Beyonce is damn near a national institution at this point. With dual singing and acting careers, the thick-bodied girl from Houston has been in the national spotlight non-stop since her quartet Destiny’s Child jumped onto the scene in 1998 with “No, No, No”. Even at the early stages of Destiny’s Child’s success, everyone knew she was the breakout star. With 2003’s uber-successful Dangerously in Love, Beyonce’s transition to solo star finally became complete. Dangerously, in addition to being a huge commercial success, had enough solid musical moments to make B someone you could possibly admire as much for her musical chops as for her good looks. I was one of many hoping that her sophomore release, B-Day, would confirm the greatness that Dangerously (as well as the final Destiny’s Child effort, Destiny Fulfilled) suggested.
Well, guess what, folks? B-Day... well… it’s not a work of genius. It’s a solid album, but I definitely get the feeling that this album might have been rushed a bit. Aside from the relatively short running time (10 songs, plus a “bonus track” and a remix), it sounds suspiciously under produced. That may have been the sound that Beyonce and her creative team (which definitely includes her boyfriend, Jay-Z) was looking for. Thing is, it doesn’t work all the time.
One thing that DOES work is that voice. Miss Thing can SING her honey-brown weave off. Her Southern syntax and that meaty voice occasionally conjures up images of soul divas like Tina Turner (before she got all Eurofied). “Get Me Bodied”, for example, isn’t much of a song. The spare production, from hip-hop stalwart Swizz Beatz, is little more than synthesized handclaps and chants of “hey!” and “yo!” in the background. It’s basically Beyonce’s glorified version of a “Hollaback Girl”-type song. Cheerleading routines get made to songs like this. But listen to way she wails and shouts throughout the song! Gwen Stefani certainly isn’t capable of vocal gymnastics like this. When she sings “a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody” in that thick Texas twang, you can visualize beads of perspiration coming off of her as she shakes to this song.
The spare instrumentation is a recurring theme to this album, as some of the songs are stripped to the point that they sound incomplete, or even worse, boring. The dreary “Kitty Kat” is a waste of four minutes of my time. Pharrell Williams, who produced this song, needs to be told that his glory days are two years behind him if not more. B fares better on cacophonous tracks like the frenetic “Freakum Dress” or “Suga Mama”, on which a sampled funk guitar and go-go-esque production create a vibe that recalls down-home ‘60s and ‘70s soul. It helps that B’s voice is up to the task. When she sings “come sit on mama’s lap”, it sounds like a command, not a suggestion.
One suggestion from me is that Beyonce take a songwriting class. She’s capable of a fair amount of wit (“Freakum Dress” is about pulling out your best dress to remind your potentially wandering mate of what he’s leaving at home), but her lyrics don’t really radiate any warmth or any particular worldview beyond keeping your man, dumping your man, and making sure he really, REALLY pays when he does you wrong. It’s a tack that Beyonce has been working ever since “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Say My Name”, and it’s starting to get a little tired.
To be fair, there are more winning moments on B-Day than there are weak moments. “Irreplaceable” is a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar-kissed winner of a song that contains the words (sung in a military chant) “To the left, to the left… everything you own is in a box to the left…”. The song, tellingly, was co-written by Ne-Yo, who may not be the powerhouse vocalist Beyonce is, but has significantly stronger songwriting skills. It‘s the best song on the album—perhaps Ms. Knowles should take a hint. Meanwhile, the two songs with Jay-Z are excellent. “Déjà vu” has a flavor reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall”, and it’s fantastic to hear Beyonce singing her lungs out over a full-bodied groove featuring live instruments. “Upgrade U” survives not due to B’s singing, but due to the natural chemistry that she and Jay have. Jay’s rhymes strongly suggest that this rhyme animal is hungrier than ever, and does a good job of whetting appetites for that mysterious album he’s alleged to be releasing later this year.
B-Day is certainly not perfect. Some sharpening definitely needs to be done when it comes to production and songwriting sides (I guess there are some things that having a fantastic voice just can‘t hide). I still think that Beyonce has a perfect masterpiece in her, but I guess we’ll have to wait until the next album to find out.
// Notes from the Road
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