For all their grumbling about Internet piracy cutting into their bottom lines, record companies sure have used the blogger phenomenon to their advantage. Leak a track here, a video there, and you've got a direct line to the consumer—a global focus group that will provide instant, unfettered feedback about your product. Paris Hilton's new video not going over well? Schedule a re-shoot and rush-release the clip onto YouTube. And despite having little influence over execs in the past, online petitions, like the one signed by almost 7,000 Beyoncé fans demanding that the singer's label shoot a new video for her single “Déjà Vu,” have become more and more common.
So, in an era when entire Hollywood films are created and marketed based on the demands of the public, I have to commend Beyoncé's handlers (including her typically bothersome dad, Matthew Knowles) for not caving in to the pressure. Grievances regarding Beyoncé's video included “no clear story or theme,” “confusing” and “alarming” dancing, “unacceptable [sexual] interactions” between the singer and her real-life boyfriend Jay-Z, “unbelievable and ridiculous” fashions, and editing that “causes one to get dizzy and disoriented.” The alarmed and apparently woozy undersigned also request that a director “more acclimated to urban themes and imagery” be hired for the re-shoot (though they ask, naturally, that it not be “Hype 'Letterbox' Williams”). Not only is the petition insulting to artists of any ilk, it specifically targets Sophie Muller, who, though she's never been at the helm of an “urban” video before, has been directing consistently high-quality clips for 20 years.
True, the video's editing is a little scattershot, but it's often cleverly used to segue between its myriad settings, dance moves, and wardrobe changes. The ecstatic, seemingly tribal African-influenced dancing—which is no freakier than Shakira shaking her hips and thrusting her bust in nearly every video she makes—follows scenes on what appears to be a plantation. The racy scene in which Beyoncé and Jay finally interact (she dances provocatively around the rapper, displaying those shiny, Tina Turner thighs, snapping gum, and loosening his belt) takes place in a much less glamorous locale than the big white Victorian house where she plays Bayou-boudoir dress-up. Are Beyoncé and Muller intentionally evoking the sweaty milieu of the antebellum South? It's hard to say what the intention was, but “Déjà Vu” is certainly more thematic and thought provoking than the videos for “Baby Boy” and “Naughty Girl.”
When creative decisions are made for the purpose of pleasing the consumer, everyone loses: If an artist does something too similar, she gets criticized, but if she tries something new (like Muller's video or the single's polarizing follow-up, “Ring the Alarm”), she gets crucified. As for the actual music, there have been criticisms that “Déjà Vu” is perhaps too aptly titled—a retread of her smash hit “Crazy In Love.” But there's something to be said for reliability (after all, Mariah has made a career out of rewriting the same song over and over again) and a “Crazy” flashback is better than another “Check on It.” Sure, Jay-Z reprises his guest spot role, twice, and, of course, there are those horns, but the song is subtler—if not vocally, then melodically—and, though it's taken its time, it's hard not to warm up to the track's undeniable Thrillerness.
“Déjà Vu” finds producer Rodney Jerkins continuing to ride a second wave of creative success that started with one of Destiny's Child's final singles, “Lose My Breath.” Deserting the group was an inevitable move for Beyoncé, but the reason is fuzzy at best: Dangerously In Love seemed to suggest that going solo was, as is the case for most lead singers, an opportunity to explore new styles and delve deeper into more personal subject matter, but the aggressiveness of the largely uptempo B'Day is more reminiscent of her former group at their commercial peak. Add some harmonies by Kelly and Michelle and “Upgrade U” could very well be a Destiny's Child track. In many ways, their last (and best) studio record, Destiny Fulfilled, played more like a solo album—not because Beyoncé dominated (at least not more than usual), but because it was a textured, ballad-heavy collection of songs that veered away from the trademark garishness of the group's sexual-materialism masquerading as female self-empowerment that has helped define modern R&B.
Here, the bombast is present and accounted for. Call it aggro-R&B—dick-smacking (or, in this case, pussy-whipping) in the form of song. An abrasive, possessive oddity that's a cross between “Survivor,” Michael Jackson's “Dirty Diana,” Kelis's “Caught Out There,” and Fergie's “London Bridge,” “Ring the Alarm” is a bold choice for a single. The song features an inspired bridge of its own (a musical one), but it will likely fall on deaf ears—and inspire another petition. There's something obscenely gluttonous and perversely over-the-top about the way Beyoncé bats out one club banger after another (it's enough to make one “dizzy and disoriented”). She lays out her mission to be seen on “Get Me Bodied,” declares herself a “Suga Mama,” and adds the term “Freakum Dress” to the pop lexicon, all in the name of the power of the P. In fact, “Kitty Kat,” the only midtempo break until the very end of the album, finds Beyoncé literally packing up her pussy and leaving the man who no longer seems interested in what she's selling: “Let's go, little kitty kat/I think it's time to go/He don't want you anymore.”
Whereas Beyoncé's debut was accomplished in its diversity, albeit a sure sign of a new solo artist trying to find her voice, B'Day sounds like the album “Crazy In Love” initially forecasted. The ballads are tacked onto the end and are, therefore, easier to dismiss as mere afterthoughts. The old-school “Resentment” would have worked better in the context of Destiny's Child (instead of one Beyoncé, we get three, and all of them are screaming at the top of their lungs), and the Dreamgirls bonus track, “Listen,” is a schmaltzy AC ballad that will undoubtedly be the payoff for fans of Beyoncé's voice who sat through the first 38 minutes of the album waiting for the cum shot. Beyoncé has yet to prove if she's capable of delivering the emotional heft of a Miseducation or even a Butterfly, and she's too below stairs to carry off the haute couture she sports in the “Déjà Vu” video, so, for the time being, we'll all have to stop signing petitions and gleefully settle for the guilty pleasures of acrylic freakum dresses.