As one of the biggest artists to emerge in the past 15 years, Beyoncé Knowles is inhabiting a hemisphere where greatness is just considered good enough, and sometimes fans' expectations border on the unreasonable.
So B'Day, which comes on the heels of her quadruple-platinum solo debut Dangerously in Love — which won her five Grammy Awards in 2004 — has a tough act to follow.
The album's lead cut "Deja Vu," a dynamite hybrid of soul and hip-hop, has already come under fire as being a less effective pairing with boyfriend Jay-Z than their last collaboration, the blockbuster single "Crazy in Love." Despite the criticism, the track has been filling dance floors and hit #1 on two of Billboard's singles charts.
But what about the rest of B'Day?
Well, it's obvious that hanging out with the Jiggaman's rap-world friends has rubbed off on Beyoncé: B'Day is a sonically harder, decidedly more street LP than Dangerously in Love. B has chalked that shift up to Deena Jones, her fierce character in the upcoming film "Dreamgirls." Beyoncé drew inspiration from the assertive siren, who knows when to play to her man's ego to get what she wants (see "Beyonce Slimming Down And 'Completely Becoming Deena' ").
"You need a real woman in your life, that's a good look," she sings on "Upgrade You," the album's second collaboration with Jay-Z. "Take care of home and still fly, that's a good look." Swizz Beatz co-produced and T.I. also recorded a verse for the song, but it did not make the cut. She later adds, "I can do for you like Martin did for the people/ It's very seldom you're blessed to find your equal, still play my part and let you take the lead role."
On "Suga Mama," where producer Rich Harrison dips the beat in '70s funk and sprinkles in a little '80s go-go flavor, Beyoncé holds back nothing — she's totally sprung and doesn't mind if she has to trick some dough to keep her man happy. She even tells the guy to come sit on her lap. "It's so good to the point that I'll do anything just to keep you home," she proclaims. "Tell me what you want me to buy, my accountant's waiting on the phone."
B's girls are waiting on the dance floor during "Get Me Bodied." Before you think she's getting political and talking about murder rates, "bodied" here is what she's doing to the sound of the rhythm. "It's a dance record," she explained recently in New York, "and it's a feel-good record. To get bodied means that someone killed you on the dance floor. 'I bodied you. You bodied me. I got bodied.' "
Swizz Beatz, who seems to be Knowles' favorite producer these days (he's behind her current single, the urgent "Ring the Alarm," as well as this year's "Pink Panther" release "Check on It"), is developing a real chemistry with the Houston singer. On B'Day he provides her with beats that the most hard-core MC would love to spit to, which allow B to explore her more explosive side.
"I love the record because it's honest," she said about "Ring the Alarm." "I think people will be surprised, 'cause it shows a lot of vulnerability for a woman to say, 'Yeah, I don't want you, but somebody else is gonna step in and benefit from all of the things I taught you.'
"You know, women clean up men sometimes," she continued, explaining one of the many songs on B'Day that explore relationships. "Not all women, not all men, but sometimes they dress different, they learn a lot of things. They learn how to be a man and then if they dog you out and you move on, another woman benefits from all of those things.
"So I'm sayin', 'Ring the alarm, I've been through this too long/ But I'll be damned if I see another chick on your arm,' " she added.
While "Ring the Alarm" shows Beyoncé at her most irrational during a breakup (she dressed up like Sharon Stone in the video, for heaven's sake), "Irreplaceable" finds her in a more lucid but still determined state. "You must not know 'bout me," she repeatedly sings over slow guitars. Listeners can visualize Beyoncé literally kicking her man to the curb as she gets harsh and orders him to talk and walk at the same time because she has a new beau coming over any minute. "Baby, drop them keys, hurry up before your taxi leaves."
There are also a few hidden tracks on the album, including "Listen," which is "a song in 'Dreamgirls,' one of the only new songs in the movie," B explained (see "New Beyonce Single — And Eddie Murphy Singing — Featured In 'Dreamgirls' ").
"It's so strong and every woman has been there. [Deena] says she feels she's not at home in her own home, and it is the moment where she is fed up," Beyoncé said. "She wants [her husband] to listen because as women we always take care of everything. We're the rocks. We always listen to everyone's problem and it is time for him to listen to her. It sounds like an old Whitney Houston anthem — it is just a powerful record."
B'Day drops on September 5.
For a full-length feature, check out "All Eyes On Beyoncé"