Her usual accolades—"Queen Bey," "Beysus," and the like—don't get at the fact that she has made brilliant music. But she's probably OK with that.
Just about every month is Beyoncé month, and this month is no exception. She sang the national anthem at the inaugural, performed with an all-girl band at the Super-Bowl, and HBO is airing Beyoncé's self-directed bio/confessional/hagiography this weekend.
I was probably the last sentient thing on the planet to see the Super-Bowl performance, and I have no intention of watching the HBO documentary. You might think, therefore, that I don't care about Beyoncé. But that wouldn't be true. I'm actually a huge fan. I have all her albums, including 8 Days of Christmas, the Destiny's Child Christmas album, with its unashamedly materialistic title track and its amazing, rhapsodic, a-cappella closer, "Opera of the Bells."
In other words, I'm one of the few, the proud(?), the hipsters who are into Beyoncé for her musical genius rather than for her hooky goodness or superstar divaness. I bought The Writing's on the Wall, Destiny's Child's 1999 world-conquering breakthrough—and, like the rest of the world, I was conquered. After largely ignoring R&B for the better part of a decade, I was suddenly hooked and began consuming obsessively. I found a lot of great music, but with a couple of exceptions (Cassie's Ryan Leslie-produced self-titled debut; Brooke Valentine's bizarre, funky, hip, and utterly forgotten Chain Letter) The Writing's on the Wall remained, and remains, in a class by itself.
Trying to make the case for a giant, shiny, overplayed pop monster as an actual work of art often just causes snickers from all but the most hardened popists. But for me, listening to it again, it still sounds like a masterpiece. From the weird, looped discordant processed guitar fillip of "So Good" to the over-arranged, strutting, quartet-on-steroids, a-cappella desecration of "Amazing Grace," the album is sprawling, ambitious, and badass.
The giant girl-power hits still sound as great as ever, with the call-and-responses bouncing around and over Kevin Briggs's stuttering beats and high-gloss-yet-somehow-hollow production, so that you can imagine the singers, heads bent together, dissin' their deadbeat boyfriends or chastising stalkers in a giant abandoned mall. But the less-played tracks have treasures as well. "Temptation," with one of the singers (is that LaTavia?) leaning her throaty Houston accent into the sing-song little-girl chant, "So I bit my lip/switched my hips as I walked by," has to be one of the sexiest moments in pop.
And I'd almost forgotten about "Sweet Sixteen," with a bittersweet horn line floating through it and Beyoncé trying to reassure her interlocutor that life isn't over just because she had a baby. "Sixteen years, 16 prayers, 16 reasons why I care," the singers declaim, and then there's an odd, stop-time moment where they exclaim, "girrrrl" in a kind of gulping harmony that comes across as gentle reprimand, encouragement, and random goofy blip—almost like the singers are mom, girlfriend, and infant all at once. It's touching and ridiculous; the kind of sincere, random excess that you expect from an idiosyncratic pop genius, rather than from a professional hit machine.
Those moments of idiosyncratic pop genius have gotten fewer and fewer as Beyoncé's career has rolled along. You might argue that this is because she's working with different collaborators. It's always hard to know who to credit in high-production pop, and The Writing's on the Wall is certainly the underrated Kevin Brigg's triumph as well as Beyoncé's. But the singer's music has enough sporadic highlights that I can't write that breakthrough album off as a fluke. I pretty much never need to hear the bulk of her 2011 release 4 again, for example. But the spastic, lurching "Countdown"—where Beyoncé again was involved in both writing and production—shows pretty clearly that she can still put together a masterpiece if she wants to.
Obviously, she doesn't want to that often. Still, it's not like Beyoncé's the only musician to ever fall off—and it's not like she's turned into an embarrassing Metallica-level self-parody. She's more like Sonic Youth or Merle Haggard or Andre 3000: folks who aren't doing their best work anymore, but who I still have enough affection for that I'll pay at least glancing attention when they happen to wander across whatever screen I'm looking at.