On Beyoncé's new album, the 27-year-old singer-diva-icon gives her onstage, bump 'n' grind alter ego Sasha Fierce co-billing.
I Am ... Sasha Fierce is her attempt at a concept album, with the disc split into two.
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There's the swoony, ballad heavy I Am ..., which Beyoncé says reveals her true self "underneath all the exciting star drama." Then there's the more modern, hip-hop-influenced Sasha Fierce, which Beyoncé calls "more sensual, more aggressive." The cover for I Am ... has Beyoncé scrubbed free of makeup, a cross dangling from her hand. Sasha Fierce is all glamazon armor: dark eyebrows, gilded eyelids, puckered mouth — all oozing sex.
Does the split-personality attempt work? As a total package, not quite. Individual songs such as the role-reversal jam If I Were a Boy and saucy Video Phone shine, while other tunes just don't produce enough oomph.
Vulnerability is nothing new for Beyoncé, who touched on her sensitive yearnings on 2003's solo debut Dangerously in Love. But she came roaring back in 2006 with B'Day, the kind of woman-in-control hit album that scorched club roofs with its rapid-fire grooves.
Executive-produced by Beyoncé and her dad/manager Matthew Knowles, I Am ... Sasha Fierce wants it naughty and nice. Still, with only 11 songs on the full album's standard version, splitting the two sides is unnecessary. Each disc isn't strong enough to maintain the momentum B'Day did, even with five extra songs on the album's deluxe version.
I Am ... starts off promisingly, with If I Were a Boy building on a soft-rock acoustic guitar riff and handclaps.
"If I were a boy, I think I could understand, how it feels to love a girl, swear I'd be a better man," Beyoncé emotes. Written by BC Jean and Fergie collaborator Toby Gad, the tune — the only one Beyoncé didn't have a hand in writing — is one of the strongest she has ever done.
Then things start getting generic.
Slow burner Halo could be a love letter to her new hubby, Jay-Z, but it has such a conventional feel, with cliché heart-tugging lyrics lacking spark.
Other songs, from the sadly cooing Disappear to piano-based Broken-Hearted Girl, recall British songstress Leona Lewis (indeed, OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, who penned Lewis' hit Bleeding Love, co-wrote Halo). B's voice sounds great, but the mushy content — all ballads — doesn't leave you inspired.
Thankfully, when Sasha Fierce begins with Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), the album comes back to life with the hip-moving sassiness that Beyoncé delivers so well. The chant — "If you like it then you should've put a ring on it" — is all diva strut and a clap-beat rhythm with "oh-ohs" thrown in.
Video Phone, a dirty ditty dotted with electro bleeps and groans, is guilty good. Beyoncé — oops, make that Sasha — lets her inner freak fly: "You want me naked. If you likin' this position you can tape it," she slurs over finger snaps.
Diva, a sparse play off Lil Wayne's A Milli, funnels Beyoncé's strong voice into low-key rap posturing. Call her Sasha or Beyoncé, there is no doubt it is fiercely funky — and the kind of attitude we want from Beyoncé, instead of meekness.
Beyoncé, for all her big-haired, big-voiced fabulousness, apparently has some identity issues like the rest of us. But if other worthy one-named divas have successfully straddled that divide between vulnerability and powerhouse sexuality without an alter-ego as a buffer, so can Beyoncé.
Check out this track: Extra tune Ego is worthy of Beyoncé's role as Etta James in the upcoming film Cadillac Records. A shout-out to her man, and herself, Beyoncé taps into James' boldness, singing, "He love my big ego. It's too much. I walk like this cuz I can back it up." Go B!