On the closing night of her record breaking, globe-trotting I Am... stadium tour, Beyoncé made a pact with herself. The multi-million selling artist and one of the best performers of her generation decided to give herself 12 months off. In fifteen years of professional life, as a member of the ground-breaking R&B trio Destiny's Child and as a solo pop icon, she had only enjoyed a maximum of one month off previously. Sasha Fierce represented an artistic and commercial peak for the artist - if she could not move away from the spotlight now for some me-time and a personal debriefing, when could she?
"So I made a list to myself of all the things I wanted to do in that time," she says, in a Downtown Manhattan loft, looking as effervescently recharged as she should after 12 months downtime. She wanted to go to the ballet, to learn to cook, to master the Final Cut Pro edit suite she'd bought herself, to pick her nephew up from school, to see Broadway shows, to sleep in her own bed and not in a hotel. "I wanted to live my life," she explains."
"For the first time in my life I was able to travel the world and hear different influences," she says, "To see different kinds of dance and choreography and taste different types of food and just be able to relax and have great conversations." Previously, Beyoncé: The Artist had taken priority. It was time for Beyoncé: The Person to step forward. "I felt like I had worked so hard all my life that it was important that I was just able to be inspired and to digest everything I have been doing for so long."
This being Beyoncé, the rest period started to slowly metamorphose into the new record, 4. She could turn off the schedule, but she could not turn off her intuitive feeling for creating dynamic music. It was time to set a new bar. For the first time ever, she made a record not because the label had penciled one in on the marketing wall-chart but because she wanted to make one for herself. “It was a labor of love. It was done because I love what I do and not because I was trying to make a certain type of album. Because it was my playground, it was real."
The result is a shape-shifting piece of musical work for Beyoncé . Opening with three platinum-plated ballads to mid-tempos, 4 sets out its vision as a radical sidestep from the era-defining club and pop hits of Destiny's Child. For the first half of the album, before she jumps off into the street-smart 90s New Jack bounce of "Party", a collaboration with Kanye West and Andre 3000, you might even call it her rock record. 'Other people have said that,' she says, looking delighted with the note. Touring the world along with her husband and his entourage had opened her up to the possibilities of new genres and the magnitude of the festival experience. She had started looking beyond stadiums, watching Linkin Park and Muse and Rage Against The Machine whip up their adoring fans in different ways than pop music intuits. She liked what she saw. Beyoncé started thinking about the possibility of re-writing her place in musical history:
"It's bolder than the music on my previous albums because I'm bolder," she notes. "The more mature I become and the more life experiences I have, the more I have to talk about. I really focused on songs being classics. I really focused on songs being classics, songs that would last, songs that I could sing when I'm 40 and when I'm 60. I feel like it's important I start shaping my legacy. Doing things that have a little more substance. I really want people to think when they listen to my music. I want them to feel more than 'OK, I'm at a party, I'm dancing'. I want it to be a conversation. I wanted to help them through their painful memories and their most happy moments."
With long-term co-writer The-Dream in the second chair, a record started to emerge. "I feel like it's important to have a personal connection and a natural chemistry with people who are writing songs with you because it's you at your most vulnerable moments, saying your deepest thoughts. I felt like he's almost like a brother to me." An extended list of collaborators began filtering through studio time she booked herself, for love. An audacious musicality had started to emerge with The-Dream. The venerated songwriter Diane Warren scripted "I Was Here" specifically for Beyoncé and told the press unequivocally "It is the best song I've ever written."
New collaborators were discovered in new ways. "I am always anxious to find someone new just because I believe it brings out something in me and it keeps me really honest," she says. She first heard new soul voice Frank Ocean in her husband's car. "After one song I said 'OK, who is that? because I want them on a flight tonight.' And Jay told me it was Frank Ocean and I immediately reached out and he came in the next day. He's an artist and I can't wait for everyone to hear him because he is just the truth. He is refreshing to the industry." She says she can "spend hours and hours on the internet and I love to click on the artists that are recommended to me, and I've found some great artists that I would never find any other way."
The new names were complemented by bona fide legends. "I worked with Babyface,” continues Beyoncé, "because I feel like he's one of the best R&B songwriters ever, in history. He is one of the songwriters that opened the doors up for all of the writers that are great and wonderful right now." They crafted the timeless rock/funk workout "Best Thing I Never Had" together.
"I was really listening to a lot of Boys II Men for the harmonies and Etta James and Aretha Franklin and Prince and Michael (Jackson) and I just wanted to do a gumbo of all the things that I loved, and I wanted to create things that just didn't typically go together." Echoes of Michael can be heard on the booty-shaking summer joint "Love on Top," "and Purple Rain" is an influence on the heartrending opening ballad "1+1". "I mixed the baritone sax with the synth. The synth is very electronic and the baritone sax is so full and warm and real and when you put them together playing the same thing it was just something so new. It was so much fun putting bridges back into songs and twelve part harmonies back into songs and huge choruses and breakdowns and guitar solos and drum solos and all the things that I love in music that I feel like I just want to hear again."
Still shy of her 30th birthday, Beyoncé's musical maturation is almost complete. "Progression as an artist is the most important thing to me. That is what success is for me. I feel like if I stay in one spot then I am not doing my job, I'm not growing as a human being and I'm wasting time. I always want to challenge myself. I always want to have that nervous ball in my stomach before I go on the stage. That's how I know that I'm doing the right job."
Her personal ethics and work methodology stretch even further. "I always want to challenge the music industry. I feel like it's kind of my job to create the new up-tempos. It's kind of my job to set the tone and be the example. So it's sometimes risky but it's the only reason I've been able to last for as long as I have in this industry. Because it's really short-lived and I feel like if people can predict your next move then it's just not interesting."
Few people would have predicted 4. Few people, that is, other than Beyoncé. In her award winning Hollywood roles, Beyoncé found a new release for her artistry outside of the music industry. Later this year she will begin filming for director Clint Eastwood on his remake of the evergreen classic A Star Is Born. But it was her turn as a locum Supreme in Dreamgirls and Etta James in the story of Cadillac Records that really released something in the singer, that ushered her down a new pathway for her artistry:
"I fell in love with doing films when I did Dreamgirls. That was the first time that I really felt like I acted. I felt like I became a better person and learnt something about myself in that role. But I've taken it steps further when I played Etta James. It's the most I'd learned about myself until the recording of this album, 4. Playing that character and going to a deeper place, completely losing all ego. Completely losing all insecurities and almost being naked and vulnerable and not thinking about what anybody else is thinking about me. Just being completely me. To have that private moment and be able to share it with the world was something really difficult. To express myself and express the imperfections in my voice. The raspiness and the pain. Everything I've been through in my life I put into that film and I learnt that I can make my job so much more than music. It can almost be therapy for me. When I went into the studio for this album I used that same passion, honesty, and approach with my vocals that I channeled as Etta James. It's a lot rawer. It comes from a deep place. I only sang things once. I wanted it to be really emotional and sincere and I learnt that from doing the movies. I feel like when I play the right character it makes me so much better as a musician and a performer."
Next year, 2012, will mark the 15th anniversary of Beyoncé as a pre-eminent member of the musical fraternity. In a fickle entertainment world, where pop icons come and go within three-year cycles, it's a moment worth celebrating. "I can't believe that I've achieved all that I've achieved. I never, ever would imagine all the things that I've done."
Unsurprisingly her forthcoming 30th birthday is not a cause of trepidation but one of celebration. "I am so excited about turning 30. It actually is mind-boggling to me that people get, you know, scared or frightened or 'Oh my God, I'm 30!' it's so old. That's ridiculous. I don't know whether it's because a lot of my friends are a lot older than I am and I always feel young and I can't wait to grow older and wiser and be more comfortable in my skin but 30 is like the best age you can ever be. You're a woman but you're still young and you know, I'm so looking forward to it."
It's just another benchmark in the life of this incredible performer, pop star and woman.