This opening line won’t surprise anyone who knows me: I never liked Beyoncé. Going back to Destiny’s Child—a singles act and launchpad for Beyoncé’s eventual solo departure—they were never fetching. From the oversinging, to her rush to be the first in everything and the subsequent sloppiness left in her wake—I remained unmoved. Even worse, a Christopher Columbus air of smugness pervaded her plundering. It was as if there was no regard for understanding the difference between a homage and playing paper dolls with the accomplishments of others.
Then I heard her single “Countdown” in 2011. Somewhere within that slice of spunk and sass, I glimpsed something I had never noticed in Beyoncé prior: ambition tempered with artistry. By this point, a decade had passed since she hit the block and age softened my staunch position. That left me open to the temptation of “Countdown” and its charms. Yet, I would not succumb to conversion. I was a justified aficionado—personally and professionally—of popular music culture and she stood in opposition to the music I jammed to. Or did she? Recently, I caught wind of “XO” and “Partition” from her 2013 eponymous effort; the same feelings of reluctant appreciation crept alongside my revulsion of all things Beyoncé.
I pride myself on giving any artist I’ve previously dismissed an opportunity to prove themselves if they show “quality over quantity” growth. Beyoncé’s tally sheet with me had gained traction; being an honor bound music essayist and commentator, I decided to challenge myself. On a whim last Sunday afternoon, I went into my local record shop and purchased all five of Mrs. Carter’s recordings. I spun one record each night after work and logged my thoughts—in real time. Could I be wrong about my past assumptions on Beyoncé or was I correct?
Listening Log: August 11, 2014 / 9:09 p.m. EST — Dangerously in Love (Columbia, 2003)
As I originally assumed, Dangerously in Love was competent R&B sung by a competent R&B singer. The bulk of Beyoncé’s debut held a millennial clumsiness, the sum of overproduction versus Beyoncé’s personality. On the other hand, one can’t deny the singles from Dangerously in Love. Cunning and cool, “Crazy in Love” and the Donna Summer-sampled and spiked “Naughty Girl” really vibed tonight.
The album material went by in a tasteful, but formless perfumed powder puff of early 2000s urban studio wizardry. However, “Be with You,” “Signs” and “Yes” have a funky, if primitive precociousness that she’d flesh out later. I almost wish that the domestic pressing of Dangerously in Love included Beyoncé’s 2002 starter single, “Work It Out.” A soundtrack spinner from the Austin Powers in Goldmember movie, it would have added some needed kick to the record.
If it hadn’t been for my boyfriend I was dating in 2006—he was manic for Beyoncé—my ears wouldn’t have bothered orbiting this LP at all. I guffawed when I read about the incubation period for B’Day back then. In retrospect, that this album was recorded so quickly after Beyoncé wrapped the film adaption of Dreamgirls showed something at work here. Ignoring the shameless “Crazy in Love” recast of “Déjà Vu” and the plastic “Irreplaceable,” B’Day’s high on the fussy temperament that only the best singles from Dangerously in Love hinted at.
I immediately realized that Beyoncé has always been sexualized, no chrysalis required. She toyed with said sexuality’s frequency and tint on the retro-rock-funk fit of “Suga Mama” and the nouveau hip-hop dancer “Freakum Dress.” Magnificent and bold, she took no prisoners on this material.
What spoke to me was “Ring the Alarm.” Upon its release as a single I viewed it as an inferior xerox of Kelis’ “Caught Out There.” One can’t deny Kelis’ influence, but if Kelis was anger unhinged, Beyoncé’s fury was fueled by an emotional desperation. Sadly, Beyoncé solely captivated me with the uptempos. The ballads were generic soul-by-numbers (“Flaws and All,” “Listen”); if she’d let the song arrangements guide her to vulnerability versus flaunting her vocal cleavage, I might have connected.
Listening Log: August 13, 2014 / 6:33 p.m. EST — I Am…Sasha Fierce (Columbia, 2008)
What a mess. This is what happens when the spectacle supersedes the art rather than accentuating it. I hear, underneath the aural rabble, a solid record somewhere. Beyoncé’s vision of presenting one disc for “Beyoncé” and another for her alter ego “Sasha Fierce” is silly. She rarely peeks from behind the steel curtain of Beyoncé to begin with, so acting as if there are two of her just doesn’t click. Case and point, ballads remain this young lady’s Achilles heel, somewhat. Let me explain. When you hear “If I Were a Boy,” “Halo,” “Ave Maria” and “Hello” the problem (again) is that Beyoncé never lets the song take her where she needs to trek emotionally. Instead you end up with a miscellany of commercial bloat and “singing” masquerading as sensitivity.
Imagine my surprise when I came across the restrained gorgeousness of “Disappear,” “Smash Into You” and “Satellites.” I can hear the color in Beyoncé’s voice, the exchange of Technicolor and monochrome (!). After two records, I get three downtempos that take to the sky.
The mirrorballers are perfunctory and there isn’t really anything wrong with them, but they can’t compete with “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” A blistering blast of unapologetic black pop so omnipresent the moment it hits the speakers, it’s addictive. It’s her finest single up to this point. Had the record just been one disc and sequenced properly…
Listening Log: August 14, 2014 / 6:16 pm EST — 4 (Columbia, 2011)
Beyoncé takes the quieter approach with her fourth project, even down to its title. What passes for quiet for Beyoncé is nominal to the general definition of that term to be clear. The 4 LP cleans up nicely with its usage of genuine melody and song structure that eluded the mass of I Am…Sasha Fierce.
Make no mistake, the same two errors that popped up on her last three recordings manifest on 4: volume without context (“Best Thing I Never Had”) and an overly busy party pusher (“Run the World (Girls)”). Despite the misses scurrying about, there’s forward momentum. I like forward momentum. “Countdown” and “End of Time” … man what a tag-team! Busty and feverish, “Countdown” has splashy crashes of jazz percussion, whereas Beyoncé’s harmonic vocal stacking catwalks in tandem with a marching band rhythm on “End of Time.” “Schoolin’ Life” and “Love on Top” function like “back to the future” reprises of throwback R&B. There’s a lot to like on this album and it offsets some of 4’s annoying points.
Somewhere between the torsion of transition and actualized evolution sits 4; its romantic feelings are contagious when they aren’t obscured.
Listening Log: August 15, 2014 / 8:14 p.m. EST — Beyoncé (Columbia, 2013)
The shock tactic of dropping this record was blatant to me. Beyoncé was stung by the frosty reception of 4 and didn’t want to chance releasing an album in a traditional format to repeat 4’s “failure.” If it were anyone else, this maneuver may have been neat, neo-counterculture even. I viewed it as cloying coming from Beyoncé.
What jolts my senses about this self-titled affair is how she almost gets it right. Stripping off, albeit slowly, the Beyoncé mask with “Pretty Hurts,” “Ghost” and “Mine,” the songs are lyrical snapshots of someone questioning life and love. The vocal deliveries match the sonic stories, and the sudden synchronicity is fascinating. The stated backdrops eye alternative soul and electro-lite, genres her younger sister Solange has expertly mined since 2008. The blend of Beyoncé’s peers and predecessors—her sister, Erykah Badu, Dawn Richard, Janet Jackson, Brandy— all thread throughout the tapestry of Beyoncé. Heroically, the titular vocalist finally pays correct tribute to them by (musically) saying “Ok, I like what you are doing, but I’m going to put this through my lens and interpret it.” Look at her stepping up to the plate and being her own woman, artistically.
Back to the beats, Beyoncé doesn’t forget how to have fun and her hedonism knows no bounds on Beyoncé. “Blow” is a mixture of Solar Records and Flyte-Tyme epoch black pop frivolity; the polished-to-kill seduction of “Partition” threatens to become a patented Beyoncé classic.
In these works you feel Beyoncé’s simplified raison d’être of the female being the “source,” the female having the power. Some might call it gutter feminism, which is furthered on the mixtape mean mugging of “Flawless.” The latter R&B sub-genre falls short on “Drunk in Love.”
Two things become apparent when I hear “Drunk in Love.” One, what does Jay-Z do for Beyoncé, musically? On all the songs he’s appeared on with his wife, she’s strong enough to handle them alone. Secondly, while I applaud Beyoncé for carrying the modern R&B torch—and its offshoots—there’s a distinction between spice and trash. She needs to educate herself on the division between them if her recent remix of “Flawless” with Nicki Minaj is anything to go by.
I can admit Beyoncé sits comfortably next to the “still sexy” R&B mother classics like Diana Ross’ diana (1980) and Kelis’ Food (2014). The content of this recording suggests a soul under the stage surface of her exterior, thankfully.
I can’t say that I will ever be—or want to be—a part of the sycophantic, psychotic “Beyhive.” I can say that I’m happy that I took a risk to discover that someone I had viewed as creatively void is proving to be complex. There are still elements of ridiculousness about Beyoncé though. She has improved with her copycatting calming considerably— she’s learning to intuit and express. Call me an above casual observer, cautiously optimistic, but hoping that this young lady finds herself. For better or worse, the future is Beyoncé’s. What she chooses to do with it will determine her standing legacy. I hope she chooses wisely.
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