As you may know, Beyoncé has an alter ego named Sasha Fierce whom she "channels" for her stage performances. Sasha Fierce, we are told, is the glamorous, aggressive and fun version of B, whose "true self" either has the personality of a turnip or prefers to stay out of the public eye. Still! Beyoncé has released a new, two-disc album titled I Am...Sasha Fierce. The first disc, I Am..., is filled with ballads about heartbreak and victimization by unfaithful men; the second disc, Sasha Fierce, is all club-ready hits, sung with confidence and braggadocio. Is the split album an empty marketing move? And what about those doormat ballads and "thin" voice? The collected reviews, after the jump.
The first disc focuses on ballads that hint at introspection. The second adopts an alter ego—"Sasha Fierce"—to dish out dance-floor dirt. The production sticks to form, clearing out things for Beyonce's thin, pretty voice to deliver thin, pretty hooks galore. But the gimmicky concept falls flat. In the album's first half, Beyonce adopts a familiar (if dispiriting) guise: doormat. "If I Were a Boy" offers a promising premise, the kind of illuminating gender-bender Prince might've written, but instead portrays the narrator as a needy victim. It's more of the same role Beyonce also played on her previous album, 2006's "B-Day." Her softer songs inevitably portray men as unfaithful curs, but she still can't live without them.
The weirdest thing about this split is its racial undertone. The Beyonce ballads fall into that soft-rock zone that incorporates elements of crossover country, Celine-and-Whitney style divadom, and U2-derived guitar hymnody. They're vehemently not R&B, and Beyonce enunciates them in a firmly post-racial style, in the same ballpark as her multi-culti rivals Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis. ("Halo," written by the hip hop world's latest rock crush, Ryan Tedder, was originally intended for Lewis.) There's also the clear influence of Beyonce's idol, Barbra Streisand. The cowriters on these songs are mostly white, though Babyface, long soul's ambassador to soft rock, makes an appearance. The unrelenting uplift of these tracks conjures thoughts of transcendence, and that universal tone is vehemently not grounded in a "black" sound. Sasha Fierce, on the other hand, knows where her home is. Enlisting top urban music producers including Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Sean Garrett and Jim Jonsin (who's white, but a veteran of Flo Rida's dirty rap scene), she stars in songs that manically reference the current lingo of the dancefloor and the mixtape.
The Sasha Fierce songs are more interesting, but not as accomplished. "Single Ladies" and "Radio" are pleasantly danceable, but nowhere near as game-changing as "Crazy in Love" or even "Déj ... Vu." Even on "Sweet Dreams," which has a silky groove matched with some hip-hop phrasing, she holds back a little. Only on "Diva," where she explains, "A diva is a female version of a hustla," does she show the envelope-pushing pop star that we've come to expect. In the end, neither Beyoncé personality gets fully developed here. "I Am ... Sasha Fierce" is supposed to be a declaration, but it sounds more like "I Am ... Not Sure."
On I Am … Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé, like David Bowie and Mariah Carey before her, unleashes an alter ego, and uses it to both open her heart and maintain her dignity. Available in standard and deluxe editions, the album is divided into two discs.The first is gentler and more patently vulnerable, while Ms. Fierce is a vehicle for the confidence and sass that the singer summons onstage. But as that title, with its sly ellipsis, suggests, Beyoncé and Sasha are bound by more than a creative concept. There are strength and defiance in I Am's tender ballads, and unfulfilled yearning in Sasha Fierce's funkier, more flamboyant fare.
The stronger half is the bright pop I Am disc. Beyoncé brings astonishing force and emotion to several songs, and the results are often gorgeous. Current single If I Were a Boy finds her cleverly exploring the dynamics of a strained relationship. It’s an elegant new musical direction and unlike anything on Top 40 radio, which is definitely a good thing. (“If I were a boy/I think I could understand/How it feels to love a girl/I swear I’d be a better man.”)
Dr. Freud might be able to straighten Lady B out, but the split personality of the album isn't the problem - it's merely a distraction. The real trouble is that this double disc needed to be edited according to the A&R man's record rule: good songs in, bad songs out. Simple. You don't have to have a golden ear to say with authority "Ave Maria" - which uses the hymn standard as its foundation - is a disaster. You'd have to consult "Velveeta" to make this song any cheesier
This seems to be the point of her new double album. Disc two is devoted to her tough stage persona, "Sasha," and disc one is about "who I am underneath all the makeup." If I Were A Boy, the slow-burning single from disc one, is the best thing the "real" Beyoncé has to offer. If she were a boy, she tells us, she would do all the careless things that boys do, except trample on the soul of the girl. She's like a child resolving to be a perfect sensitive parent, because she knows how a kid feels. But the child doesn't yet question the parents' authority, just as Beyoncé won't challenge the boy's. By the next song (Halo), he's back on his pedestal.
Having transitioned a more grown-up sound, Beyoncé has gotten conceptual on us: Her third album offers two discs, a collection of heartfelt ballads credited to Beyoncé and a danceable set credited to "Sasha Fierce," the pop diva's more brash, lady-empowering alter ego. Though some of the slow songs have thoroughly memorable tunes, the lyrics are full of bland self-affirmation and saggy lines like "You're everything I thought you never were." But the "Sasha" disc boasts Beyoncé's most adventurous music yet: She rides frothy techno on "Radio," turns out modal-sounding hooks over 808 bass on "Diva" and juices the eerie, Nine Inch Nails-style beats of "Video Phone" with lines like "Press 'record' and I'll let you film me." Another plus: The girl who blew up going all melismatic has never sung with more restraint than she does on Sasha.
The collection might have been better served had she edited it down to one disc, rather than belabor what ultimately seems like a marketing gimmick. And while fans will surely speculate, there's little in the lyrics that feels more revealing than previous emotional fire-starters such as 2006's ''Ring the Alarm.'' But who said we had a right to that, anyway? For all the pop-fantastic satisfaction that Beyoncéthe entertainer provides, the public can surely reward her by leaving Beyoncé the private citizen well enough alone.
Beyonce's newest album 'I Am...Sasha Fierce (Deluxe Edition)' comes out in stores today.