It may seem hard to believe after the acclaim her last three albums received, but there was a time when Beyonce was thought of strictly as a ‘singles artist’. Her material with Destiny’s Child was primarily singles-oriented, after all, and her first solo album, Dangerously In Love, was downright uneven, with entirely too much dull Scott Storch-penned material. Her second album, B’Day, was more consistent, but still had little ambition to be more than a collection of individual Pop songs. This, her third album, was her first real stab at joining the prestigious ranks of the ‘album artists’, and while it admittedly didn’t entirely succeed on the first try, there’s still much more first-rate material here than on her first two albums.
This double album was the first time Beyonce attempted to make an ‘album statement’, as they say. It has a clear overarching concept, and each of the two dual discs has a consistent sound and style, with a deliberate contrast between them. The only thing that isn’t consistent about this album is the quality…the good material is often very, very good, but the album unfortunately contains three of the worst songs of the entire 2000s decade, and all three of them were unwisely promoted as singles.
The first disc, titled I Am…, is Beyonce singing in her ‘normal’ persona, and consists almost entirely of soft, pretty piano ballads with singer-songwriter-style lyrics. And if the songs are perhaps too similar to each other in sound, the disc works as a soul-baring exercise, offering Beyonce minus the attitude and glitz, and several of the songs offer a rather touching glimpse into the real person underneath the glamour. In addition, all of the song are lovely as music, with exceptionally pretty melodies and the softest and gentlest vocals Beyonce has ever provided.
The only problem is that one of these songs (the first track on the album, in fact) has lyrics so horribly offensive that Beyonce is still paying the price for them regarding her reputation. The song is set to a pretty melody just like the others, but the lyric is a misandrist rant about how all men are shallow, philandering, insensitive creeps…and yes, I mean all men. To be fair, Beyonce didn’t write this…it’s literally the only song on the entire album she doesn’t have a writing credit on…and I’m fairly sure she doesn’t actually think it, but the fact that she chose of her own free will to record it means that she kind of brought the accusations of misandry that have dogged her ever since on herself.
The second disc is supposedly sung from the perspective of Beyonce’s performing alter ego at the time, the titular Sasha Fierce, and features a heavy R&B sound and a sophisticated and even somewhat experimental style. The big hit from this disc, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, is so familiar today that we generally don’t notice that it actually has a very unusual structure for a Pop song. And items like “Sweet Dreams”, which has such a heavy electronic sound that it almost qualifies as EDM, yet never loses its R&B edge; “Radio”, which sounds uncannily like a Prince composition; or “Ego”, an R&B jam that abruptly turns into a piano ballad two-third of the way through, all represent some of the smartest and most sophisticated mainstream R&B of the era.
Unfortunately, the two most experimental tracks are collaborations with star producer Bangladesh, of “A Milli” and “Break Up” fame. Bangladesh is certainly an experimenter, so I suppose I can see what drew Beyonce to work with him here, but unfortunately his ‘experiments’ always turn out horrifically unlistenable, and this was no exception. “Diva”, where Beyonce adopts a not-very-convincing ‘thug’ pose over a maddeningly repetitive chorus and one of the most nauseating beats of all time, is easily one of the worst songs of its decade. The other Bangladesh song on the album, “Video Phone” is slightly less saliently terrible, but it’s still a world-class headache.
Ironically, given the wildly uneven content of the main album, this album features the rare commodity of a consistently fine set of bonus tracks, something that even Beyonce has had trouble delivering on her later albums (“7/11” being an obvious example). In fact, there were no less than 18 separate songs released on some permutation of this album, and with the exception of the three colossal duds mentioned above, all of them are pretty solid.
With all of that good material, there’s really no way I can call this a bad album, and its heights, such as the Ryan Tedder-penned “Halo” on I Am… or “Single Ladies” on Sasha Fierce, are sublime enough to counterbalance even the horrific low points on display here. It’s actually quite inconvenient to try and purchase this album because of the plethora of alternate releases it’s received, all of which are missing at least one song out of the full 18, but I actually recommend wading through those options, even in spite of the album’s unevenness. I don’t really know if this album qualifies Beyonce as an ‘album artist’ on its own, and it certainly doesn’t reach the same level of artistic success as her next three efforts, but it’s worth hearing either way, and even if you’ve heard the hits, I guarantee you’ll find some interesting stuff here that didn’t make it onto the radio.