Sony Urban/Columbia

beyoncé’s B’Day is not a great album. It is, however, a very good album—state-of-its-art in fact—and all the better for it. It’s not your typical “event” R&B;/pop (redundant, isn’t it?) album, though. Haters will scoff, but this is an oft-times edgy, forward-looking R&B; record. Aaliyah might’ve made a record along the lines of B’Day were she still with us.

What drives much of B’Day is Beyoncé’s personality, her sheer stardom, her celebrity even. A prime example: “Upgrade U,” sees B singing of bringing her partner—“U,” ostensibly it could even be you in the fantasy world of pop music—up more than a level, courtesy of
Audermarspiguet watch
Dimples in ya neck tie
Hermes briefcase
Cartier top clips
Silk lined blazers
Diamond creamed facials
Vi Vi X cuff links
6 star pent suites
among many other items. Probably only Beyoncé could really pull off a track like this— and the jewel-studded icing is that the one music man who least needs upgrading of this sort, B’s paramour Jay-Z, adds a guest rap to the song. This is audaciousness ne plus ultra, but the dynamic duo get away with it by the sheer force of their personalities.

There’s plenty more to B’Day. For starters, the album sounds fresh—it was reportedly recorded in less than a month. There’s an urgency missing from all too many contemporary R&B; records, led by current single “Ring the Alarm.” Helmed by Swizz Beatz, “Alarm” takes Beyoncé to the edge and then shoves her right over the 10-foot security fence. Sure, the song’s sirens give it a driving urgency, but her vocal is what gets it over—especially her yelling of the chorus (“Ring the alarm! I’ve been through this so long! But I’ll be damned if I see another chick on your arm!”). The song’s credit actually says it’s produced by Swizz Beatz and Beyoncé Knowles, and I believe it— she gets a co-production credit on each song here, and each one bears her imprint, her sensibility. (She co-wrote each song as well.)

That’s not to say that different tracks don’t bear the sonic imprimaturs of their primary producers. You won’t mistake “Kitty Kat” as being from anyone but the Neptunes. It’s got a nicely squishy Pharrell-does-R&B; keyboard which works well with the song’s “I’m not feelin’ it” vibe.

Not everything here works so well. The Neptunes’ other contribution, “Green Light,” is one of their tired random-percussion tracks (are those timbales?) that goes nowhere. “Resentment” is a trite ballad of the type many hoped Beyoncé had put behind her, in spite of its pleasantly ‘60s-soul groove, and “hidden track” “Listen” (from the forthcoming Dreamgirls film) may work stupendously in the context of the movie (and even soundtrack) but doesn’t stand quite so well independent of context.

Those feel like minor quibbles when judged against the rest of B’Day. “Deja Vu” (thanks to Rodney Jerkins, who also handled Destiny’s Child classics such as “Say My Name” and “Lose My Breath”) is one of the year’s best singles—“Crazy in Love” lite, but it still works. And Rich Harrison gives “Suga Mama” a tremendous lift with a sample from J Wade & the Soul Searchers, a nasty, greasy southern guitar lick which complements B’s naughty-but-nice lyrics marvelously (“Come sit on Mama lap,” etc.). It’s another of the (many) songs that wouldn’t be quite as good were someone else singing it. Beyoncé has a presence, a character which is totally unique to her, and B’Day’s utterly imbued with it.

Reviewed by: Thomas Inskeep
Reviewed on: 2006-09-14
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