The biggest problem with Beyoncé’s third solo effort is evident right in its title, I Am…Sasha Fierce, which aims for both the alter-ego branding of The Emancipation of Mimi and the structural duality of FutureSex/LoveSounds but just winds up coming off even sillier than Garth Brooks in…The Life of Chris Gaines. The album’s songs are divided into two parts, ballads of a purported personal nature on the first disc and more aggressive club tracks attributed to the singer’s newly christened doppelganger on the second. It’s a momentum-murdering formula that makes for not only a disjointed listening experience but, with the slow songs presented first, an incoherent narrative. This problem would be negligible, particularly in the age of iTunes, if it weren’t clear that Beyoncé intended to make an Album and wants it to be consumed as such.
The strength of I Am…Sasha Fierce, then, is its individual songs—not good enough to make for an album that’s greater than the sum of its parts, but a testament to Beyoncé as one of today’s most reliable singles artists. A savvy lead single in that it doesn’t attempt to clobber you over the head and drag you off to a cave like most Beyoncé hits, “If I Were a Boy” is one part “Irreplaceable,” one part “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (it was co-written and produced by that song’s Toby Gad), and one part Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” It’s definitely a grower but, like “Irreplaceable,” the kind that will no doubt circle back around to revulsion after hearing it on the radio for the nth time this holiday season. The album’s ballads are some of the strongest Beyoncé has recorded, and “Disappear” and “Satellites” are both surprisingly understated, but most of them are also shockingly conventional, no doubt influenced by the success of Leona Lewis (“Halo” was co-penned by “Bleeding Love” scribe Ryan Tedder).
I Am…Sasha Fierce is an admirable vie for artistic credibility (and for a last-ditch revival of the long-player format) but one that is muddled by the fact that the album is being offered in two configurations, a 16-track “deluxe” edition and an abbreviated “standard” edition, which reaches its vocal (if not emotional) climax within the first minute of its opening track and ends abruptly with a song about cellphone porn. The deluxe version makes for a more complete-sounding album (albeit with more filler), but there’s absolutely no reason why all of the songs couldn’t have been sequenced as one disc. And that’s the most dubious aspect of the double-album structure here: Beyoncé’s alter ego isn’t really any different from the artist we’ve come to know via songs like “Bootylicious,” “Crazy In Love” and “Irreplaceable”; the real disparity is her inability to reconcile the adult-contemporary schmaltz of I Am with the more modern, edgy sounds of Sasha Fierce.
Things we learn about Sasha: she’s a diva, she likes making kinky videos on her phone, and she’s in love with her stereo. The bouncy, school-yard chant-y and materialistically contradictory “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” sounds like a B’Day leftover, but the deluxe version of the album allows Sasha to show her softer side: Like Beyoncé, she doesn’t want to be a broken-hearted girl (“Scared of Lonely,” impeccably produced by Rodney Jerkins), and more importantly, she’s got a penchant for Motown (“Ego”), a sound the rather vanilla first half of the album could have benefited from. The high point of both the standard and deluxe editions, however, is the frenetic “Radio”; with lyrics like “You’re the only one that Papa allowed in my room with the door closed/We’d be alone/And Mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom/’Cause she knew we were in the zone,” it’s the most convincing love song on the entire album.