Beyonce's fiercer side

BY DAVID RIVA
For the Daily
Published November 16, 2008

Beyoncé
I Am ... Sasha Fierce
Columbia/Music World

Courtesy of Columbia

3 out of 5 stars

Beyoncé Knowles has made a living by singing songs for “the ladies.” So what happens when the self-proclaimed “number one diva” marries hip-hop mogul Jay-Z?

The answer lies in the first track of her latest studio album I Am ... Sasha Fierce. On “If I Were a Boy,” the newlywed obviously has gender roles on her mind. She wastes no time confronting the issue of sexism, taking the perspective of a man and bemoaning the flaws in the social construction of gender. The song takes a fresh outlook on a well-trodden subject, and Beyoncé shows her concern for “the ladies” in a more sober manner than usual.

Although thematically consistent with her previous two efforts, Beyoncé’s third solo album differs conceptually as it’s structured in a double-disc format. The first disc's six introspective tunes act as reflections from the personal side of a celebrity rarely revealed to the public. In contrast, the second disc features five club tracks performed by aptly named alter ego and stage personality, Sasha Fierce.

The I Am disc is laden with intricate piano arrangements, stripped-down acoustic guitar and sweeping strings, which provide a compelling backdrop for the main event: Beyoncé’s voice. She displays her vocal prowess with unwavering conviction. “Broken Hearted Girl,” “Ave Maria” and “Satellites” pour out in rapid succession, each a powerful and emotionally stirring ballad with universal resonance; they signal progression and maturity for Beyoncé the songwriter. “Broken-Hearted Girl” illustrates the omnipresent possibility for separation in a relationship; “Ave Maria” connects everyday life to a spiritual experience; and “Satellites,” the disc’s strongest track, ventures into a land of lyrical complexity (“If we don't communicate / We'll exist in our own space / We have all the love we need / While we're apart I cannot breathe”) seldom tread by the conventional pop star.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Beyoncé’s stage persona awakens and boldly interrupts the beautiful orchestral performance with the onset of the second disc, Sasha Fierce — essentially a crash course on how make a quick club hit. As "Sasha" instructs “all (her) single ladies” to “throw (their) hands in the air” on “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” the motivation for the rapid transition from calm and sensitive to blatant and rambunctious is a bit suspicious. As disc two wears on with beat-heavy jams, it feels like the record label needed to add these tracks just for commercial viability. “Radio” is almost adorable, but altogether embarrassingly juvenile. “Diva,” a certified dance track begging to be remixed and spun at a dance club near you, rips a page out of her beau Jay-Z’s songbook, while “Video Phone” stoops to an unbearable low as she implores hustlers to “tape (her) on (their) video phone.”

Basically, I Am … Sasha Fierce overemphasizes structural duality. Beyoncé’s overt attempt to define herself on Sasha Fierce feels forced and overshadows her remarkable voice and respectable musical achievement showcased on I Am. The overaggressive nature of her Sasha Fierce persona is exhausting and begs for more of the real Beyoncé.