Beyonce sang giddily about being ``Dangerously in Love" and ``Crazy in Love" on her 2003 solo debut. On her follow-up, ``B'Day," in stores tomorrow ( a day after her 25th birthday, hence the title), Beyonce's learning just what those dangers are and how crazy they can make you. She seems none too happy about it.
But as is often the case when matters of the heart are dealt with in song, it turns out that an angry and hurt pop diva is much more interesting than one riding the highs of romantic bliss.
Whether she's been using her imagination, chatting up girlfriends with trifling boyfriends, or having trouble with her main man, Jay-Z -- who raps on two tracks -- the former Destiny's Child frontwoman is obsessed with men on ``B'Day." The Houston native wants to attract them, improve them, keep them, make them jealous, or send them packing. Above all, she wants to move them, and anyone else listening, onto the dance floor until they're rendered sweaty, breathless, and remorseful.
Where the 15-track ``Dangerously in Love" had a few can't - miss hits and an excess of draggy ballads, the 10-track ``B'Day" is tighter than Joan Rivers' s forehead. Producers Swizz Beatz , Rich Harrison , the Neptunes , and others help Beyonce focus on edgier, up-tempo tracks that take her sweet soprano to new places.
The best of these expose her rage and vulnerability. With its dread-filling siren blare, distorted vocals, and slapping backbeat, ``Ring the Alarm" finds Beyonce in full hell-hath-no-fury mode. Unleashing her wrath at the mere thought of ``another chick on your arm! , " she sings with grit and urgency that feel genuine.
Conversely, the gentle but maddeningly hook-y ``Irreplaceable" finds her putting on a false front as she kicks a cheater to the curb. With a heretofore unknown grasp of nuance, Beyonce combines heartache, bravado, and anger as she tells a cad he's far from irreplaceable -- and that, in fact , her new man will be arriving momentarily. This is by far the album's best melody -- courtesy of Norwegian production team Stargate , the men behind Ne-Yo's ``So Sick" -- and most straightforward pop song. And Beyonce sings parts of it in a higher register that complement s the lyrics' wounded sensibility.
Other songs work wonders as dance tracks but reveal some conflicted ideas about gender politics and civil-rights history.
The stomping ``Freakum Dress" advises women who have partners with straying eyes to put on sexy duds and grind on other guys in the club to regain their affections. ``Suga Mama" finds the singer offering up the keys to her house and car and her credit card just to keep her man and his good loving at home, presumably so he can listen to her collection of old soul records, like the one she samples here. And ``Upgrade U" -- featuring Jay-Z -- follows a similarly twisted path. Beyonce declares herself an equal but then offers to ``still play my part and let you take the lead role." She also disturbingly conflates transforming her man into a leader -- via snazzy cuff links and cars -- with ``what Martin did for the people." Um, OK. Let's just dance then, shall we?
Beyonce closes the album with the oversung downer ``Resentment," a relentless remix of the all-out dance jam ``Get Me Bodied," and the ``hidden" track ``Listen," from the soundtrack to her forthcoming film ``Dreamgirls." It is a big, soppy ballad that will move some to tears and irk others as a stunning example of art imitating life imitating art without a shred of irony.
In the film, Beyonce plays a Diana Ross-like singer who comes to overshadow a less conventionally attractive but more vocally powerful member of her girl group, played by ``American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson . Like Jennifer Holliday before her, Hudson will belt out the classic ballad ``And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," a showstopper about tenacity, love , and the refusal to defer dreams. Beyonce's ``Listen," which covers the same terrain, feels very much like the skinnier, prettier girl demanding her moment in the sun ( not to mention the producers' wanting the marquee name to help move units).
Of course, on ``B'Day," the only person Beyonce is competing with is herself. It remains to be seen if her commercial fortunes will be as bountiful this time around given her change of tone. But the fact that she chose to dig a little deeper and take a few chances, even if they don't all quite work, proves she's doing more than marking time.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.