(Sony; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 30 October 2007

Aside from but not far behind “Say My Name,” “Crazy in Love” marks itself as the most successful and fantastic song that Beyoncé’s had anything to do with. The rest of her solo album languished in that monster single’s shadow, and now the soul-bap, the Hov verses, the desperate desire to bang have become the defining traits of Beyoncé’s flavor. With just one (admittedly killer) song now shaping her present and maybe future catalog, it’s easy to understand why much of B’day is a pleasurable listen, just as it’s easy to recognize that the well of inspiration here is fairly shallow. Beyoncé keeps bucketing, though, desperate to please. That desperation’s its own problem, too, hammering an ebullient diva into some blustery (almost drunken) antics. Next stop, Beyoncé Thunderdome.

Wrong foot dropped, let’s be clear: starting off with “Déjà Vu,” the reflexively titled reincarnation of the monster, might make B’day’s intentions of regurgitation blatantly apparent, and it might be a pretty inferior copy (right down to Jay’s non-sequitur braggadocio), but it’s still a bit of a good time. Rodney Jerkins produces muzak of little distinction, which means he’s okay to do a cheap Harrison Xerox; Jay’s presence is sort of an automatic boon (it’d have to be if he can bring validation to a Linkin Park song, right?); Beyoncé’s all flushed and bothered, buzzing furiously as the “Bee…about to sting.” After Jay drops his verse like so much cold turkey, Beyoncé climbs the scale and reaches some point on the other side of hysterics. She’s no longer just crazy in love; “Déjà Vu” finds Beyoncé crazy in a comfortable relationship. Of course, she’s also crazy in jealousy on “Ring the Alarm,” where she rolls around and goes limp noodle, Terminator staring at herself in a mirror while Kelis-shouting, “I’ll be damned if I see another chick on your arm!” She’s crazy in status quo on “Get Me Bodied.” Crazy manipulative and/or skanky on “Freakum Dress.” Plain nuts for including the awful “Irreplaceable.” Common thread being, this B is crazy.

Weirdly, but perhaps admirably enough, B’day tries to tie Beyoncé’s eviscerated pathos down to something of a contextual progression. God forbid anyone calls this a concept album, but there’s a pseudo-storyline to the way things start from where they were left three years ago, or how the Beyoncé-as-Santa Clause of “Suga Mama” (wherein Rich Harrison’s spliced funk sounds almost as Rich Harrison as the rest of B’day’s Rich Harrison-imitating producers) leads to the quandary of “Upgrade U,” which has Beyoncé musing what to do now that she’s met her “equal,” i.e. “the motherfuckin’ greatest.” Rich and famous Beyoncé with rich and famous Jay-Z smirk at how, by just being together, they’re both richer and famouser and awesomer, Beyoncé mostly focusing on how she’s going to culture Jay, Jay on how much shit he can buy for Beyoncé. It’s a pretty exclusive basis for a song; meanwhile, PDA happens within a new tax bracket of annoyance. Even so, “Upgrade U” is not at all intolerable, and that’s because, in the performances and music, it does manage to emulate its creators’ successes, does sate that desire to bang. Ultimately, it’s pure, willful chutzpah that carries B’day through the threats of “Ring the Alarm,” the confusion of “Kitty Kat,” the revenge/make-up sex of “Freakum Dress,” and the not-done-having sex of “Green Light” (a Neptunes breeding of “Hot in Here” with “1 Thing”). Of course, Beyoncé lacks the clear mind needed to pull off the follow-through.

Radio pop albums get ruined by slow songs. We know this shit. The artists know this shit. But Nelly Furtado still slips us tracks like “Te Busque” and “In God’s Hands,” Justin still lumps four totally gross songs at the end of his new record, and Beyoncé predictably quashes any semblance of dramatic arc by skipping right over the climactic confrontation to the lame scene where possessions get divvied. That’d be the saccharine, acoustic guitar sashay of “Irreplaceable,” followed by wishing things had turned out differently on the bland, belt-it paroxysm of “Resentment.” “Check On It” might be a kind of recovery if it weren’t that it’s been released, like, five different times already, and it basically paints a B’day epilogue where Beyoncé’s back in the club, fishing for ogles with her ass. Before, the song was just some coy, bubbly fun; at the end of what amounts to a break-up album, it comes off like vindictive flirting. Thus, between that cattiness and upgrading Hov, wearing her hair in a beehive pun and using her own birthday as a marketing ploy, Beyoncé has unintentionally hurled herself up a tier on the hierarchy of Unlikable Divas. J. Lo’s in no danger of being dethroned, sure, since “Crazy in Love” equals hot track forever, and B’day is an album that knows it. But Beyoncé’s an artist who’s not sure how to sell her full personality and craft in lieu of selling what she thinks we want. I’m sending her a card.

Dear B:

Believe it or not, you can stand apart from your past hits, your relationship with Jay, your sex symbol status, “bee” gimmicks. You’re a vocally talented and vibrant singer. You’ve got an ear and a natural gusto. You don’t have to push everything, you don’t have to bow to some shitty ballad quota, you sure as hell don’t have to title a song “Freakum Dress” in order to turn us on. Seriously, please don’t do that again. But, anyways, whatever, you’re not reading this. Sigh. Happy Birthday.