With the pop-diva pantheon so painfully congested, you might have wondered how Destiny’s Child doyenne Beyoncé Knowles would distinguish herself. Babygirl scored silver-screen time costarring alongside Austin Powers, but rival J. Lo opens movies, and her Hollywood-boyfriend buzz trumps Beyoncé’s low-key affair with Jay-Z. Avril’s got her angst. Pink too. Both Mariah and Xtina boast bigger pipes, and Britney is, well, blond. Ms. Knowles didn’t seem to have an angle until — ”Uh-oh, uh-oh” — your local DJ threw on ”Crazy in Love,” backspinning that blazing horn intro 20 times until it was beaten into your brain.
See, Beyoncé’s not really thinking ’bout those other honeys. Whether or not she got the credit, the slick-tongue style she per-fected on ”Say My Name” was a minirevolution in R&B. And Dangerously in Love, her solo debut, confirms her taste for innovation. ”Dangerously,” which the singer coproduced and almost entirely cowrote, is more about moving on from Destiny’s Child’s frothy aesthetic than competing with the current crop of singing sensations. Eschewing high-profile hitmakers like the Matrix and the Neptunes, Beyoncé collaborates with under-the-radar minds like Rich Harrison and Dr. Dre’s secret weapon, Scott Storch, exploring, albeit hesitantly, new directions in contemporary black music.
The results are not half bad — certainly not the first half. The disc opens with ”Crazy in Love,” coproduced by Harrison, who gave Mary J. Blige-ish upstart Amerie a hit single last year. Then Storch flirts with the increasingly familiar mingling of Eastern sounds and dancehall reggae, as Beyoncé portrays, not quite convincingly, a ”Naughty Girl.” The next cut, ”Baby Boy,” goes full-tilt Bollywood ‘n da hood, with Sean Paul ripping a pulsing tabla raga. Here, when Beyoncé coos, ”In our own little world, the music is the sun/The dance floor becomes the sea,” you kinda wish she’d launch into her old acrobatic scat tactics to challenge Sean Paul’s rude-boy chat. But this isn’t THAT Beyoncé.
This Beyoncé flexes a different kind of muscle on ”Hip Hop Star,” a distorted guitar-screeching foray into the rock-meets-funk-eats-hip-hop genre that’s more Neptunes than the Neptunes. Her racy, raspy ”undress me” refrain — a bit Kelis, a bit Marilyn Monroe — is shocking but not unwelcome. Guest Big Boi of OutKast sums it up nicely: ”Never can tell these days, everybody’s got a little Rick James in they veins.”
”Be With You” is a ballad with deliciously big drums that recalls Faith Evans’ ’95 single ”You Used to Love Me” and rips off a few other R&B classics you used to love. ”Me, Myself, and I” rides Storch’s signature gangsta guitar, mellowed for Beyoncé’s lovesick lament — a warm-up for the CD’s sweet spot: ”Yes,” a damn-near-Björk-like bit of trip-hop, that could, if we’re lucky, set off a new age of snap-crackle pop. The song’s staticky situation — Beyoncé defending her chastity ‘gainst some greedy boy — resembles ”Say My Name” in its specificity and earnestness.
Most of the disc’s missteps follow. The gimmicky, Missy Elliot-produced ”Signs” is soggy, synth-drenched cosmic slop. ”That’s How I Like It,” also featuring Jay-Z, is ”Jumpin’ Jumpin”’-era jive that only reminds you how fresh ”Crazy in Love” is. A remake of ”The Closer I Get to You” with Luther Vandross also sounds, sadly, a little dated. But for the most part, Ms. Knowles does more reinventing than revisiting — a dangerous prospect, but hey, that’s love.