Sunday, December 7, 2008

SHE HAD ME AT "HALO"

I'm going to level with you: I've never really gotten Beyoncé Knowles. Although the occasional Beyoncé solo single has caught my ear ("Check On It" comes immediately to mind), I've always found her music to be a little too frenetic and her singing a tad too uncontrolled for my liking. And when she released the first two singles, "If I Were A Boy" and "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)," from her third solo CD, I Am...Sasha Fierce, I was first in line to bash them.

But something happened on my way to dismissing I Am...Sasha Fierce out of hand without even a cursory listen. "Single Ladies" started to grow on me. So despite my misgivings about the whole Sasha Fierce alter-ego concept, I tuned in. And suprise surprise, I quite like it. The official 41:46 version, that is, the one without the mostly unnecessary iTunes bonus tracks. I still think the Sasha Fierce thing is awkward; it's a marketing ploy that does the music no favors. As Garth Brooks' Chris Gaines period proved, alter egos do not belong on pop albums.

Once "If I Were A Boy" is out of the way, "Halo," a gorgeous backbeat-driven ballad that makes me want to run out and fall in love, announces a new and improved Beyoncé. She's still a capital-S singer with pyromaniac tendencies, but for the most part, the ballads that make up the I Am portion of the disc present her in a kinder, gentler and more nuanced light. "Ave Maria" (which incorporates elements of the aria without remaking it) and "Satellite," two acoustic tracks stripped down to the bare emotional essentials, are my favorites. Normally, I'm no fan of slow-jam R&B and to these ears, Beyonce's previous ballads have been a bit dull and shapeless, but she manages to grab my attention and hold it all the way through I Am.

Then Sasha Fierce makes her grand entrance and gets the party started with "Single Ladies," a by-the-hook Beyoncé jam that's nonetheless as infectious as anything that's hit the airwaves this year. But it's the risks that dancing queen Sasha takes that really elevate the proceedings. The stuttering hip-hop swagger of "Diva" is as fresh as the title isn't; it's easily the most inventive, left-of-center thing Beyoncé has ever done. Sasha never recaptures that edgy high, but when she exits stage left, she leaves you wanting more--more Sasha, more Beyoncé, more I Am...Sasha Fierce.

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