It’s easy to imagine Beyoncé Knowles as a cyborg created to rule an elite cadre of one-named female singers (Christina, Ciara, Cassie, Kelis, Rihanna, LeToya, Nelly, Jessica, Paris). After all, the woman’s quest for multimedia dominance is relentless. This fall alone, she stars in Dreamgirls, a movie about a Supremes-like girl group (Beyoncé plays the Diana character, naturally). She introduces a new clothing line, the House of Deréon. And she gets to treat the Greatest Rapper Alive™, Jay-Z, as an accessory on “Déjà Vu,” the first track on her new album, B’Day (“Bass … hi-hat … 808 … Jay,” goes the intro).
Recording over a couple of weeks when she was supposed to be on vacation, Beyoncé worked with an all-star lineup of producers, combining hip-hop hard beats and depth-charge bass lines with bluesy guitars and gutsy horn charts. Her singing is more direct than ever. “I used to do a lot more runs and fills,” she tells me over the phone from Europe, “and here I just concentrated on the melodies. I was really working with beats that most R&B singers don’t work with. Like with Swizz [Beatz]—his tracks are just a blank canvas for me to work on top of. I can put any melody I want on there, and it has to be pretty powerful in order to compete with the music.”
The result is not just the best album of Beyoncé’s career, but also her first truly adult work. Sure, Destiny’s Child tracks like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Independent Women Part I” were plenty assertive, but they sounded more like dictates from the queen of the Heathers than new-feminist anthems. Her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, buried brilliant singles (“Crazy in Love,” “Baby Boy”) under an avalanche of saccharine ballads.
B’Day, in contrast, sequences one storming dance track after another. Yet Beyoncé also manages to add vulnerability to her repertoire. In the video for the second single, “Ring the Alarm,” a futuristic song in the oldest R&B genre of all, the woman scorned, she looks genuinely demented as she practically shouts the lyrics. The song, which plays into the rumors of Jay-Z’s infidelity, marks Beyoncé’s ascension to the pinnacle of celebrity culture: the obsessively parsed tabloid relationship.
Beyoncé denies the rumors, of course—“I’m so not going through that in my life right now, but I have gone through that, and I wanted to make a record that women could relate to,” she says—and she has a nifty strategy for deflecting autobiographical readings: the fiery songs on B’Day apparently represent all the things she wished her well-behaved Dreamgirls character, Deena, could have said. At her level of stardom, the truth barely matters. We’ve followed Jay and B through the blossoming of their romance (“ ’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” “Crazy in Love”); now the narrative demands marriage (also much rumored this summer), an affair, or both.
That’s no guarantee of a hit, as plenty of movie couples who tied their personal lives to their release calendars have found. After “Déjà Vu” failed to rule the summer as it was supposed to, Beyoncé could use one. “I can’t make the same record that I made before, and I hope people will realize that and follow me,” she says. As good as B’Day is, they should.
— B’Day, Sony; September 4. Next: Ornette Still Hears the Future