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Countdown: My Week with Beyoncé

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Beyonc+Complex+Photoshoot+2+PNGThis 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. ESTDangerously 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.

Beyonc+BeeBDay+PNGListening Log: August 12, 2014 / 6:30 p.m. ESTB’Day (Columbia, 2006)

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. ESTI 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 EST4 (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 LogAugust 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 predecessorsher 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 fBeyonc+pngorget 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 torchand its offshootsthere’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 beor want to bea 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 observercautiously 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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About Quentin Harrison

Quentin Harrison is a Dayton reared and (for now) Atlanta based writer. Writing for eight years, his works have appeared in the Dayton City Paper and reissued CDs for Big Break Records, Gold Legion, and Soul Music Records. Quentin runs The QH Blend (http://theqhblend.wordpress.com/) where his thoughts on music can be found. Quentin considers himself to be the Charles Barkley of pop music commentary.
  • Rockbird

    I loathe just about all things Beyonce, but I will say that this may be one of your best written pieces.

  • Jen Alicia Hass

    I like Beyonce..I do but I agree that sometimes she is over the top and over sings way too much. Some tracks will give emotion-which is what I look for in music anyway-I think that this article is freaking great! I couldn’t have said it better!

  • Gene Ebeling

    I know this is going to sound so trite, but here goes. I listened to her music with Destiny’s Child (yes there was a point where I thought she really couldn’t sing) and I like some of the melodies along with her stage presence (like ‘Lose My Breath’ live on Oprah). All that said, I only own their last album together (somewhere). There are two songs hereafter she did that I still listen to today (one from ‘Dangerously In Love’-you guessed it, ‘Naughty Girl’ and the second one, the extended remixes of ‘Check On It’). Now I do have a handful of concerts & promotional videos (for sale only from Wal-Mart) that were all gifted to me by the ‘ex’. I will also admit I do listen to some of her tracks via YouTube or Soundcloud, honestly though, here’s my interpretation. Yes she paints art (music), yes I love art (music), but just because she’s a painter doesn’t mean she’s an artist (musically).There is no denying she has talent plus music credibility for having learned to market a somewhat OK voice. Is she in the Rihanna category, or even Janet? Nope, not by a long shot! **Totally enjoyed this essay Quentin Harrison. Great word usage and sentence articulation. Well done!

  • Erik Chambers

    The charm effusing from this blog is nearly palpable – charm being on a spectrum from sardonic snark to relenting praise, that is. (HA!) The parting shot, “sycophantic, psyochotic ‘Beyhive'” is classic. But I caught the Jam/Lewis nod, which intrigues me, since I have yet to peruse the latest effort, beyond the, quite literally, commercialized route that her “art” inevitably takes. Quite honestly, I, like you, it sounds, am not a teet-suckler of Beyonce’s. So your delving into the murky waters of her historically uneven and inconsistently satisfying catalog – “Ring The Alarm”, btw, is a non-Favorite of mine, especially – inspires me to do the same. Sometime in the foreseeable future.

  • http://www.jenontherocks.com Jen

    Q, this is an excellent write-up, level-headed, nuanced, and oh yes, with a tinge of lovely snark! I commend you for this post. With that said, I’ve listened to every Beyonce album up till this newest one, and really, I’m still not bowled over. Music wise, my ambivalence with Beyonce is not really about her as a performer — I admit she can rock a stage — but about how she constructs her music catalog. She/her fans want her to be seen as a serious artist but her image is so controlled and commercialized that you don’t get that kernel of her personal ingenuity behind whatever she’s trying to do. It all seems forced and highly calculated to me. Like you stated, there are moments where she herself breaks through, but it’s all vocal, and she just never takes it *there*. It’s just real cold to me, and I guess my diet of growing up in the ’90s…I’ve just seen whatever she’s pushing already and I’ve seen it done multiple times better. Also her catalog, which you expertly laid out here, is just unmemorable and it amazes me how she’s gotten by, when doing so little. I will admit to liking a few tracks of hers. I had high praise for “Love On Top” and “Me Myself & I” will always be the best thing she’s ever done to me, but it’s just not accessible to larger audiences a la Michael Jackson, or pushes any envelopes to where 10 years from now we’ll be saying, “Wow Beyonce was ahead of her time”.

    What wears me out on Beyonce as a person is I’ve gotten quite tired of the feminist gauze she’s wrapped herself up in and how I’m being force-fed to embrace it because I’m a Black woman and a feminist and I *must* support my fellow sisters in entertainment b/c “she’s all we’ve got”. You hit it on the nail about her fans, they really make me dislike Beyonce more than I should. It’s a problem that since Black women have so little representation already in the public media that this kindergarten record label-pushed ‘feminist superhero’ persona is being touted as the high standard of “respectable” and “stereotype dismantling” Black womanhood, as if other music stars like Nina Simone and Donna Summer never happened, or that Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu aren’t happening right now. I’m glad some people find joy with her music and learned about feminism through her and I do respect her hustle, but as an entertainer and cultural icon, I’m just not really there for it.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    I couldn’t agree more with both Quentin Harrison and all the commenters. Beyonce’s popularity baffles me as she is just, well, dull.

    • Quentin Harrison

      Lol, just to be clear I now consider myself a slightly, above casual fan. I think she’s moving in the right direction, but she still has a trek ahead of her. The new LP is definitely strong. Glad to see the piece is getting such attention.

  • J Nate Watkins

    So. I totally am interested in this read because we’ve
    previously talked about what is the unappealing nature of Beyoncé. I feel the
    same way in terms, stylistically. It is truly not until the album, 4, do I feel
    she attempts to approach a more daring and out-of-the-box effort where sound
    feels more triumphant without all of the forced, over-the-top effort.
    “Love on Top”, “Countdown”, and especially “End of
    Time” are her revelations and takes her to a more restrained sound, with a
    feel of fun that also comes with ease. But her fifth album does often feel like
    she’s trying again. (I am biased in that I am from Texas and Beyoncé comes
    across as another girl from Texas).

    But my problems with her fifth album are the same criticisms
    you give about her overall. This is so funny because I just wrote somewhere
    else about exactly how Beyoncé does not come across as truly a feminist to me,
    because somewhere in all of her “feminism”, there is some mechanism
    of defining her status by somehow slighting someone else to do it. Your choice
    term of “gutter feminism” is so interesting. But I also feel this
    whole approach to feminism is representative of a new conception of feminism as
    represented by the millennial generation, which she represents. (I know, I
    know, I’m considered one). For a generation of people who pride ourselves on
    constructing a “fabulous life” with Twitterfeeds, Facebook updates, and
    filtered flawless selfies on Instagram, millennials value calculated efforts to
    present flawless personas that feel so removed from genuine human life. And it’s
    no so hard to see how Beyonce comes across as the epitome of that. So she will
    be the ideal for those who follow her.

    But I liken her effort for artistry to the vocal gymnastics
    of Mariah Carey; over the years, she had to learn how to more effectively
    control her voice to make some of her really well-constructed records. Beyoncé
    will need to evolve to become a true artist instead of a popular performer for
    the masses who can deliver a well-executed, perfectly calculated, and often
    unoriginal theatrics of the generations who came before. With all that being
    said, she is the one of this generation with the potential to break through and
    her more recent efforts demonstrate that.