This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision.
As I sit here, I am immediately aware that I’m about to gush over Beyoncé Knowles. And I’m real mad about that.
And you might ask why. I’ve said before I thought she is talented. And she is. And I’ve said before that she is far more inventive a singer/songwriter than almost anyone of her generation. And she is. And I’ve said that despite the hype and intrigue and whatnot, there seemed to be, at the core, a young woman struggling to really find her voice as an artist. And she is.
But as I’ve also said, things don’t happen in a vacuum and everything outside of the album itself has smacked of self-serving importance and arrogance that I really had no intention of even listening to Dangerously In Love, let alone coppin’ it. First, Michelle’s solo gospel joint (a decent, if too safe, record) was dropped in the back door with no pub, no love, no marketing.
Then Kelly’s album – and I mean this – was ruined by Mathew Knowles seeming ability to pick the most average, rote songs imaginable. It had more pub, mostly fueled by the by-the-numbers, yet strangely infectious drivel that was the Nelly collabo, Dilemma. It won a Grammy, but who really noticed. By then the promotional blitz of 2003 was already underway for Beyoncé’s album. The title angered me because clearly she was planning to co-opt one of the few great songs from Destiny’s Child’s album, Survivor. Then there were the BET specials where we saw Bey and Solange catting around Houston looking like pampered prima donnas waxing “I’m so over it” about the hectic life of a pop diva. Then there was the over singing of said co-opted song, Dangerously In Love, on SNL. Then the over singing of said co-opted song on VHI. And the Essence awards. And most of all there was the overall blandness of the lead track, Crazy In Love and it’s overly stylized video which managed to make every sexy gyrate and hair toss and strategically placed oversized fan blown hair toss as asexual and calculated as it really, really is.
So imagine my surprise when Dangerously In Love, the album — the work — turned out to be the best thing of its type I’ve heard all year. Imagine my surprise when all the hype about growth, sexiness and experimentation turned out to ACTUALLY be on the album. And imagine me sitting at work going “Damn Bey…I didn’t know it was like that.” Didn’t even realize I said it out loud until cats started askin’ me if I was cool.
Let’s look at what is most notable. B’s voice.
The album is nothing like a Destiny’s Child record. It also isn’t a boring showcase of vocal dexterity ala Christina, Mariah and Co. as most reviews (from Melbourne’s The Age, London’s The Guardian, and any number of American newspapers and magazines, except EW and Billboard) have foolishly and ignorantly stated. Bey’s created a varied and tasteful album where much of what was distinguishable has nearly vanished. There is the astonishingly inventive and believably sexy performances on Baby Boy and Speechless to the more conventional Bey on Crazy In Love. There are only a few instances of the vocal craziness, most notably on Missy’s Signs, a song so glaringly out of place and horrible, it is a wonder it was created for Bey, let alone included. It’s trite, unconvincing and random. I mean what does she mean I fell in love with a Sagittarius? It seems like the song was constructed around the rhyme instead of any characteristics inherent in the Zodiac. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t work.
But let us return to Speechless. Hands down the best declaration of sexual awakening I’ve heard since Janet was pantin’ bout anytime anyplace. When Beyoncé sings them “Yesses”, her voice achieves a pure tonal clarity and a pure sexuality that is astonishing, intense, and totally believable. Without question the best song on the album. No arguments, kids.
The song itself is the prime example of the astonishing growth of Bey’s songwriting skills. On Survivor she could not seem to make the music fit the lyrics or the vocal performance. As I said before, it just sounds bad when you are singing about not liking someone and all the arrangements are flowery and decoratively pretty and airy. It doesn’t mesh. But here, the song starts with “Where you been baby/Waited for you all day” and ends with them “yesses.” The emotion escalates in the lyrics beautifully and thus, Bey’s singing achieves the desired effect. It has somewhere to go.
Me, Myself And I achieves, in lyric, what Beyoncé has been struggling with most: writing an empowering introspective song with real passion and believability. With amazing clarity (“Love is so blind it feels right when it’s wrong/Now that it’s over stop calling me, come pick up your clothes/Ain’t no need to front like you’re still with me, all your homies know“). You really believe that Bey’s belief in herself is genuine and not false bravado and ego. The progression. It’s astonishing. Yes, an ode to waiting, is the strongest lyricism on the album. It’s astonishing. The sharp attempt to detail (“You said I move too slow/I showed you to the door“) is particularly notable. And the same happens on nearly all the songs from the Be With You to Naughty Girl to the oddly muted, but growing on me, Crazy In Love.
And the production is even better. The samples are nearly unrecognizable and do what they should…enhance the existing track instead of providing it. Be With You rides Strawberry Letter 23 with inventive panache and a simple bass line. The sample of the Chi-Lites coupled with Rich Harrison’s sparse, yet inventive production is the only thing really notable about Crazy In Love. And similarly, the track to the lame That’s How You Like It is good.
But hands down the best up-tempo is the engaging and (dare I say it) brilliant Hip Hop Star. It’s a dubious title, confounding really. But damn that snare drum and electric guitar is pure Bryce Wilson without being showy. And damn if she doesn’t sound amazing with those breaths. Blows Britney and Pharrell away with a quickness.
There are missteps, though. Don’t get it twisted. This is not a 5-star album. With the hidden track Daddy and Gift From Virgo, Beyoncé shows that while she is a capable songwriter, left to her own devices she is still inclined to over stuff a melody with as many syllables as she can and is given to trite lyricism about old school tennis shoes and movies. It’s far too nostalgic and wistful to be believable. Come on, y’all. She’s 21. She ain’t nostalgic for nothing. And as I said before Crazy In Love is more a production showcase than a real display of songwriting or vocal prowess. It’s aight.
With really only two terrible songs (Signs and Daddy) and two average-to-just-around average songs (That’s How You Like It and Gift From Virgo). Beyoncé has constructed an album of unrivaled power in pop. Because every other song on the album is flawless. And I mean that. It’s the album that everyone foolishly, stupidly, thinks Justin Timberlake made with Justified. It’s the album that Christina Aguilera, given her (admittedly) perfect pitch, could never make. It’s the album I selfishly wanted Kelly Rowland to make. It’s refreshingly straightforward and confident and it manages to make Beyoncé, the woman. full bodied and human, with real desire, thoughts and free (mostly) of pretension.
And for it’s minor missteps it really captures Beyoncé at a time in her life. In later years, we’ll say that sure it wasn’t perfect but it really sounds like a young woman’s thoughts and feelings. And few pop albums really capture that at all, let alone with the style, grace and sheer skill that Beyoncé Knowles has done with Dangerously In Love.