I want to like Beyonce. Really I do. She’s fantastic looking. She has a fantastic voice. However, over the course of four Destiny’s Child albums and now three solo albums, she’s mostly struck me as the musical equivalent of a ton of pretty wrapping paper with no gift inside. All style and no substance. As a songwriter, she’s not especially insightful, and it doesn’t really seem like she inhabits the songs she sings the same way some less talented but more believable vocalists do. So, to make a long story short, just about every album Beyonce has been a part of has been a case of unfulfilled promise and ultimately a frustrating listening experience.
That does not change with the new I Am…Sasha Fierce. Even before you pop this baby in the CD player or cue up the .mp3s, there are issues. First off, this is a double disc that doesn’t need to be a double disc. There are 11 songs on the regular version, 16 on the deluxe edition. Both versions of the album clock in under eighty minutes. Of course, Beyonce devised this cockamamie splitting of discs to reveal dual sides of her personality, with “Sasha Fierce” being her stage-strutting, attitudinal alter ego. So, I’m already salty because the concept behind the album is stupid.
Then there’s the music. The “I Am…” disc finds Beyonce in full-on ballad mode. Teaming up with some of today’s hottest songwriters/producers (like Stargate, The-Dream and Amanda Ghost), this disc has a decidedly pop edge. Take away the harder-edged percussion and you could just as easily have a Celine Dion album. Yes, Beyonce sings each of these songs beautifully, but the sleepy slow jams all kind of blend together after a while, with only a few standouts among them. Lead single If I Were a Boy may steal an idea that Ciara used two years ago (remember Like a Boy??), but Beyonce comes to the table with a much better song. The gender-reversal concept is well-written and Beyonce sings with passion. Somewhat tellingly, it’s the album’s best track despite the fact that it’s the only song on I Am… that she didn’t have a hand in writing.
There are a handful of winners on the first disc. Ave Maria may not be special from a lyrical standpoint, but Beyonce’s vocal on this song is absolutely transcendent. Singing does not get more beautiful than that. Smash Into You is a dramatic guitar ballad with more than a passing resemblance to Dave Matthews’ Crash Into Me (as allmusic mentioned in their thrashing of this album), and the burbling synths that have become The-Dream’s trademark highlight Halo. However, the muted tone of this disc makes it very difficult to differentiate fairly anonymous ballads like Disappear and Satellites from one another. While I’m not necessarily a fan of Beyonce’s more uptempo excursions, hearing all of these similar-sounding slow songs next to one another is like writing an aural prescription for Ambien. At some point, you’re like “pick up the tempo, PLEASE!!”
As they say, be careful what you wish for. Sasha Fierce (and why did she have to use a slang term that the gay community used and played out fifteen years ago to describe herself?) is a more varied album, but is less satisfying overall. Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) might be a huge hit right now, but damn if Beyonce hasn’t made this record at least four times before (Independent Women, Check On It, Upgrade U and Get Me Bodied). It’s an earworm for sure, but the skeletal production and threadbare lyrics make it one of those songs that you’ll love for a short while and then get really, REALLY sick of. The minimal production was a technique she adopted on her last alum, B-Day, and it resulted in that particular album’s worst tracks. She obviously didn’t learn from that mistake with songs like the incredibly annoying Diva, which finds B doing some sort of ill-conceived singing/rapping hybrid. Songs like this, the trying-to-be-sexy-but-just-repetitive Video Phone and the annoyingly horn-spiked Ego suggest that she’s swagger-jacking her husband, Jay-Z. Because if Jigga was a female singer (and his sense of humor and relatability disappeared), this is exactly what he’d sound like.
Beyonce fares better when she’s given either a decent melody or fuller production. Hello might have stolen a 10-year old line from Jerry Maguire for its’ chorus, but it’s a nicely sentimental midtempo piano ballad dedicated to her hubby. Meanwhile, Sweet Dreams and Radio (where she actually kinda succeeds at the whole sexpot thing) are both techno/Timbaland-inspired tunes with plenty of whiz-bang synthesizers and a sense of daring that’s missing from the rest of the album(s).
At the end of it all, I’m left kinda shrugging my shoulders. Beyonce could very easily have lopped five of the crappier songs off of this album, combined everything onto one disc, and you’d be looking at a much better piece of work. However, Beyonce’s “artistic vision” (or her management’s…whoever’s responsible for the stupid “Sasha Fierce” gimmick) winds up being a hindrance to the listener’s overall enjoyment. I Am… has a few strong ballads, but most of that disc winds up being anonymous by virtue of little to no variation in tempo, while Sasha Fierce is sunk by weak production. It’s telling that the album’s best song, the melancholy Scared of Lonely, was co-written by Beyonce’s sister Solange, whose own effort from this summer is leagues better than I Am…Sasha Fierce, but won’t sell 1/10 of what Beyonce will ultimately sell. Maybe if little sister had been on board to write a couple more songs, this album would be more than the unnecessarily frustrating, somewhat anonymous, and at times underproduced album it turns out to be.