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Beyoncé Play

The first 346 days of Beyoncé's 2013 were eventful enough. She headlined the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, joined by Destiny's Child partners Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. The trio released "Nuclear," an excellent song disregarded for not being an anthem. A documentary, Life Is But a Dream, aired on HBO. There were appearances on albums by Rowland, the-Dream, and husband Jay-Z, as well as a Soundcloud upload "Bow Down/I Been On," passionately debated for its aggression and vulgarity, and the more "ladylike" "Standing on the Sun," a clothing retailer tie-in. And then, on December 13, while engaged in a world tour and when no one expected it, she released her fifth solo studio album with accompanying videos. Easily her best album since B'day, it's among her most entertaining and sexually explicit work, yet it's substantive in every respect. Beyoncé co-wrote and co-produced all of the songs with A-listers like Pharrell, Timbaland, James Fauntleroy, Hit-Boy, and the-Dream, as well as emerging Detroiters Detail and Key Wane and the previously unknown Boots. There are deep references to Beyoncé's competitive showbiz upbringing and acknowledgments of her beloved Houston hometown. "Mine" and "Blue" involve vivid expressions regarding the turbulence and thrill of motherhood. Central track "***Flawless" opens with Ed McMahon's introduction of her preteen group on Star Search, incorporates the combative "Bow Down" and a portion of celebrated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on feminism, as well as a booming, quotable-packed victory lap. It concludes with McMahon's dismissal of her group, as if to say, "Yeah, but look at me now." There's also a whole lot of romance, heartache, and, most prominently, monogamous sex -- in the kitchen, in a chauffeur-driven car, while drunk. Best of all is "Blow," playfully risqué boogie loaded with instantly memorable lines -- "I'm-a let you be the boss of me," for instance -- and a slick tempo changeup. Soul throwback ballad "Rocket" is a close second, another amusing mix of metaphorical and explicit come-ons. It opens with an elegantly delivered "Let me sit this ass on you." When the album came out, the release itself dominated the chatter. In time, it should be seen as a career highlight from a superstar -- one of the hardest-working people in the business, a new mother, in total control, at her creative and commercial peak. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

B'day Play

At least one tactic or event preceding the release of Beyoncé's second solo album inspired a bemused three-syllable exclamation from anyone who was paying attention. The lead single, the late-'70s-funk-inspired "Deja Vu," had the audacity to not be as monstrous as "Crazy in Love" -- its stay at the top of the charts was relatively brief, so clearly there was evidence of some drop-off there. This was quickly followed by "Ring the Alarm," an angered, atonal, and out-of-character song with an accompanying video that invited all kinds of perplexed analysis, along with debate on whether Beyoncé was being autobiographical or, as the singer claimed, channeling her Dreamgirls character. All of this gave the haters plenty of ammo when anything less than 100 percent polite, ladylike, and expected was bound to do the trick. Add to this an album title that can be pronounced just like "bidet," along with the advertisement that the album's ten songs were whipped up in two weeks, and you have yourself a career-killing train wreck. B'day isn't even close to that. While Beyoncé does sound like she's in a bit of a hurry throughout the album, and there are no songs with the smooth elegance of "Me, Myself and I" or "Be with You," it is lean in a beneficial way, propelled by just as many highlights as the overlong Dangerously in Love. Two collaborations with Rich Harrison swagger and preen: "Been locked up in the house way too long/It's time to get it, 'cause once again he's out doing wrong" (the blaring/marching "Freakum Dress"); "Don't give me no lip, let mama do it all" (the spectacularly layered "Suga Mama"). The Neptunes assist on "Green Light," an ambitious, fleet-footed number that continually switches tempos and sounds, as well as "Kitty Kat," a deceptively sweet, rainbow-colored track -- where what sounds like purrs are more like claws-out dismissals -- that could've been pulled from one of the first three Kelis albums. And even with an entirely bonkers line like "I can do for you what Martin did for the people," "Upgrade U" is the most potent track on the album, a low-slung Cameron Wallace production where Beyoncé wears and buys the pants while making her proposition sound more like empowerment than emasculation. If the circus surrounding this whole thing -- which could take up to ten pages to document -- was an elaborate ploy to transform Beyoncé into an underdog, there really is some kind of genius at play, but it's extremely unlikely that anyone in her camp could've predicted that the expectations and reactions would be less rational than any of Beyoncé's decisions and actions. There is nothing desperate or weak about this album. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Irremplazable Play

Four months after Columbia released a "deluxe edition" of B'Day, which added a second disc, the label released this "special low-priced CD" -- essentially the bonus disc from the deluxe B'Day with a tacked-on Timbaland remix of "Get Me Bodied." If you're a die-hard Beyoncé fan, you'll probably feel jerked around a bit -- especially if you bought B'Day when it came out in September 2006 and bought the deluxe edition seven months later, only to find out that the bonus material would later come out on its own (with a track not on the second disc of the deluxe edition!). And there's really not much to the disc, anyway: a Spanish-language version of "Irreplaceable," along with its attendant norteña mix, the subdued "Listen (Oye)," three mixes of "Beautiful Liar," "Amor Gitano" (a duet with Alejandro Fernández), and the aforementioned Timbaland remix. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

4 Play

Beyoncé reportedly delivered over 70 songs to Columbia for her fourth solo studio album. The dozen that made the cut, combined with their sequencing, make it plain that straightforward crossover-dance singles and cohesion were not priorities. Taking it in at once is mystifying, even when little attention is paid to the lyrics. The opening “1+1,” a sparse and placid vocal showcase, fades in with a somber guitar line, throws up occasional and brief spikes in energy, and slowly recedes. It’s the kind of song one would expect to hear during an album’s second half, certainly not as the opener -- not with the (fittingly) slight sonics and heavy lines like “Just when I ball up my fist, I realize I’m laying right next to you, baby.” Three additional ballads follow. Each one features its own set of collaborators and contrasts both sonically and lyrically. “I Care” rolls in on pensive percussion and low-profile synthesizer drones, surging during a cathartic chorus. “I Miss You,” alluringly bleak and hushed, is a codependent confessional. The only one that’s rote, “Best Thing I Never Had” is a bombastic kiss-off saved by Beyoncé’s ability to plow through it. From there, the album restlessly bounces between tempos and moods: a desperate midtempo chest thumper, a couple cyborg marching-band dancefloor tracks, an ecstatic early-‘90s throwback, yet more ballads. What’s most surprising is that a song titled “Party,” co-produced by Kanye West with a guest verse from André 3000, quickly settles into a low-watt groove and remains there. Wildcard interludes and a Euro-pop party-anthem cash-in would be the only ways to make the album more scattered, but the strength of most of the material, propelled by Beyoncé’s characteristically acrobatic vocal skills, eases the trouble of sifting through the disjointed assortment. No one but one of the most talented and accomplished singers -- one with 16 Grammys, nothing left to prove, and every desired collaborator at her disposal -- could have made this album. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

I Am...Sasha Fierce Play

In non-Deluxe Edition form, Beyoncé's third solo studio album is as concise as 2006's B'day, but it is divided into two discs as a way to emphasize the singer's distinct personalities. It's a gimmick, of course -- a flimsy one. Revealed through interviews in 2005, Sasha was said to be Beyoncé's "stage persona," an embodiment of the outgoing, aggressive, on-stage Beyoncé that doesn't necessarily represent the real Beyoncé. Sasha now has a last name (possibly picked up from Tyra Banks, who maybe took a cue from Klymaxx), and is granted half an album (the second disc) to express herself. These five songs, when compared to the majority of B'day, are actually less fun, less impulsive, and yes, less fierce. "Diva," a variation on Lil Wayne's "A Milli," is the only track that could go toe to toe with the likes of B'day's "Freakum Dress" or "Ring the Alarm," at least in terms of audacity. At the other end is "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," a dire "Get Me Bodied" retread. Otherwise, the Sasha Fierce half is full of decent, if easily forgettable, upbeat pop. If placed within the context of an album without a packaging ploy, there'd be little evidence that Beyoncé is making a radical progression or being any more bold than before. It would, if anything, be notable as the least R&B-oriented batch of songs she has made -- that is, if it wasn't for the I Am half, essentially a small set of adult contemporary ballads. Acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, contemplative soul searching, and grand sweeping gestures fill it out, with more roots in '70s soft rock than soul. Beyoncé feels each line to the fullest extent, which almost rescues the set's staidness. "If I Were a Boy," while sounding like the watery backdrop for a singing competition finale, turns out to be the album's standout, both for its lyrics and Beyoncé's tormented performance. It could have been the song that broke an unfairly neglected adult-R&B singer like Heather Headley into the mainstream, and don't be surprised if a country artist nabs a CMA Award by covering it. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Crazy in Love [Australia CD] Play

The Australian single for Beyoncé's Crazy in Love features the stunning pop masterpiece that is the title track plus two remixes and "Summertime" featuring P. Diddy. Neither of the remixes of Crazy in Love comes close to the original, but they both are imaginative and quite good. The Rockwilder remix slows down the beat and makes the song deeper and funkier with chopped up horn samples and sparkling synth textures, Maurice's "Nu Soul Remix" speeds up the beat and takes it from hip-hop straight to glittering house territory. "Summertime" was taken from the soundtrack to Beyoncé's film Fighting Temptations and is a sweet love song with lush sampled strings, acoustic guitars, and a wonderful vocal from Beyoncé. It would have made a perfect addition to her album. As it is, it makes this a really strong EP, but not one anyone but a fanatic needs to hunt down.~ Tim Sendra, Rovi

Dangerously in Love Play

Beyoncé Knowles was always presented as the star of Destiny's Child -- which probably shouldn't be a big surprise since her father managed the group. So it was a natural step for her to step into the diva spotlight with a solo album in 2003, particularly since it followed on the heels of her co-starring role in Mike Myers' 2002 comedy hit, Austin Powers in Goldmember. Still, a singer takes a risk when going solo, as there's no guarantee that her/his star will still shine as bright when there's nobody to reflect upon. Plus, Survivor often sounded labored, as Knowles struggled to sound real. The Knowles clan -- Beyoncé and her father Mathew, that is (regrettably, Harry Knowles of "Ain't It Cool" is no relation) -- were apparently aware of these two pitfalls since they pull off a nifty trick of making her debut album, Dangerously in Love, appeal to a broad audience while making it sound relatively easy. Sometimes that ease can translate into carelessness (at least with regard to the final stretch of the album), with a prolonged sequence of ballads that get stuck in their own treacle, capped off by the unbearably mawkish closer, "Gift from Virgo," where she wishes her unborn child and her husband to be like her daddy. (Mind you, she's not pregnant or married, she's just planning ahead, although she gets tripped up in her wishes since there's "no one else like my daddy.") Although these are a little formless -- and perhaps would have been more digestible if spread throughout the record -- they are impeccably produced and showcase Knowles' new relaxed and smooth delivery, which is a most welcome development after the overworked Survivor. Knowles doesn't save this voice just for the ballads -- she sounds assured and sexy on the dance numbers, particularly when she has a male counterpart, as on the deliriously catchy "Crazy in Love" with her man Jay-Z or on "Baby Boy" with 2003's dancehall superstar, Sean Paul. These are the moments when Dangerously in Love not only works, but sounds like Knowles has fulfilled her potential and risen to the top of the pack of contemporary R&B divas. It's just too bad that momentum is not sustained throughout the rest of the record. About halfway through, around the astrological ode "Signs" with Missy Elliott, it starts crawling through its ballads and, while listenable, it's not as exciting as the first part of the record. Still, the first half is good enough to make Dangerously in Love one of the best mainstream urban R&B records released in 2003, and makes a strong case that Knowles might be better off fulfilling this destiny instead of reuniting with Destiny. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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