If Beyoncé were a boy—say, Kanye West or Thom Yorke—this would be the part of her career in which she indulged creative impulses, undertook ill-conceived vanity projects, or began experimenting with other genres. (Something electronic or French, maybe both.) This would be a welcome change for someone who has been making fairly boilerplate radio hits for a decade and would not be entirely surprising. Beyoncé is clearly stylish and intelligent, after all, and the title of her third solo CD, I Am . . . Sasha Fierce, seems to suggest the musings of a spirited alter ego, à la Eminem’s Slim Shady or Janelle Monae’s Cindi Mayweather. Hell, the very format of the project, a double album, suggests duality.
It’s quickly clear on her latest work that Beyoncé is not embracing the artistic-minded career track of West or Yorke, but rather that of her hubby. Like Jay-Z, who has returned to the gangster rap well again and again throughout his career, Beyoncé is once more playing to her strengths: empowerment ballads and cheeky (but not off-putting) girl jams. Nothing here is as weird or interesting as the retro-futuristic tracks on her sister Solange’s recent album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. Instead, we get “Radio,” which sounds like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” set to ’80s-style synths, and “Diva,” in which Beyoncé claims that “a diva is the female version of a hustler.” It’s not convincing—she’s too sappy throughout the rest of the disc (“Halo,” “Disappear,” “Broken Hearted Girl,” etc.).
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One can’t help but wish she had taken a few serious risks—for instance, what if “If I Were a Boy” pondered gender-reassignment surgery like the title seems to indicate, instead of the weepy love-lost lament it actually is? Beyoncé appears to have permanently settled for the cash-cow, crowd-pleasing mold of her risk-averse better half.