What’s up with Beyoncé, Solange, and Michelle Williams?
By Gregg Shapiro
Beyoncé Knowles is an incredibly busy woman. With a burgeoning acting career in full swing, including a lead in the film version of Dreamgirls and a much-discussed portrayal of Etta James in Cadillac Records under her belt, it’s amazing that the ubiquitous Knowles can find the time to record an album. Let alone a double disc set. But nevertheless, here we have I Am… Sasha Fierce (Music World Music/ Columbia).
The I Am disc of the set finds Mrs. Jay-Z at the height of her dramatic diva powers. The album opener, the unexpected “If I Were a Boy,” sounds like it could be a lost Jill Sobule tune, beginning with the texture of her vocals at the start of the song. On “Halo,” Beyoncé makes room for herself under Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” while “Broken-Hearted Girl,” a collaboration between Beyoncé, Babyface (remember him?), and others, is a tearjerker of the highest order. Higher-powered pop number “Ave Maria” does its part to justify the cross dangling from Beyoncé’s wrist on the album cover.
Having learned nothing from Garth Brooks’ failed Chris Gaines debacle, Beyoncé assumes the persona of Sasha Fierce on the second disc. However, where Beyoncé ends and Sasha begins is not entirely clear. While it may be impossible to listen to the pelvic snappy “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” without thinking about the SNL parody featuring Justin Timberlake, it is nevertheless as catchy as a spike heel in a shag rug. “Radio” flirts with a new-wave sensibility and “Diva” snatches a page from the Missy Elliott playbook.
Like another set of Southwestern sisters, fellow Texas tarts Ashlee and Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé and kid sister Solange are in a rivalry for the spotlight. Beyoncé obviously got a head start, but Solange is poised to give her some fierce competition. Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Music World Music/Geffen) opens with Solange promising that she’s not high on opening track “God Given Name.” More along the lines of the retro soul revival being perpetrated by Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Estelle, and Raphael Saadiq, Solange flirts with musical time travel on the light disco funk of “Tony” and swoops down on the ’60s, courtesy of the infectious vintage Heinz Kiessling horn sample.
Solange continues in a vintage vein throughout on songs including “Would’ve Been the One,” the Motown-motivated “I Decided, Pt. 1,” the Hi Records homage of “6 O’Clock Blues,” and even ventures into more exotic territory as on the aptly named “Cosmic Journey” (featuring Bilal) and “This Board” (which samples Boards of Canada).
What’s the verdict? Solange steps out of her big sister’s shadow and radiates, glowing with a distinctively different kind of light. Whether or not she can maintain such a challenge remains to be seen.
Poor Michelle Williams. Talk about the difficult task of forging an identity separate from Beyoncé’s. Formerly one-third of Destiny’s Child, Williams, like Knowles, has also tried her hand at acting, playing the role of Celie’s lesbian love interest Shug Avery in the stage musical The Color Purple . It’s been a few years since the last Destiny’s Child disc, but Williams remains in the Knowles camp. Her latest album, Unexpected (Music World Music/Columbia) is on the label owned and operated by the Knowles’ papa. She even covers a Solange co-composition, the marvelous “We Break the Dawn.” On the whole, the disc is a modern beat-driven affair, with songs such as “Hello Heartbreak,” “Lucky Girl,” “Till the End of the World,” “Private Party,” possessing the potential to become dance-floor sensations in the hands of the right remixers and DJs. It’s an inoffensive disc with only a few minor flaws. First things first: can we please call a moratorium on intros and interludes? And while we’re at it, how about retiring the vocoders? Especially if the artist can actually sing, as Williams clearly can.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.