Destiny's Child / Beyoncé
Reviewed on this page:
Destiny's Child - The Writing's On The Wall - Survivor - MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen -
8 Days Of Christmas - Dangerously In Love - The Fighting Temptations - Destiny Fulfilled -
B'Day - I Am...Sasha Fierce - 4 - Beyoncé
This Houston-based teenage female R&B group found instant success with their 1998 debut, but they became far more popular
when frontwoman Beyoncé Knowles - and to a lesser extent, the other vocalists - started co-writing and co-producing their material.
So far, their output sums up the problems and the promise of modern R&B:
their voices are striking, but Knowles embodies the post-Mariah cliché of
stretching every syllable into fifteen notes;
they use a lot of samples, both cleverly and as crutches;
their post-feminist empowerment lyrics are sometimes compelling and sometimes contrived.
If I may digress for a moment: Knowles just turned twenty in late 2001, and even though her music doesn't do much for me, I'm still interested to see how far Knowles can go:
will she grow into the Stevie Wonder of her generation?
Will she pursue her muse into uncommercial territory and become the new Terence Trent D'Arby?
Will she stick with pop trends and gradually fade away, as the new Donna Summer?
I guess the question that strikes me is, how hard is it to make the transition from star-maker-machine platinum act to genuine musical artist?
Does popularity make it harder to change what's perceived as a winning game, or easier to follow your art because you've made your pile?
How many acts have dramatically improved after achieving massive commercial success? The Beatles are the obvious counterexample, but there aren't many others.
It's not exactly difficult to find information on Destiny's Child. If you're looking for a fan site, look no further than the Destiny's Child Zone.
I've reviewed Beyoncé's recent solo tour (co-headlined with Missy Elliott and Alicia
Keys) on our concerts page.
Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, Le Toya Luckett, vocals. Roberson and Luckett left early 2000, replaced by
Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams. Franklin left, late 2000.
Destiny's Child (1998)
A pretty impressive lineup of producers for a debut: Dwayne Wiggins (four tracks),
Jermaine Dupri (the clever "With Me").
Wyclef Jean ("Illusion" and "No No No Part 2") and Corey Rooney (a cover of Lionel Richie's "Sail On").
Wiggins is up to his usual retro tricks: "Second Nature" uses the hook from the Isley Brothers' "Make Me Say It Again Girl";
the amusing "Bridges" uses Stax hooks and sax licks.
Carl Washington's "Show Me The Way" seems like an homage to 80s funk, with Princely synth swirls and the drum line
from the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long."
There are a bunch of slow numbers where the group gets to sing close harmony - "Tell Me" (a rewrite of Anita Baker's "Sweet Love"),
"Birthday" - and they sound great.
Perfectly pleasant if not innovative; the biggest problems are two tracks repeated with minimally different mixes ("With Me" and "No No No," each
present in two parts), and some lame guest raps (Master P on "With Me Part II"; Pras on "Illusion").
Beyoncé, Kelly and LaTavia got cowrites on Wiggins' "Birthday."
Also in 1998, Destiny's Child appeared on the Why Do Fools Fall In Love soundtrack.
The Writing's On The Wall (1999)
Two of the decade's most grating #1 hits, "Bills Bills Bills" and "Say My Name," are both here - produced by She'kspre Briggs and Rodney Jerkins
respectively, the vocalists co-wrote both.
Many tracks feature the same Timbaland-derived mix of intrusive programmed drums and staccato synth doubling the vocal line ("Jumpin' Jumpin'") - when there isn't
a good melody to start with, it's a poisonous combination. What's especially galling is that the technique seems designed to cover up for a weak vocalist, but on this disc, the singing is
much stronger than the song material. "Bug A Boo" is the best of this bunch, and it's still teeth-grindingly trite.
There are three pleasant exceptions to the rule: Wiggins' lovely "Sweet Sixteen," Daryl Simmons' gentle "Stay"
and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's "Confessions" - with Beyoncé's most compelling singing.
Also this year, the group appeared on The PJs soundtrack.
Soon afterwards, Roberson and Luckett were discharged from the group, and after a round of lawsuits, started their own group, Angel.
In 2000, the group contributed a track to the Romeo Must Die soundtrack - I think it may be the only recording
Farrah Franklin did with the group. (DBW)
By now the group was a trio, and instead of faceless quartet singing there's much more emphasis on solo vocals - everyone gets a turn on the
Stevie Nicks-sampling dance track "Bootylicious," for example.
More importantly, the singers aren't competing with the synths - keyboards and programmed drums
are still prominent (title track, also a big hit), but never to the point of obscuring the vocalists
(the Bee Gees cover "Emotion" - the only song Knowles didn't co-write).
And Knowles has found her niche as a lyricist: simple statements of integrity and self-reliance
("Independent Women," from the Charlie's Angels soundtrack) that are so guileless they don't come across as contrived.
So if the album cuts were anywhere near as good as the singles, it would be a first-rate pop album. Unfortunately, they're quite weak, with limp ballads
(Walter Afanasieff's "Brown Eyes") and tuneless dance pap ("Apple Pie A La Mode," Damon Elliott's "Sexy Daddy").
And in "Nasty Girl" Knowles bizarrely takes aim at women who dress provocatively, apparently not having seen any of her own videos.
Knowles produced or co-produced nearly every track, most frequently with Rob Fusari.
MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen (Various: 2001)
I'm certain there will one day be a great hip hop opera - narratives and dramatic confrontations are so central to the form - but this made-for-TV effort (starring Knowles) ain't it.
Written and produced mostly by Kip Collins, often in collaboration with Sekani Williams, and he doesn't fully commit to hip hop - putting mellow keyboard tracks behind Rah Digga
and Mos Def, and lightening them further with decorative singing from Knowles - but doesn't have any strong melodies either, so every track sounds like plot-advancing filler
("The Last Great Seduction," with actor Mekhi Phifer). But the biggest problem is the underutilization of Knowles as Carmen: the opera's named for her, yet she doesn't have a single solo feature,
let alone the show-stopper you'd expect. As a result, the most substantial material here is the remixes of two songs from Survivor: "Survivor" featuring Da Brat,
and a mellow, Nicks-less version of "Bootylicious," mixed by Rockwilder and featuring Missy Elliott.
Even more randomly, there's a cut by someone who wasn't in the opera: Royce Da 5'9"'s "Boom," with cut-and-paste 70s soul strings produced by DJ Premier.
8 Days Of Christmas (2001)
What the hell happened to the other four days? Downsizing?
Anyway, a Christmas album is often a pretext for simple production and full-out singing, but this is the opposite: even the standards
are treated with harsh electronics at the expense of the vocals ("A DC Christmas Medley," Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas"), with the
notable exception of the a capella "Opera Of The Bells."
The backup singers have one vocal feature apiece: Rowland handles "Do You Hear What I Hear," but Williams shows that her voice in isolation is rather tinny ("O' Holy Night").
Mostly produced by Knowles, and she wrote most of the new material (title track);
there are also some hoary standards like Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and - ack -
"Little Drummer Boy" (featuring Beyoncé's sister Solange).
This Is A Remix (2002)
Heart To Yours (Michelle Williams: 2002)
Talk about a weird marketing plan... the first solo Child release was a gospel album by the member with the weakest voice.
Simply Deep (Kelly Rowland: 2002)
Includes the dreadful anti-death ballad "Stole," and recycles her hit with Nelly, "Dilemma."
Dangerously In Love (Beyoncé: 2003)
Beyoncé's solo debut trades the dense dancefloor electronics and harmonies of Destiny's Child for midtempo loops and guest rappers
(Big Boi; Sean Paul).
But she doesn't have the emotional projection to compete with the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, so she ends up at the mercy of her samples:
when they're good ("Crazy In Love," built on the Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman") she's okay,
when they're not ("That's How You Like It"), she's lost.
Either way, the record isn't any fun, even before you get to the overlong ballads ("Speechless"; "Be With You," a pathetic, by-the-numbers remake of
Bootsy's "I'd Rather Be With You").
There is one quality midtempo love song, "Me, Myself And I," and "Naughty Girl" is charming when it isn't dipping into the overused
"Love To Love You Baby."
Oh, and the remake of "The Closer I Get To You" with Luther Vandross is passable.
Mostly produced by Beyoncé with co-producers including Scott Storch, Rich Harrison, Bryce Wilson, and several others;
Missy Elliott produced her tacky love song "Signs."
Two 2002 singles aren't here: "Work It Out," another dull retro groove from the Neptunes, is on the
Goldmember soundtrack, and the much better "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" is on Jay-Z's The Blueprint2.
The Fighting Temptations (Various: 2003)
Music from the gospel-themed motion picture starring Beyoncé, and she's featured on eight of the fifteen tracks
("Swing Low Sweet Chariot"; the lovely neo-soul "Everything I Do," a duet with Bilal). There are so many styles and stars
here it's a bit bewildering, but the best moments are terrific ("He Still Loves Me").
A variety of gospel styles are on display: traditional (Ann Nesby sings "I'm Getting Ready" and "The Stone," a duet with
Shirley Caesar, who wrote both songs), modern (the joyous "Rain Down," sung by Angie Stone
and Eddie Levert Sr.), and even gospel rap ("To Da River," with great raps from T-Bone and Zane,
and Montell Jordan singing the hook).
For some reason, there's also a lot of secular nostalgia: Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like
A Rock" (sung almost unaccompanied by The O'Jays) is admittedly gospel-inspired, while the
Faith Evans remake of Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows" and Beyoncé's uninspired version of the
frequently recorded "Fever" are harder to explain.
And the album is bookended with tracks that didn't appear in the film: the lively "Fighting Temptation," featuring MC Lyte, Free and Missy Elliott (who produced), and the dull single "Summertime,"
featuring Beyoncé and P. Diddy (who produced).
The one Destiny's Child cut is solid - "I Know" - and little sister Solange sneaks in the flat rap/reggae "Don't Fight The Feeling."
The bulk of the tracks were produced by Jam & Lewis, Bubba Smith, or Knowles.
Destiny Fulfilled (2004)
Jay-Z is a pimp, in the literal sense: since hooking up with him, Beyoncé has gone from independent good girl to giving lap dances to strangers on award shows and singing anti-feminist tripe ("Cater 2 U"; "T-Shirt"). Not that I care, except that the music has also suffered: the uptempo numbers here ("Lose My Breath"; "Soldier" featuring T.I. and Lil Wayne) are frantic and tuneless, and amazingly, the ballads are worse ("Love"). Time and again, there's no melody at all, just Beyoncé speak-singing - like opera recitative - over a looped chord progression ("Bad Habit"; "Is She The Reason").
There's just one female solidarity here statement ("Girl," based on the Spinners' "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love"), and it feels flat and forced.
Producers include Rockwilder, Swizz Beatz and Jerkins, and their arrangements are nearly unvarying - programmed drums and keys - apart from sampled guitars on "Free." Rowland and Williams get their slots, but this time they seem chosen at random (the bridge of "Cater 2 U") rather than designed to show each to best advantage. Then again, these dreary tempos and mystery melodies wouldn't show anybody to best advantage.
B'Day (Beyoncé: 2006)
Off-putting when first released, Bee's second solo disc ended up having more staying power than the first one.
She serves up some real old-fashioned soul on the opening "Deja Vu," which has a brilliant bass line and an actual melody to go with it, and the rollicking "Suga Mama" (produced by Harrison) with a tune and heartfelt emotion that's really-no kidding-sho' nuff Arethaesque. The grimy Swiss Beatz-produced pseudo-reggae "Get Me Bodied" and hip-hop soul "Upgrade U" also have flashes of brilliance (she confidently claims "I can do for you what Martin did for the people").
Solely on that basis, it's her best album-length project since Survivor, and StarGate's ballad "Irreplaceable" was a monster hit. Elsewhere, though, Bee goes overboard in a variety of predictable ways: oversinging like crazy ("Freakum Dress"; the overwrought, garish "Ring The Alarm"), slumming superproducers (The Neptunes' forgettable "Kitty Kat") and concluding with a self-congratulatory voiceover. "Listen" from Dreamgirls appears as an uncredited bonus track; it's also on the movie soundtrack released later in 2006.
The Beyoncé Experience Live (Beyoncé: 2007)
A live DVD, also available as an audio-only download (we don't review DVDs here, but do review downloads, so I'm not sure whether I should take this on or not).
I Am...Sasha Fierce (Beyoncé: 2008)
Do you ever feel like you're out of sync with your entire nation, if not the whole world? Well, I feel like that every day, but it's worse than usual when I reflect on the long list of awards and hit singles generated by Beyoncé's latest. She's been capable of stringing together repetitive melodic fragments and trite lyrical concepts as far back as "Say My Name," but here she pushes that aesthetic to the extreme: the awkward, mawkish (mawkward? awkish?) clichés kick off right away on the opening "If I Were A Boy" and continue through horrors like "[You Had Me At] Hello." Of the huge hits, the big electro-ballad "Halo" is the least difficult to listen to; an avalanche of love songs ("Disappear"; "Broken-Hearted Girl") are oversung but not awful.
But she's just lulling you into a false sense of security before she busts out "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)," which boasts three indelibly irritating vocal hooks, and may be the most annoying hit single since "Big Girls Don't Cry."
Production - by Tricky Stewart & The-Dream, Knowles, Stargate and other top names - is extremely slick; if B'Day reached too hard for grit, Sasha doesn't reach at all. There are two versions of the disc with eleven and sixteen cuts respectively, each split into supposedly reflective (I Am...) and gutsy (Sasha Fierce) sides ("Diva" - not quite). I've been critical of Beyoncé before, but this is the first release where there's not a single track I enjoy (the somber "That's Why You're Beautiful" comes closest, followed by pseudo-retro "Ego").
I Am... Yours: An Intimate Performance at Wynn Las Vegas (Beyoncé: 2009)
A live DVD/CD combo. Also in 2009, Knowles dueted with Alicia Keys on "Put It In A Love Song."
I Am... World Tour (Beyoncé: 2010)
Another live DVD/CD set from the same tour. (DBW)
4 (Beyoncé: 2011)
I don't think Beyoncé intented to compile every banal romantic cliché onto one album, but nonetheless that's what she's accomplished, from "1+1" to the Babyface collab "Best Thing I Never Had" (with a tacky, Vanessa Carlton-ish piano line) to "Start Over."
There are only a couple of uptempo numbers ("End Of Time," with "Tusk"-style marching band) and they're equally unrewarding: the robotic techno-atrocity "Run The World (Girls)"; the mind-numbing "Party," with André 3000 and Kanyé West. Knowles co-produced everything, with Shea Taylor on half the tracks, and familiar names (Stewart, The-Dream) on most of the rest.
The reason I'm so incensed when Beyoncé falls back on watery platitudes ("I Miss You"), histrionics in lieu of authentic emotion (Diane Warren's "I Was Here"), and gizmo production ("Countdown") is that she does have talent: vocal power, yes, and also originality, vision and taste. As it turns out - customerservicespeak for "unfortunately" - none of those qualities are in evidence on this disc (brief stretches of "I Care" - co-written by Chad Hugo - aside): it's increasingly hard to say why I consider her worthy of review but not, say, Britney Spears or Ke$ha.
Ms. Knowles-Carter has taken the mantle as pop's walking paradox from Mariah Carey (remember when she put ODB on the remix of a frothy pop hit and you didn't bat an eye?).
She writes great, heartfelt, inventive songs ("Haunted"; "Heaven"), and terrible, mawkish, clichéd songs ("Jealous") but rarely anything in between. She sings about beauty being skin deep (the overblown "Pretty Hurts") while she's trading on her looks (every song on the album comes with its own video). She's socially conscious and self-absorbed, sometimes simultaneously ("Ghost").
She's her own woman except when she's desperate to be whatever her man wants her to be ("Partition").
At one moment she's confidently claiming her sexuality (the humid "Rocket," which recalls D'Angelo's Prince impression), at another she seems at its mercy ("Drunk In Love," with Jay-Z approvingly citing Ike Turner's spousal abuse).
She gets the most expensive producers around - Timbaland; Pharell Williams ("Blow"); The-Dream - but doesn't let them put their stamp on the album: Instead, the previously unknown Boots is primarily responsible for the spare electro-mope sound assembled from 808 drums ("Yoncé") and outer-space keyboards ("XO").
"***Flawless" embodies nearly all of these contradictions: She starts the track yelling "Bow down, bitches!" then makes way for a lengthy excerpt from a TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled "We Should All Be Feminists." The only way to make that track more self-contradictory would be if daughter Blue Ivy had sung that line instead of contributing to the concluding piano-based "Blue."
And rather than seeming insincere, inconsistent and incoherent, Beyoncé's self-portrait shows her complexity, her shadow selves, her past and future, strengths and weaknesses: She contains multitudes, and she wants you to know it.