With Daddy Knowles in the background like the puppet-master, it was often hard to take his daughter Beyoncé seriously when she shrilled "I'm a survivor" and claimed to be "Independent." The revolving door that was her group Destiny's Child didn't help, so that when rumors began to surface that Ms. B was working on a solo recording two years ago, there was little expectation that the project would be anything but the final collapse of the group. Two years later, the group has three discs to their credit and fellow member Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams have both made solo recordings as Rowland had a hit with Nelly on the syrupy "Dilemma" and Williams weighed in with a gospel disc (yes, even the Bootylicious can be saved). In retrospect, it seems as though Beyoncé's disc was delayed just so she could "get grown" for it's release and beyond all expectation, her solo debut Dangerously in Love finds Ms. B in the midst of a fully flowering womanhood and doing the best singing of her career.
Ms. B, first stepped out on the solo trip in support of her role as Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers: Gold Member. "Work It Out" was a nice slice of chunk-funk that gave some inkling that Beyoncé was ready to shed the "but I'm still not yet a woman" vibe that's earned Destiny's Child multi-platinum status. When rumors began to spread that Ms. B was rolling tight with Young Hov' and the new best friends began referring to themselves as the "new Bobby and Whitney" on Jay's "03 Bonnie and Clyde", everybody understood that baby-girl was getting grown. That was confirmed when the lead single from Dangerously in Love dropped in the late spring. "Crazy in Love" is like R&B on crack -- it's just some other shit and it don't let up. From those hard-core horn lines that open the song (like it's a funk coronation) to the catchy "uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh ", this is about as good as summer pop gets (damn, the four-year-old's shaking her ass again going "uh-oh, uh-oh").
And then there's the boyfriend, oh excuse me, the good friend. Jigga been doin' overtime these days opening sports bars, touring with Fiddy-cent, preparing two new lines of kicks, and droppin' the good shit on the likes Pharrell ("Frontin'") and MC Punjabi (if you don't read anything else from PopMatters this year, you gotta read Priya Lal's piece "From the Harvest Festival to HOVA -- Bhangra Meets Hip-Hop"). And bruh sounds hungry again, cooing in Ms. B's ear: "Jay Z in the range, crazy and deranged I been inhaling the chain smokers, how you think I got the name 'Hova', I been real and the game's over". Dangerously in Love was gonna move out the store just on the basis of the high-profile collabo.
There are other high-profile collabos, like "Baby Boy" which features the rent-a-dance hall artists of the moment (Shabba what? Beenie who?) Sean Paul, another track with Jigga ("That's How You Like It"), and Missy and Luther (stay up bruh) drop some love on "Signs" and "The Closer I Get to You", a remake of the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack classic. Most of the tracks are were safe choices -- the Sean Paul joint has "third single" written all over it, Missy gets Ms. B some of that VA funk love and Luther gets her some quiet storm play and vocal props for hanging with the master (though the performance is flat). The most effective collaboration on Dangerously in Love is the most surprising, as Beyoncé links with Big Boi and Sleepy Brown (Dungeon Family in the house) on "Hip-hop Star". The track, which Beyoncé co-produced with Bryce Wilson (who ain't been seen since his days opposite Amel Larreiux in Groove Theory), out-Neptunes the Neptunes, fitting in nicely with Beyoncé's "who the hell is that?" production choices throughout the project. The majority of the 15 tracks are either self-produced by Ms. B or co-produced with Rich Harrison.
But the best evidence of Ms. B's growth as an artist (and woman) is seen in the ballads and mid-tempo tracks. On tracks like "Me, Myself and I", "Be with You", and "Signs", Beyoncé sounds assured, lacking any of the "shrill overboard" that describes some of the "melisma fits" (imagine Patti Labelle on crack) that marked earlier vocal efforts. "Be with You" coyly jacks the chorus melody from Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me", while "Signs" is the best Zodiac song in R&B since the Floaters' "Float On". "Signs" is built around the refrain "I was in love with a Sagittarius" -- Jigga was born on December 4th.
Beyoncé's approach to ballads throughout Dangerously in Love can be best described creamy -- and yes that pun is definitely intended. Tracks like "Yes", the sophisticated "Gift from Virgo", and "Speechless" are vocal orgasms. "Speechless" may be the most brilliant R&B ballad recorded in the last five years -- as good as MJ's "Butterflies", Maxwell's "Fortunate", or Jaheim's "Special Day". The genius of the songs lies in its chorus, where Beyoncé repeatedly coos "you got me " only uttering "speechless" at what seems the last possible moment with a raspy growl that sounds like well, I can't go there. The song's rising action recalls Art of Noise's classic "Moments in Love".
The most affecting song on Dangerously in Love is a track that Beyoncé initially thought to leave off the disc. Included as a hidden track, "Daddy" is an extraordinary tribute to her father Matthew Knowles. ("I want my unborn son to be like my daddy / I want my husband to be like my daddy"). By the time listeners get to the 15th and final track, they will have been so pleasantly surprised and impressed by baby-girl's performance throughout, that "Daddy" seems less corny, but a song that finds a young woman, confidently embracing her womanhood and the man that has helped take the kind of artistic leap that Dangerously in Love represents.