It was difficult to bear at times, mercifully, but you can't claim you weren't warned.
The end of the summer saw the most extraordinary blurring of the lines between pop culture and music, to the point where the two were almost seen to be compatible. The record industry, momentarily tired of complaining about declining sales, decided to back a couple of winners instead. Three, to be exact: Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics
, Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds
and Beyoncé Knowles' B'Day
What's most striking about these releases is not the fact that their purveyors managed to step out of the front page of every gossip rag and celebrity newswire long enough to remind us why they're so mildly interesting in the first place. Rather, it's the fact that besides being clustered together within a month of each other, each album was supposed to, if not actually, mark the maturation as artists of personalities once considered the antithesis of art.
Call it the changing face of the industry or a clever marketing trick, but each album had its own gimmick from the start. Back to Basics
was pushed, hard, with the tagline that it was an authentic
homage to the pre-war jazz and blues screamers she'd suddenly discovered were her most important influences. Timberlake's album was sold as the musical equivalent of modernity: the masterful melding of every relevant style of music by the incumbent king of pop. Both, disappointingly, valued style above substance.
, however, gave the strongest indication that it may be in some way organic. She claims to have felt moved to create the album following the completion of her role as Deena, a bullied and abused singer, in the Hollywood adaption of Broadway musical 'Dreamgirls.' She felt compelled to write the songs in order to express the feelings she wished her character had expressed- an, evidently, so did the other twenty-three(yes, twenty
-three) songwriters credited on the album. Despite the number of contributors, Beyoncé claims to have financed and recorded the album behind the collective back of both her label and managerdad, Matthew Knowles.
Believable? Not really. Interesting? Definitely. Pop concept records have all but died out, and when they do materialise they're usually desperate attempts to appear thoughtful without advancing the art form ("I'm bringin' sexy back"); Beyoncé's B'Day
actually reads like an intelligent project and possibly, gosh!, a window into her soul. Then again there's fully twenty-four writers at work here(twenty-one, considering 'Resentment' is a cover); perhaps it's a window into dozens of souls. Sounds like some pretty small windows, right?
Speaking of Windows, the video for lead single 'Déja Vu' was recently the subject of an online petition, signed by "the fans of one Beyoncé Knowles." The video, it appears, committed a multitude of cardinal errors, including having no central story (no such criticism for the lyrics then), contains "erratic" dancing and "ridiculous" fashion. The fans of one Beyoncé Knowles (is the "one" a permanent prefix?) thus demanded not only that the video be re-shot by a director "more acclimated to urban themes," but that said director ensure all dancing is choregraphed (for spontaneous dance is a suburban phenomenon) and that Beyoncé refrain from interacting with real-life Jay-Z lest any more "non-existant sexual chemistry" occur between the two.
And Ms. Knowles' people told the undersigned to fu
I mention it because it's a rare example of the pop music industry valuing artistic integrity over popular opinion; if not, it was merely a triumph for good taste. The video is in fact one of the more interesting videos around, more interesting than the song, certainly. Initially lauded for being a 'Crazy In Love' sound-alike, 'Déja Vu' is neither as infectious nor as fun as the lead from Dangerously In Love
; a shame, considering Rodney Jerkin's funky bass and hi-hat beat is ripe for something, anything
, great. As it stands, Jay-Z steals the track, barely able to conceal his excitement on his second entrance. The more I listen to it, the more convinced I am that it should
be Jay's track.
'Déja Vu' shouldn't be considered an accurate guide for what B'Day
had to offer. If Beyoncé's vocal performance is tepid on the track, then the bulk of her vocal tracks are anything but. On 'Suga Mama' she's as sweet and faux-innocent as the 60s soul stars she emulates, batting out the line "I could be like a jolly rancher that you get from the corner store" with the same sense of mischief as Christina on 'Candyman,' and 'Get Me Bodied' sees her land somewhere between Ella James and Lil' John, and somehow she makes it work. Ballads 'Irreplacable' and 'Resentment' (a cover of a Victoria Beckham
original) are typical single-word pronouncements, the kind Destiny's Child made their name on- Beyoncé strolls her way through both with an ease that suggests she knows it too.
If there is a problem regarding Beyoncé's vocals, it's that she's not yet distinguished herself vocally from Destiny's Child; she was always the dominant voice in the group, greeting and saying farewell to each member as she passed through the revolving door. B'Day
is full of harmonised vocals to the point of being gratuitous- the same mistake Justin Timberlake made on Justified
. While Destiny's Child's group vocals were no less rigorously planned than those on B'Day
, they didn't come across
as quite so calculated- they were more natural, the presence of three vocalists legislated against the over-indulgence sometimes exhibited here, particularly the chaotic mix of vocal tracks on the atrocious 'Green Light,' produced by Pharrell Williams, who really should know better.
Pharrell's other contribution to the album is the regrettably plain 'Kitty Kat,' a slower track that gives further credence to the view that he can't cope when thrust outside his comfort zone. Kasseem 'Swizz Beatz' Dean produced second single 'Ring The Alarm' and 'Get Me Bodied,' which along with 'Suga Mama' are the production triumphs in an otherwise underwhelming album instrumentally. 'Ring The Alarm' is a brave choice for a single, angry and lyrically incendiary, but the hip-hop producer's beats are unusually intricate, allowing Beyoncé's to wax lyrical on her unwillingness to let another woman to profit from all the work she did to improve her deadbeat man. More intrusive speculators have raised questions over just how autobiographical the track really is.
is an accomplished second effort from Ms. Knowles, doubly so considering the timeframe within which she managed to collaborate with so many people, but as an album it's simply not the finished article. The concept was a nice idea, but it's delivered without consistency and without any real intelligence: if Beyoncé truly believes that the proper reaction to a straying boyfriend is to don her 'freakum dress' and fight to make a sinking ship slightly more comfortable, then she's a confused lady.
I just hope Jay-Z isn't the idiot in question.