[Illustration by BENJAMIN MARRA]
DAN DELUCA: The first part, I Am, whose leadoff single is the mildly gender-bending “If I Were a Boy,” represents the multitalented Ms. Knowles – she declines to use her last name when in music mode – as she is “underneath all the makeup, underneath the lights, and underneath all the exciting star drama.” The second part, Sasha Fierce, is named after the alter ego of Beyoncé, who stars as Etta James, alongside Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright, in Cadillac Records, Hollywood’s version of the Chess Records story, which opens Dec. 5.
The two-sides-of-Beyoncé idea is, as she puts it, “to really step outside of myself, or shall I say, step more into myself, and reveal a side of me that only people who know me see.” It also, conveniently, allows her to work two sides of the commercial fence. I Am songs like “Disappear” and “Ave Maria” (a rewrite of the aria) are her chance to go for a Streisand- and Celine Dion-size middle-of-the-road audience. The soaring romances and weepers decorated with piano and strings eschew electro-beats. Their touchy-feely lyrics are cowritten by hired hands such as songwriter Amanda Ghost, who also co-wrote James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.”
To Beyoncé’s credit, the songs are uniformly well sung. At 27, the newly married megastar wife of rapper-mogul Jay-Z seems to have outgrown the need for excessively showy vocalizing, and she almost invariably avoids the rococo ululating that marked her earlier, Mariah Carey-influenced efforts. But all the restraint in the world can’t make up for the bland and banal nature of the purportedly personal songs on I Am, which, if they truly represent the “real” Beyoncé, suggest that she may not be worth getting to know after all. MORE
ETTA JAMES: At Last