May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Destiny’s Child want you to know they’ve triumphed over adversity. The title song (and first single) from their third album, Survivor, made the point stridently enough, even as its fist-pounding chorus lodged in your brain. But the declarations don’t end there. Variations on ”survive” crop up throughout the album: ”I will survive,” leader Beyonce Knowles announces before one track; a gospel tribute features the line ”My Lord, I survived it”; and in another number, the trio promise an abused girl that she will…well, you know.

Given how much Destiny’s Child have flourished in the past year, it’s disingenuous of them to keep hammering home this point. But then, it’s the group’s travails that make them so fascinating. As Behind the Music has repeatedly shown, the typical pop trajectory is thus: early success, group turmoil, departure of at least one original member, the remaining members’ desire for artistic freedom that leads to either rejuvenation or downfall. All this tends to occur over the course of a decade. Not so with Destiny’s Child, who, in a true testament to to-day’s accelerated pop climate, have endured all of those stages in a mere three years!

Such history has lent Destiny’s story a sense of drama rarely associated with their peers: Who will leave next, or will the group implode first? The tension continues on Survivor, which finds founders Knowles and Kelly Rowland and newest recruit Michelle Williams in the take-charge phase of their career. Gone are Rodney Jerkins and Kevin Briggs, the writer-producers who had a large hand in their previous hits. Instead, the plainly ambitious Knowles helped craft nearly every track, making Survivor the divas’ premature, but inevitable, growing-pains album.

Some of that growth is mildly painful. Knowles’ sense of rhythm is a little squishy, so the dance track ”Sexy Daddy” is weak, as is ”Independent Woman Part II,” the sped-up reprise of their Charlie’s Angels theme. They take a gingerly stab at thought-provoking material on ”The Story of Beauty,” but its tale of a girl who is sexually abused by her stepfather and then falls for a man just like him is as unsubtle as an after-school TV special. The trio’s vocal pyrotechnics on the aforementioned ”Gospel Medley” desperately aim to impress the Almighty One, yet their gauzy harmonies only smother the songs’ power. In that manner, some of Survivor’s tracks try too hard and, as a result, forfeit the breeziness of the best moments on their previous album, 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall. And while it’s nice that Knowles and Rowland love Williams, that doesn’t mean we should have to endure an entire number (”Outro [DC-3] Thank You”) in which they literally sing each other’s praises.

Thankfully, Survivor has an equal amount of musical meat on its bones. ”Fancy,” which could be Knowles’ response to the lawsuit brought by the two original members who were canned last year (”You always tried to compete with me, girl…find your own identity,” she snipes), has a sleek girl-group glide, and they serve up sonic snow cones (the percolating beat and harmonies of ”Apple Pie a la Mode”), giddy flirtations (”Bootylicious,” which samples the scraping riff from Stevie Nicks’ ”Edge of Seventeen”), and sunny-day pop (”Happy Face”). Their cover of ”Emotion,” the Bee Gees-penned Samantha Sang hit from the ’70s, is a solid slow jam. The trio’s overly processed harmonies threaten to rob them of personality, but even their missteps seem very human; you want to root for them.

The album adds another element to the ongoing Destiny’s Child saga: the matter of Knowles’ all-but-announced solo career. Yes, two women sing with her, but from Knowles’ creative input to the dominance of her Mariah-style trills, Survivor is very much her work. It somewhat undercuts the group’s sisterhood-forever stance, and it also makes one wonder: Is it Knowles’ destiny to ditch the other two? These are the questions of which good pop theater is made, and Survivor leaves you guessing and humming simultaneously. B+

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