It might as well be a rhetorical question on Beyonce’s fourth album, but she asks it anyway – “who runs the world?” Her answer, of course: “Girls.” Before that dud of a ditty, “Run the World (Girls),” even plays – it’s tagged on at the end almost like the forgotten child – it’s obvious that this girl is running her own world. (Queen Bey, indeed.) This, basically Beyonce’s bi-curious project, isn’t meant for radio consumption; it’s not meant for shallow pop listeners or “Crazy Love” lovers (which means, yes, there are some sluggish songs). In fact, this game-changer of an album might totally bomb. But, for better or worse, it will undoubtedly hold a special place in Beyonce’s heart forever – and in those of her fans. It’s off to a low-key start with “1+1,” which seems to establish two things: Girl can sing (duh) and hang with the cool electric-guitar kids. She’s back to her old man-slaying self on “Best Thing I Never Had,” a kiss-off whose “you showed your ass” line would seem more awkward if Beyonce wasn’t selling it within every inch of its soaring, searing life. Other tracks, like the synthy sweet “I Miss You,” come off more Alicia Keys than sass-master. That Beyonce doesn’t sound like herself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially on “Love on Top,” a jolly jolt of ’80s throwback pop with an easy, breezy style that’s practically pre-crack Whitney. By the time she gets to Diane Warren’s penultimate “I Was Here,” a powerful ballad about finding your purpose in life, it’s clear that a big part of Beyonce’s legacy is in this album. Grade: B
Jill Scott, ‘The Light of the Sun’
For all the happiness Jill Scott recounts on leadoff “Blessed,” her first album since 2007 isn’t exactly a peachy play. Heartbreak haunts the Philly neo-soul singer as she practices what she’s been preaching since she dropped “Who is Jill Scott?” 11 years ago – resilience and empowerment. Those themes are threaded throughout this earthy, old-school album, a vastly experimental project that embraces bold moves (the most ambitious being the jazzy nine-minute groove “Le BOOM Vent Suite”) and a plethora of genres, from soul to funk and hip-hop, even jazz. On “All Cried Out (Redux)” she’s joined by Doug E. Fresh’s beat-boxing booms, and her and Eve go all independent woman on the swaggering “Shame.” “Some Other Time” has her second-guessing a good date in a cool stream-of-consciousness style; she throws out a prayer on “Hear My Call” and makes musical magic with Anthony Hamilton on the romantic “So in Love” – both songs are vocal showcases for Scott, who has absolute control over her wonderfully expressive instrument. And she never lets it go to waste on “The Light of the Sun,” effortlessly singing, spoken-word and scatting – without Auto-Tune. But the disc still drags in parts with too many mid-tempos that don’t sit and escapable turns at feminist poetry (see “Womanifesto”). Take away a few tracks and Scott’s return to R&B would truly be as blessed as her. Grade: B-
Duncan Sheik, ‘Covers ’80s’
The absurdity of the title alone would almost be enough to dismiss Duncan Sheik’s time warp. To contemporize the synth-pop of that era, the one-hit wonder – remember “Barely Breathing”? – molds these 12 songs into his minimalistic style. Meaning, he makes them boring. At least his taste in tracks from that decade is impressive, with covers of Depeche Mode and The Smiths, but an album of lullabies would have more life than this batch of snoozy redos. Only one of the familiar covers, Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” reaches a timbre that doesn’t sound like bedtime music. The rest requires a Red Bull.
Death Cab for Cutie, ‘Codes and Keys’
On their best album since 2003’s breakout gem “Transatlanticism,” the indie rock foursome is in shake-up mode, shooting for some of their heyday glory before things went so-so. They’re also more positive than ever. “You Are a Tourist” cranks with swelling ambiance and optimism, which also finds a place on the semi-acoustic closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” But “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is the greatest find among the 11 tracks, a sprawling exploration of life after death that builds into a moving cacophony of noise.