The video for Beyoncé Knowles’s latest single, “Ring the Alarm,” shows the stunning 25-year-old singer, dressed in a caramel-colored trench coat that matches her glistening skin, being dragged away by policemen in riot gear and locked in a padded cell. An “alarmed” Beyoncé struggles and writhes, is brought to her knees and pulled by her arms and legs, in a scene that should ring familiar not only to fans of early Sharon Stone spectacles (the clip pays clear homage to Basic Instinct) but to those who still remember Diana Ross and her image-shattering star turn as a drug-busted and jailed Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. (Comparisons between Ross and Beyoncé are in abundance now as the latter jettisons her Supremes-inspired vehicle Destiny’s Child for a full-fledged solo career and takes on the Ross-inspired lead of Deena Jones in the upcoming film adaptation of Dreamgirls.) The gloss and glitz of this shock-value video may cause casual viewers to write off Beyoncé’s newest album, B’Day, as just another collection of sexed-up club jams. But they’d miss out on listening to one of the oddest, most urgent, dissonant and disruptive R&B releases in recent memory.
Much has been made of how the Beyoncé’s music of recent years has been a far cry from what pop culture critic David Swerdlick calls the “sistah grrl power” of early Destiny’s Child recordings. On those records, and particularly on the multiplatinum The Writing’s on the Wall, Knowles and her fellow “children” belted out densely arranged anthems with Waiting to Exhale themes of romantic distrust, material disillusionment and “ne’er do well” scrub boyfriends who were roundly criticized and kicked to the curb. The group’s early hits–“Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Bug a Boo” and “Independent Women, Part 1” among them–chart the young Texan’s rise as a popular black female songwriter. The Beyoncé of old joyously rejected the stalker tendencies of needy men who persisted in “stressin'” her on her “beeper” and feckless freeloaders who “maxed out” her credit cards.
The Beyoncé on B’Day is anything but the “daddy’s girl,” “naughty but nice” icon who came bounding onto the scene with her first solo effort, 2003’s remarkably successful Dangerously in Love. On B’Day, Knowles is unafraid of complicating and disturbing the image that won her fame. On these newer songs, the über-glam urban diva experiments with a startlingly abrasive persona that feels different from most contemporary pop divas (see, for instance, Christina Aguilera’s “virgin-whore-virgin” dance, Britney’s “virgin-whore-whore” dissolution or even Madonna’s “whore”-to-mother moves). Instead of mistaking “edge” (the much-overused term) for raunch as her peers often do, Beyoncé finds different emotional notes to sound: spiritual discontent, romantic pessimism and self-control. Knowles especially stresses the pleasures of hard work as a means to overcoming despair. What’s more, she packages her messages in a hard and frantic sonic register that sets this record apart from other MTV divas’ pet projects. Quirky and unpredictable from beginning to end, this record hits a range of intriguingly sour notes that defy expectation. This alone seems reason for pop fans to take a second listen to B’Day–and to take note of the way the album shrewdly remixes R&B tales of “Resentment” (the title of the closing track), desperation and aspiration in contemporary black women’s popular culture. It comes at a time when public and political voices of black female discontent remain muted and mediated in the public eye, from the scuffle between police and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney to the ubiquitous images of Katrina survivors–overwhelmingly black and female, who are spoken for by the media, politicians and corporate interests far more often than they are heard speaking for themselves.