess; I only heard a celebration of unfettered Black exuberance, especially evidenced by the three-song run of retro-funk hit “Party” featuring André 3000, “Schoolin’ Life,” — sonically a mid-tempo fusion of rhythm, disco and blues but its lyrics mandate a gospel categorization — and “Countdown,” which is, well, “Countdown.” Here, finally, came joy! Bold, soaring horns, nostalgic synths, massive bass riffs and frenzied percussion conveyed a playful, effortless confidence — a mindset I didn’t realize could exist. Then came Bey’s sexual and romantic empowerment anthems, “1+1,” “Dance For You” and “End of Time.” Several years shy of being so grown, their explicit sentiments largely flew over my head. But not their infectious passion. Beyoncé yearned and loved wholeheartedly and allowed her body the freedom to express said desires. The album’s crux, moments where I felt most transcendent, came in the form of ballads like “I Miss You,” “I Care” and “I Was Here.” Each track is a case study in the self; objecting to the demonization of the ego and the sticky attachments wrapped up in it, Beyoncé professes to, pleads and prays for the intimacy of recognition. Asking another person to glimpse beyond the veil of femininity and performance has its risks, but Bey repeatedly undertakes the challenge with tender confidence. She sings to her instruments, turning harmonies into backing vocals, extending her voice, a channel for hopes and fears, to fill up every corner.
I didn’t have the language to articulate how these songs made me feel at 13, but I did have a lightbulb moment. In front of me stood the depth of emotion, expressions of femininity I could finally understand. 4’s wide-ranging declarations of self opened my eyes to the infinite possibility of my future. Emotions — having them and being honest about them with others — transformed from a foreign, hostile theory to an approachable, fulfilling concept. It was a small store of hope, one I could stop by for a reliable pick-me-up; for the first time, the prospect of maturing into a woman didn’t feel like a threat.
Today, on the album’s 10-year anniversary, it’s easy to retroactively identify 4’s impact on Bey’s career. Created as a tentative departure from playing it safe, 4 was a practice run — a sonic playground. Stacked against the rest of Beyoncé’s discography, it was a commercial failure. Still, 4 was an artistic triumph, one that represented an honest portrait of a woman in personal and professional development. Said commercial failure revealed the chasm of opportunity awaiting when she stopped assigning worth to traditional success.
To fully arrive there, her relationship with work had to change, too. Beyoncé’s hiatus before 4’s release — including the decisions to part ways with her father as manager and prioritization of her musical inclinations over industry trends — represented a fundamental shift in her relationship with her labor. When capitalism demands us devote our whole selves to loving our work, consider fully the labor of being a musician, a genius, a global sensation, a legend, a daughter, a wife, a woman; the work of trying to be oneself when you belong to the world. Rather than labor over satisfying others, Beyoncé could become an auteur, a creative whose craft could reach unexplored heights.
The Decade In Music
So she did. As the fulcrum of Beyoncé’s career, 4 highlights a vital decision to evaluate her work (and to a further extent, herself) against her own standards. The album avoids trappings of everything we’ve been taught to be safe — corporate labor, family as an individualized heteropatriarchal ideal and white, capitalistic notions of professional success — and leans into the sensuality of distinction — taking risks, defining freedom for oneself and expressing the full weight of emotion. 4 redefined both what it meant to be a female pop star and the work behind becoming and remaining one; without her fourth studio album, Beyoncé could not have stepped into her freedom. The album represented the remarkable liberation she needed before she could claim full artistic control over her work and create her most critically-acclaimed projects to date, 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade.
In 2011, 4’s significance flew over many — impatient — heads. Not me, though. As a teenager, I studied its lessons carefully and now, even as an emerging adult, I learn something new with every relisten: how to say no, when to push myself, when to hold back, be gentle, be ferocious, where I can hold space for grief and growth. From Beyoncé’s 4, I absorbed the abundance of dynamic womanhood. Multiplicity is found in the lust, gratitude, devotion, pride, turmoil, faith, excess, doubt, braggadocio, need and frivolity of life. To understand this at 13 felt like a burning secret, one that gifted me a head start on a future I never knew I could have. I became a woman grateful for life’s small wonders, largely unconcerned with restrictive mandates of gender, and the need to fit in faded. My life was precious because it belonged to me, valuable because I made the decisions; it was a vibrant, ever-evolving work of art, one I’d share with others when the time was right.