By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Some things only take two weeks. Growing a Chia Pet, for instance.
Crafting a career-defining pop album? That usually takes a little longer.
Don't tell Beyonce, who celebrated her 25th birthday yesterday with the release of "B'Day," a 10-track affair she whipped up earlier this summer in a mere fortnight.
And it shows. Following "Dangerously in Love," her stunning 2003 solo debut, "B'Day" feels slapdash and despondent, her exceptional vocal talents barely compensating for the lack of blood, sweat and mascara-stained tears. These songs are likable, but from the R&B chanteuse par excellence we expect pop revelations. After hearing "B'Day," we can only assume Beyonce has put more effort into preparing toaster waffles.
But even when she's coasting, she soars above her imitators. It's all in her voice -- a superhuman instrument capable of punctuating any beat with goose-bump-inducing whispers or full-bore diva-roars. Smitten, scorned, amorous, antagonistic -- Beyonce sings from all of these vantage points with undeniable virtuosity, but without the conviction to match.
The first two singles, "Deja Vu" and "Ring the Alarm," cast Beyonce in opposing roles: the love-dazed girlfriend and the jealousy-crazed ex. On the latter she shouts over air horns: "Ring the alarm, I've been doin' this too long / But I'll be damned if I see another chick on your arm!" Riveting stuff, but without a knockout refrain, she doesn't sound particularly invested in the role.
The club-hungry come-ons of "Get Me Bodied" remedy that problem as Beyonce weaves a dexterous melody over producer Swizz Beatz's syncopated patty-cake. But not so fast -- this time it's the skeletal track that keeps Beyonce tethered to the ground, illustrating just how desperately this woman needs a throbbing backbeat to keep up with her.
Cue Rich Harrison, the D.C.-based producer who penned Beyonce's signature 2003 hit "Crazy in Love." He delivers again with "Suga Mama," twisting a vintage Soul Searchers sample into a gritty, loping groove. Beyonce sounds right at home on this one, pleading, "Baby, what you want me to buy? My accountant's waiting on the phone." And while it doesn't quite eclipse "Crazy in Love," it's still "B'Day's" finest moment.
"Upgrade U" makes for a close second, reflecting similar buy-me-love sentiments, over a clinical 808-beat. "Let me upgrade you, flip a new page / Introduce you to some new things," she urges, before getting more specific: "Hermes briefcase, Cartier top clips, silk-lined blazers."
That's an impressive shopping list, but it's a far cry from the gift Beyonce seemed so poised to deliver.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Suga Mama," "Upgrade U."