There comes a certain point in mass pop culture when it ceases being primarily about the music and simply becomes a matter of numbers, whether it's how much it cost Roger Waters to stage The Wall, or how much U2's latest tour grossed, or how many YouTube hits a Lady Gaga video gets, or how many will be attending the Glastonbury Festival. In each case, the music is pretty much incidental to the experience, which has become an Event into which we now buy.
So it is with Beyoncé, every mention of whom comes accompanied by references to the 16 Grammies she's won, the 75 million albums she's apparently sold, the $80m she earned in 12 months, the alleged $1m she received for performing for the Gaddafi family, and now the 100 – 200? 300? – African dancers she's rumoured to be bringing onstage this weekend at Glastonbury. So it's no surprise to find that her latest album bears not a title, but a number, nor that its opening track "1 + 1" likewise opts for numeracy over literacy. "I don't know much about algebra," she claims in the opening lines, "but I know that one plus one equals two". Which isn't exactly algebra, just addition – though perhaps Beyoncé was puzzled by the lack of noughts involved in the equation.
It's another number that reflects more on the matter of 4, however – and that's the 72 songs which it's claimed the singer delivered to Columbia in preparation for the album's release. Though clearly intended to make one marvel at her prodigious work rate, it actually has the opposite effect, by sowing the seeds of doubt: so, these 12 tracks are the cream of the crop – that means there are another 60 worse than these? Because although they're not particularly bad, few of these songs are anything more than merely acceptable. Most are simply further dollops of the tremulous, over-emoted melisma we've become used to, laid over half-hearted, puttering beats and woozy, wishy-washy synth washes, with the occasional would-be empowerment anthem like the underwhelming single "Run the World (Girls)" thrown in to vary the pace.
There are a few highlights, of course. Though just a small footnote to Stevie Wonder's innovatory genius, the languid synth-soul smoocher "Love on Top" has an enjoyably euphoric tone, while "I Care" makes good use of the Twin Peaks two-chord motif. Elsewhere, the vacuous lyric of "End of Time" is just about salvaged by the syncopated marching-band shuffle groove. On the other hand, the grandiose, gut-busting would-be anthem "I Was Here" strains too hard for "Empire State of Mind" status; "Party" is so perfunctory it's no wonder Andre 3000 couldn't be bothered to come up with a better rap; and the vocal editing on "Start Over" is far too sloppy, confirming again that a series of individual flourishes doesn't pass muster as a performance.
Overall, the weaknesses far outnumber the strengths. Not, of course, that that will prevent huge sales figures for 4: because those numbers, ultimately, are what it's all about.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Love on Top; I Care; End of Time