Building the perfect diva

With "Dangerously in Love," Beyonce Knowles serves up a sultry solo debut oozing with '70s-style R&B. She's got real diva-superstar potential -- but is that a blessing or a curse?

Topics: Music, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears,

Building the perfect diva

What becomes a diva least?

Well, judging from Britney and Christina’s antics, it seems to involve showing even more of your ass, making a potentially career-killing film, and/or, lowest of the low, hanging with the likes of Fred Durst and Justin Timberlake, the biggest nobodies to become pop stars since … um, wait. Nope, there really is no comparison. “Weird Al” Yankovic is cooler than those guys.

Jennifer Lopez, meanwhile, has gone through umpteen boyfriends, husbands, and publicists while trying to shake the gangsta associations she picked up back when she was club hoppin’ with the former Puff Daddy. These days, J.Lo seems more focused on moviemaking (and her ever-impending marriage to Ben Affleck) than music making. With a halfhearted effort like “This Is Me … Then” filling up remainder bins across the land, who could blame her? Jenny from the block indeed.

And what’s left to say about the much-maligned Celine Dion? With gigs as a Las Vegas diva-in-residence and a car-commercial jingle singer, the French-Canadian chanteuse seems at long last to have found not one but two careers that suit her bravura mediocrity to a T.

Good for her, I say. But all these unsavory details raise an interesting philosophical question: Have our divas failed us or have we failed them? In a world of instantly disposable pop stars, is there room or patience enough for their outsize demands, their cast-of-thousands entourages, their oddball contract riders, even? Or has the never-ending flow of salacious gossip about their lives inured us to their charms?

I’m pretty sure Beyoncé Knowles hasn’t wasted a second pondering any of those questions. As divas go, she’s more focused than most. And while it’s true that Knowles — or Beyoncé, as she prefers — may yet become just another 20-something, “TRL”-lovin’ diva upstart, we should still give credit where it’s due: On the evidence of “Dangerously in Love,” the once (and future?) ringleader of Destiny’s Child has clearly spent quality time with somebody’s top-shelf collection of ’70s R&B. Born though she was in 1981, I bet the sultry-voiced singer could easily sequence a killer K-Tel collection of the stuff. Call it “Mellow Soul.”



To wit: For her solo debut, Beyoncé coaxes smoove mover Luther Vandross to his finest vocal performance in a decade (a cover of “The Closer I Get to You”), drops a Neptunes-style funk bomb on Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” (“Naughty Girl”) and gleefully shoplifts Shuggie Otis’ disposable classic “Strawberry Letter 23″ (“Be With You”), lacing the song’s tricky melody through a hot-and-bothered lyrical come-on and a spacious sonic landscape that features ticking percussion, syncopated guitar and, sporadically, even a harpsichord-fueled speed drill. If there’s been a more consistently pleasurable hour of R&B radio programming in the last 20 years, could someone kindly burn a copy and put it on one of the file-sharing services? All that’s missing here is an Earth Wind and Fire brass-section sample.

Which isn’t to say “Dangerously in Love” is retrograde. Far from it. The lean and mean electro-funk production is thoroughly modern, and the disc sports star-turn cameos from the au courant likes of Missy Elliot, dance-hall princeling Sean Paul and hip-hop superstar Jay-Z. Z’s voice, in fact, is the first you hear on the album, free-stylin’ over a Chi-Lites sample on “Crazy in Love” before our heroine arrives on the scene to do her thang.

And what a thang it is. As anyone familiar with Destiny’s Child knows, Beyoncé has talent to burn; like many a diva before her, the problem has usually been finding material worthy of her pipes. Thrust into a mix that combines Stax-style horns with go-go rhythms and a can’t-miss catchphrase hook (“uh oh, uh oh, uh oh” goes the track’s background chant), she uncorks a perfect summer single, a song that’ll sound great blasting out of your iPod’s headphones or just wafting in from the convertible two lanes over when you’re stuck in traffic on the way to the beach.

The rest of the disc, it’s true, suffers a bit by comparison to “Crazy in Love.” “Speechless” is a lumbering, slow-motion jam, and the gospel-inflected hidden track, “Daddy,” pays wince-inducing tribute to Beyoncé’s father-manager, Mathew Knowles. Not even Missy Elliot’s harmonizing guest appearance can save the tepid “Signs,” wherein Beyoncé charts her hyperactive love life against the astrological chart to decidedly ho-hum effect.

But taken as a whole, “Dangerously in Love” is positively diva-rific, segueing gamely between frenetic party-starters and sexy, slow burners, all on the strength of Beyoncé’s powerhouse timbre and patented knack for off-kilter phrasing. Just as she did on the Destiny’s Child chart topper “Say My Name,” for instance, the singer throws sensuous vocal curves into otherwise straight-up pieces of radio-ready soul like “Me Myself and I” and “Dangerously in Love 2,” an update of a tune that got its start on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” LP.

Two of the album’s best tracks even manage to take the time-honored diva theme of amorous control in graceful new directions. Powered rhythmically by the warm crackle and hiss of a needle stuck on a record’s inner groove, “Yes” finds Beyoncé waxing indignant about her paramour’s sexual impatience: “The first time I say no, it’s like I never said yes,” she snipes. And on “That’s How You Like It,” Beyoncé counters Jay-Z’s lusty chants of the title phrase with a portrait of her perfect man as a cross between a hunky male model and a trusty Boy Scout. “White T-shirt/ I love that/ Timberland boots/ You does that,” she growls before confessing her fondness for “the way you are/ The way you ain’t/ I like your honesty, integrity/ It levels me.”

It’s all enough, no doubt, to make a manager-dad giddy with pride. But in a world of diva trouble, what’s in store for the likes of young Ms. Knowles?

Good question. Beyoncé is making her solo move now, after all, partly because Destiny’s Child was running out of gas. (The group’s last proper studio album was a pretty sad Christmas disc.) Meanwhile, contemporaries like Britney and Christina (not to mention also-rans like Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson) have sputtered after reaching legal age, losing market share to more rock-oriented jailbaiters like Michelle Branch and, especially, Avril Lavigne, for whom Alanis Morissette — and not Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey — seems to be the template of choice.

It’s hard to blame the kiddies for seeking a healthier role model. The career paths of divadom’s fallen angels aren’t exactly inspirational. That way lie impromptu “TRL” striptease performances, wacky (and very public) nervous breakdowns and teary-eyed post-rehab interviews with Barbara Walters. The fringe benefits ain’t what they used to be, either. Even a goddess of Diana Ross’ stature has so far been unable to shake a pesky drunk-driving charge in Arizona.

For now, though, I’d say the odds of success are in Beyoncé’s favor. A hugely talented ingénue with a stage dad who has, so far anyway, mostly steered her in smart directions, the singer may soon even earn the prize most coveted by aspiring divas everywhere: single-name superstardom.

Unless, of course, she starts hanging with Fred Durst. In that case, all bets are definitely off.

Shannon Zimmerman writes about music for the Washington Post, the Village Voice and other publications.

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