Beyonce’s artistic strengths & weaknesses.
I initially was going to do a comparison article on Beyonce’s four solo albums (see the concert DVD’s compared here), but after heavily listening to Destiny’s Child records recently (DC4LIFE!), I decided to include the group work as well. I wanted to write this article after an interesting discussion with a die-hard Mariah Carey fan who claimed to love Beyonce`, but described her as an artist he primarily seeks to “shake his ass” or release anger with. This minimizing comment stunned me, considering “King B” has inspired me and I, of course, find her to be a substantial artist. However, after pondering the Mariah fan’s criticisms of Beyonce`, I could see why he had the opinion he did. Coming from the school of Mariah, any shortcomings Beyonce’s music has seem massive.
This discussion highlighted what I feel to be an important central issue in Beyonce’s work: her projects aren’t always a testament to her ability and talent. As bees, we’ve paid close attention to every performance and song and are keenly aware of her abilities. We know she can SANG; we know she’s a skilled technician with a wide range. We know she can write great songs; she penned the beautiful and romantic song, “Dangerously in Love” as a teen. We know she’s a great performer; most doubters become believers after seeing a live performance (see “10 Live Signs Beyonce` is Everything” here). We know she’s studied from all the right musical bibles, claiming to be heavily inspired by Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Prince, Josephine Baker, Broadway musicals & the aforementioned Ms. Carey. The problem is that we know this as BEES and dedicated fans. From the outside looking in, Beyonce` can and has been deemed as just another beautiful, fairly entertaining pop singer with nothing to offer but catchy songs. By breaking down her discography with constructive criticism, I hope to be able to give insight on why some people aren’t all the way sold on our queen diva.
The Destiny’s Child Era
First, I would like to say that it grinds my gears when people disrespect or disregard the members of Destiny’s Child or this portion of Beyonce’s career. One’s past is just as important as one’s present. To fully understand an artist’s growth, all must be taken into account. The ‘DC’ era was a pivotal time in Beyonce’s career. Part of the reason why her solo debut was so successful was because audiences were already acquainted with her and she, along with her group-mates, had established herself as a positive role model for youth and an advocate for female empowerment. We’re talking about one of the biggest-selling girl groups of ALL TIME here. Vocally, Destiny’s Child’s harmonies were flawlessly gorgeous and shined even more during acapella performances. Considering their age at the time of first album (17), their vocal cohesion was particularly impressive.
Destiny’s Child (the self-titled debut, 1998)
This was a great, classic, 90’s R&B album. By classic, I mean timeless. I can listen to this album now in 2012 and it sounds just as great; not dated. What’s fascinating, hilarious and somewhat uncomfortable is the see-saw between mature and age-appropriate content; for example, the sultry “Second Nature” (which uses an Isley Brothers sample) versus the youthful “No, No, No Pt. 2.” The production sounded a little cheap, by the harmonies were great and the writing was there. Fantastic debut.
Grade: A, Favorites: Second Nature, Bridges, My Time Has Come
The highest-selling DC album in America, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is clearly everyone’s favorite. With successful hit-singles like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Say My Name,” WOTW put DC on the map, but that’s where the issue with the record lies for me. Featuring every hot R&B producer on the block then, it was obvious WOTW was designed for commercial success. There’s nothing wrong with seeking such out, but it’s a problem when that’s the primary goal and artistry is second. The album was so over-produced; beat heavy and noisy with too many effects. Lyrically, the ladies had more creative input, but struggled to keep the balance the first album presented between mature and youthful. It was like they wanted to sound grown up (ex. The scandalous, soap-opera storylines in “Confessions” & “If You Leave”), but just couldn’t help but be 18 (whining about your boyfriend ‘taking too long to call you’ on “Hey Ladies”). With the album centered around “dating commandments,” the quartet quickly got (unfairly) pegged as ‘male-bashers.’ The vocals were still on point; the arrangements were slightly more intricate.
Grade: C+, Favorites: So Good, BugABoo, Where’d You Go, Sweet 16
Post being burned at the stake for allegedly being misandrous and legal troubles with 2 original members who left the group (Letoya Luckett & Latavia Roberson), DC had their engines revved up. Beyonce` had the opportunity to write and produce on all the tracks. Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams only had writing credit on one song, which didn’t help diffuse the perception that Beyonce` was a diva favored by her manager/father. “Survivor” added fuel to the group’s commercial fire, being a core-pop crossover album. Again, commercial curiosity kind of killed the cat. The production was still beat-heavy with cartoonish, theatrical effects. The writing was great in that it was full of positive messages about self-esteem, identity, independence, cherishing life and healthy relationships, but the approach to these messages only gave room for young people to identify with them.
Grade: B-, Favorites: Bootylicious, Independent Women I/II, Emotion, Happy Face, Dangerously in Love
Destiny Fulfilled (2004)
You know, it’s quite sad that “Destiny Fulfilled” was Destiny’s Child’s last album, because the group was just starting to get good artistically. With a clear platform (female empowerment), a trademark sound and personal growth (all 3 ladies had done 1 solo project, 2 were in serious relationships at the time), DC delivered their best album yet. A musical illustration of a woman who emerged whole after losing her identity in a crumbling relationship, “Destiny Fulfilled” was an enhanced version of their debut. Smooth vocals and dramatic, sexy production was matched with sophisticated, adult and expressive lyrics. Listening to this record, I really wonder how they would’ve progressed afterward. Sometimes I think they disbanded too early.
Grade: A, Favorites: Free, If, Girl, Gots My Own (Japanese bonus track), Lose My Breath
As a solo artist, Beyonce` has followed a very similar pattern to that of Destiny’s Child: her first and latest records (“Dangerously in Love” & “4”) were perpetual core-R&B with a tinge of pop, while her 2 middle albums (“B’Day” & “I Am…Sasha Fierce”) were more trendy. She surprisingly admitted that she was more focused on having hit singles on the middle projects. One thing I would like to hear from Beyonce` in the future is a well-written, powerful, inspirational or romantic ballad that has the impact of Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” or Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Not to disregard songs like “Halo” or “Resentment;” they just didn’t leave the same cultural impression. I would also like for Beyonce` to diversify her subject matter. Most pop and R&B songs are about love and I never get tired of feministic anthems, but expanding her repertoire couldn’t hurt. Try discussing social issues or writing more deeply revealing songs, like “Save the Hero.” In regard to vocals, my only criticism is that Bey’s upper register can sometimes sound abrasive or shrill at times. She could smooth it out.
Dangerously in Love (2003)
This is my favorite solo album. It was so unorthodox; I don’t think it was what people expected from Beyonce` as a debut. It was 70’s soul revisited; plenty of horns and vintage samples (ex. The Chi-Lites and Shugie Otis) layered with hip-hop and pop. Seductive, erotic and amorous without being gratuitous, “Dangerously in Love” appealed to an older adult audience they may not have been interested in Beyonce` beforehand. Beyonce` maintained her youth, however, by singing about horoscope signs (“Signs”) and being attracted to bad boys (“That’s How You Like it”). Record label execs didn’t think DIL was mercantile enough and wanted her to redo the record. Beyonce` was somehow able to keep the album how she desired and ultimately proved the suits wrong; DIL conjured 5 successful singles. Such a feat all the more proves the importance of the Destiny’s Child era: if she were a new artist, the record execs would have gotten their way. New artists typically have little creative input.
Grade: A, Favorites: Crazy in Love, Me, Myself & I, Yes, Signs
After portraying push-over Deena Jones in the film “Dreamgirls,” Beyonce` desired to shed the meekness and celebrate her 25th birthday with the bombastic, aggressive and mostly-uptempo “B’Day.” What made B’Day distinctive was that it was a slightly different side of Beyonce`; intense with strong hip-hop influence. While some found the intensity intoxicating (fans of “B’Day” usually praise the record for its upbeat energy), others found it to be wearing on the ears. Vocally, Beyonce` used a lot of power; it’s usually hard to show off vocals on faster songs, but she pulled it off. Lyrically, “B’Day” took an interesting, unusual approach to dating relationships, but at times, seemed a little silly in nature. For example, while “Ring the Alarm” covered the rarely discussed concept of keeping a poor mate because you’re cringing at the thought of someone else benefitting from your positive influence, the inane “Freakum Dress” was about putting on a sexy dress to remind your man how fine you are. The North American deluxe edition had strong tracks, like “Flaws & All” & “Still in Love,” but the track order was jaggedly all over the place. A rather involved promotional campaign that included a Spanish-translation edition and exclusive products, catapulted Beyonce` into an even bigger international star. “B’day’s” major issue was that its sound was so current that it may be difficult to enjoy in a few years.
Grade: C+, Favorites: Déjà vu, Suga Mama, Ring the Alarm, Green Light, Resentment
I Am…Sasha Fierce (2008)
Oh, my grievances with the 2-disc “I Am…Sasha Fierce.” If you’ve followed this site long enough, you know that this is my least favorite Beyonce` solo album. IASF was brilliant and trashy all at once. With the great and fun concept of exploring an alter-ego, one side (I Am…) featured beautiful mid-tempos and ballads with poetic and symbolic lyrics, while the other (Sasha Fierce) was more upbeat and urban with terrible lyrical content. The material was so drastically different in composition and sophistication, it was almost like Beyonce` was trying to show how intelligent AND simple-minded she could be. The artistic growth and branching out into alternative and adult contemporary on “I Am” was overshadowed by the tacky and basic lyrics of “Sasha Fierce.”
Grade: C, Favorites: Disappear, Smash Into You, Halo, Save the Hero (digital bonus track), Why Don’t You Love me? (pre-order bonus track)
I love “4.” It’s the closest Beyonce` has gotten to “Dangerously in Love” since; artistry and agelessness was the primary goal. “4’s” strong point is that it incorporates all the great elements of each solo album. Influence from prior decades (namely the 80’s and 90’s), remnants of rock & alternative, high energy, decent lyrics and a young-at-heart attitude.
Grade: A, Favorites: 1+1, Love on Top, Schoolin’ Life
Beyonce` hinted at possibly doing another dance -oriented record during her post-pregnancy Revel Resort concert, and I have to say…that makes me nervous. I hope Beyonce` realizes that it’s possible to create dance music that is ALSO productive (see Michael & Janet Jackson). As I said earlier, I really want to Beyonce` to live up to her full ability and potential. After “4’s” moderate sales, her record label may push for a more mainstream album; I hope she’ll stand her ground. Beyonce` is in a rather uncomfortable position. The industry horizon looks very different from when she started with Destiny’s Child. She came in during one era and is living and breathing in another, so she has the unique problem of having to play to 2 different audiences and demographics. She has to tick on the tightrope. She still has to worry about current industry rules, and that can make it hard to keep the interest of fans that have been there since the beginning and become the legend she aspires to be (to read my thoughts on what Beyonce` should do to become the next “Queen of Pop” based on the paths of her predecessors, click here).