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Editorial Review

Beyonc's More Fun When She's 'Fierce'

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Beyonc Knowles has always held her privacy dear. She's a stingy interview subject -- polite but unfailingly circumspect -- and she's just as guarded when it comes to her art: As a member of Destiny's Child and, now, a hugely successful solo star, she's never been one to sing about her most intimate thoughts and feelings.

It's hardly hurt her commercially, of course: Selling sex and female-empowerment anthems, Beyonc, 27, has become one of the biggest stars in modern pop culture, placing fourth -- behind Oprah, Tiger and Angelina -- on this summer's Forbes Celebrity 100, which ranked celebrities based on earnings and various measurements of fame.

Beyonc's fans, who are legion, love her even if they don't really know her, which is no small feat in this age of oversharing.

That's supposed to change with her third solo release, "I Am . . . Sasha Fierce," on which Beyonc formally introduces an alter ego as a means to clear the slate and finally reveal Her True Self.

As if.

The ill-conceived double album splits 11 songs -- 16 if you buy the more expensive deluxe edition -- into two separate discs: "I Am" and "Sasha Fierce." In the press material, Beyonc explains that Fierce "takes over when it's time for me to work and when I'm on stage; this alter ego that I've created that kind of protects me and who I really am."

The first half of the album, she says, "is about who I am underneath all the makeup, underneath the lights, and underneath all the exciting star drama." Beyonc, we hardly knew ye!

But about the only major revelation proffered by Bona Fide Beyonc as she allows us into her bubble is that deep down, she just wants to be Barbra Streisand, or maybe Leona Lewis.

Indeed, the "I Am" disc is all about sweeping, self-help balladry built on treacly pianos and strings and Beyonc's strangely sanitized vocals, which are supposed to sound heartfelt but somehow come across as clinical, as on "Halo," an icy song co-written and produced by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, the hitmaker behind Lewis's breakthrough single, "Bleeding Love."

Though generally flawless, the songs on "I Am" are filled with banalities and nonspecifics, lacking the visceral punch of Beyonc's best work.

Still, the side's first single, "If I Were a Boy," is a soaring standout, in part because of its extra-strength melody, but also because it brings Beyonc back to her lyrical strength: boy-bashing. (Did we somehow miss reports of discord in the singer's marriage to Jay-Z?)

There's plenty more of that on "Sasha Fierce," which showcases a more sexualized and aggressive singer performing rhythmically frisky songs, many of them anchored by detonative, bone-rattling 808 bass drops.

It's the double album's superior half by a wide margin, as it features most of the standout tracks. "Radio" is throbbing synth-pop about the singer's love affair with her stereo. "Diva" is a fun, if tuneless, gender-twisting play on Lil Wayne's summer hit, "A Milli." The moaning, groaning "Video Phone" positions Beyonc as the star of a sex tape set to a thrillingly spare soundtrack that sounds like a Nine Inch Nails instrumental.

Why Beyonc needed to create an alter ego to sing the sorts of swaggering, male-baiting songs that have become her hallmark, though, is anybody's guess. In fact, with its playground vocals and handclap-driven rhythmic pattern, the album's other lead single, the fizzy finger-waver "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," sounds like a remake of "Get Me Bodied," a minor hit from Beyonc's 2006 album, "B'Day."

Meet the new Sasha, same as the old Beyonc!

Whoever that is.