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Beyoncé: 4 (Columbia) 

On 4, when Beyoncé says "I," she means we or us or you. Or at least she makes it easy to believe that.

It's not every pop star who can be bracingly singular yet generous enough to make us all feel welcome. Beyoncé is such a star. When, on "Best Thing I Never Had"—a wry reassessment of an old flame that shows both Ms. Knowles' wit and intelligence—she sings, "I wanted you back, I'm so through with that," she speaks for us. She's always Beyoncé, but she's also the vessel for our regrets, fears and moments of triumph.

Actually, triumph's more her thing. "Best Thing I Never Had" is really a diss track: "Sucks to be you right now," she reminds the guy who missed out on playing the Jay-Z role in her life. She's our avenging angel, but she never claims ownership over our pain. By making it all about her, she makes her songs universal. "I Was Here" is the best example of how this works. "I've done everything that I wanted, and it was more than I thought it would be," she sings, inviting us to view life as a buffet.

But the imagined audience for 4—which will be released on Tuesday, June 28—seems smaller. It's an R&B-lover's album, one I bet her fans won't see coming.

Beyoncé once had world domination on her mind. Now it seems like the stakes are smaller, despite what "Run the World (Girls)" alleges. B's returning—joyously—to her roots here.

More by Sean Bottai

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