I Am ... Sasha Fierce, due out November 18, is a two-disc set. Part one, I Am ..., showcases the singer's more personal material, her Beyoncé side. The second part, Sasha Fierce, is intended to contain the more daring dance tracks.
"We thought outside of the box and did something different," said Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé's father and manager, during a listening session for the album in New York on Wednesday.
"The new record is a double album and has two covers, like a magazine would have two covers," Beyoncé said in a statement (read her full statement and see both album covers on the Newsroom blog). "Half the record, I Am ..., is about who I am underneath all the makeup, underneath the lights and underneath all the exciting star drama. And Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I'm working and when I'm onstage. The double album allows me to take more risks and really step out of myself, or shall I say, step more into myself, and reveal a side of me that only people who know me see."
But Beyoncé may have integrated these sides of herself far more than she realizes, for the I Am ... portion of her album is actually the more daring side, since it requires more bravery to step outside what she's known for — uptempo top-40 R&B — and try for a more timeless sound in a classic sense (perhaps the influence of playing Etta James in "Cadillac Records"?). And Sasha Fierce, fun though it might be, is mostly familiar-sounding dance tracks and doesn't stretch Beyoncé as an artist the way I Am ... does.
"If I Were a Boy" is the first taste of I Am ..., but as the only song on either album that Beyoncé didn't co-write, it's not very indicative of the rest of the tracks. Piano and strings dominate songs like "Halo," "Ave Maria" and "Broken-Hearted Girl," the latter of which she collaborated on with Babyface and Stargate. Her voice shows restraint, and singing in a lower register gives her more vocal power, even if it means that she sometimes sounds like Rihanna on the lush "Halo," the prospective second single from this side of the album (repeating "halo, halo, halo" makes the comparison even stronger).
"Smash Into You," co-produced by C. "Tricky" Stewart and Terius "The-Dream" Nash, and "That's Why You're Beautiful" — both of which will only be available on the deluxe edition — are the highlights of the set, taking it slow and easy, building Beyoncé's vocals gradually, with a grungy guitar riff driving "Beautiful" as if it were an Alice in Chains power ballad. On these songs, Beyoncé transcends genre.
But then comes Sasha Fierce, who cares more for beats than ballads. Whereas all the songs on I Am ... are meant to make you feel, Sasha just wants to make you kick up your heels, all the while expressing shallower emotions. "Radio," with its skittering beat, is about listening to the radio ("I fell in love with my stereo"). The thumping "Diva," a collaboration with Sean Garrett, is about, well, being a diva ("Diva is a hustla/ I'm a hustla"). Another Garrett collabo, the bass-heavy "Video Phone," as you might guess, is about snapping images on your handheld ("Press record and film me"). Only "Sweet Dreams," with its rock drive and slinky vocals, seems "fierce" — as Beyoncé (or is it Sasha?) dares the listener to dream of her, warning that it might be a "beautiful nightmare."
The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of Sasha Fierce include the piano-driven "Hello," in which Beyoncé takes "Jerry Maguire" to heart, with a "You had me at hello" hook — "Ego," where she sings that she loves her lover's "huge ego"; and the synthy "Scared of Lonely," co-written by Rodney Jerkins and her sister Solange. These three tracks seem more like a meeting ground between the album's halves — musically, they're with Sasha, but thematically and lyrically, they're full-on Beyoncé: vulnerable, wanting to love and be loved back, caring perhaps a bit more about her significant other than herself.
"There's what I call defining moments in our life," Mathew Knowles said, "and when we look back, in years to come, I think this will be the defining moment in Beyoncé Knowles' career as a recording artist. And there's more to come [from] Sasha Fierce."