When I go see a popcorn movie like Mission Impossible or King Kong, it's enough to sit back and let the tidal wave of explosions, chase scenes and mind-bending CGI effects wash over me. If the film lacks a little heart and soul, I'm not too disappointed. You pays your money, you gets your thrills.
I can't say the same about most modern music blockbusters. On one hand, it's possible to enjoy Beyoncé's latest album on a very surface level. As a feat of record-making, it's a dazzling display of programming and Pro Tools editing, with arrangements overflowing with whizzbang ear candy. Beyoncé has a strong, diva-like presence, and with her boyfriend Jay-Z rapping on a few tracks, there's a surplus of attitude. But behind all the flexing and main event gestures, this record has a hollow center.
And that's disappointing. Especially when you consider that it's supposed to be R & Bmusic. The B here doesn't stand for blues. There is no crying out, no excavation of deep feelings. Rhythm & Bling maybe? Rhythm & Blitzkrieg? On "Upgrade U," "Ring The Alarm," and the ridiculous "Freakum Dress," the songs are like bludgeons which just keep whacking at you with their beat and repetition of sing-song melodic figures. As for the music, call me old-fashioned--or in keeping with the lingo, old school--but it's possible to join interesting rhythm tracks with great melodies. Prince has been doing it for twenty-five years.
Beyoncé does find a few of those melodies at the end. "Irreplaceable" and "Resentment" both have chord progressions that move, inviting her to actually sing, rather than just rant and chant on the same note. The latter song samples lithe guitar figures from the legendary Curtis Mayfield, who, even once removed, is the classiest thing about this whole affair.
Oddly, the most intimate moment on the record is Beyoncé's spoken word message to her fans which introduces the bonus track "Listen." But that moment vanishes when you realize the song is a commercial for her upcoming role in the movie Dreamgirls. A blockbuster, naturally.
If you're looking for popcorn thrills, then B'Day might be for you. If you want some soul and blues with your rhythm, you'll have to get in the way-back machine. • Bill DeMain