Beyoncé Knowles is a storm system disguised as a singer. On her second solo album, B’Day, the songs arrive in huge gusts of rhythm and emotion, with Beyoncé’s voice rippling over clattery beats; you’d have to search far and wide — perhaps in the halls of the Metropolitan Opera — to find a vocalist who sings with more sheer force. At times on B’Day, she doesn’t sing at all. The torrid ”Ring the Alarm” finds Beyoncé shouting the refrain through a thick fog of distortion: ”I’ll be damned if I see another chick on your arm!”
It may in fact be foolish to buy this record, with booming songs so clearly designed for nightclub sound systems with subwoofers the size of Hummers. A piddly home hi-fi can hardly capture the thunderous grandeur of ”Get Me Bodied,” which sets Beyoncé’s harmonies above a pummeling track overseen by rap producer Swiss Beatz, or ”Suga Mama,” a funky update of gutbucket ’60s soul. Those songs showcase Beyoncé’s virtuosity, her mix of brute power and slick syncopation. No one — not R. Kelly, not Usher, to say nothing of her rival pop divas — can match Beyoncé’s genius for dragging her vocal lines against a hip-hop beat.
Thematically, the album mines familiar territory. Beyoncé still swings between love songs (the oddly flat first single, ”Deja Vu”) and bitter dispatches from the war between the sexes. Her boyfriend, Jay-Z, turns up on two songs, and in ”Freakum Dress,” Beyoncé counsels the ladies on how to hold a man’s attention in a long-term relationship. (Her advice: Wear very skimpy clothes.) Throughout B’Day, Beyoncé obsesses over the intersection of love and lucre, a topic she’s been pondering since Destiny’s Child’s 1999 breakthrough hit, ”Bills, Bills, Bills.” In ”Ring the Alarm,” she sounds positively horrified by the prospect of relinquishing the luxury goodies her boyfriend has bought her — ”chinchilla coats,” ”the house on the coast” — to another woman.
Indifferent production bogs down about half the songs, but the best tracks are so thrilling that they buoy you through the dullish patches. And there is at least one big surprise: ”Irreplaceable,” a lilting tune unlike anything Beyoncé has ever performed, produced by Stargate, the hot Norwegian team behind Ne-Yo’s smash ”So Sick.” Toward the end comes ”Listen,” an inspirational ballad about ”the song in my heart,” which builds to an enormous schlock-opera climax. It’s a bit of a bummer that such a tough record winds down on this gloopy note, but Beyoncé has her reasons. ”Listen,” after all, will appear on the soundtrack of her big Oscar-baiting film Dreamgirls — canny product placement for the next stop in a gale-force career that continues to mow down everything in its path. B+