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Since Beyoncé Knowles and her husband, Jay-Z, just had their first child the other day, I thought I’d pull out this old review for their third album that I did as one of my former webzine Project X‘s first reviews. Just for the record, this ended up being the last DC album I ever bought. Nothing they released since then, group or solo, really compelled me to rush out and buy it.
Back in 1998, Destiny’s Child were a young quartet out of Texas getting a good amount of notice for their debut single, “No No No (Part II)”, which featured ex-Fugee Wyclef Jean producing and playing guitar. Their first album was OK, but a year later, with TLC’s now-classic album Fan Mail dominating on one side of the spectrum and a plethora of interchangeable teen boy bands and discordant slacker bands on the other, they dropped their much stronger second album, The Writing’s On The Wall, and proceeded to get much attention via their singles “Bills Bills Bills”, “Bug A Boo” and “Say My Name”, all of which mined the same “you’re an asshole and I’m leaving you” idea dominating most of R&B in the wake of TLC’s “No Scrubs”.
In the wake of that album’s success, two of the original band members were replaced, only to have one of the replacements then quit soon afterward, complaining to Sister 2 Sister magazine not long afterward of having to be “a glorified dancer” rather than an equal member of the band. The remaining trio – original members Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland and new member Michelle Williams (former member of Monica’s backing band) – then bounced back by concluding their year 2000 by recording a song for the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, only to suffer many much deserved media barbs both for their internal problems as well as for when they played (along with several other acts from their home state) at one of the Bush administration’s pre-inaugural balls.
Now comes the group’s third album, Survivor, so named after the title track which had been inspired by a smartass deejay’s remark about how the group seemed to have members getting voted off the island. Not only is the reduced/altered lineup different from the first two albums, on this one Knowles has essentially taken charge of the band, co-producing all the songs with various collaborators and co-writing all but two of them.
The disc kicks off with two songs the readers will no doubt have heard several times already, “Independent Woman Part I” and the title track. “Independent Woman Part I” was the band’s first recording as a trio and was done for the aforementioned Charlie’s Angels soundtrack. While the composition itself is catchy and the vocal and instrumental arrangements (especially the multi-layered “choir” harmonies in the song’s middle eight) are memorable, the song is marred by unnecessary references to the movie it was written for. In the context of the movie and its soundtrack, this was not much of a problem. Independent (no pun intended) of the film, however, the references sound totally out of place.
The title track follows, and lyrically the song is a shoot directed by Beyoncé at the former band members – a seeming contradiction in terms when she claims in the song’s bridge that she isn’t going to talk about them. Track number three is the just-released single, “Bootylicious”. The song uses a slightly slowed down sample of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” as its rhythmic base, while lyrically Beyoncé plays the role of egotistical dance-floor pricktease: “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly / ‘Cause my body’s too bootylicious for you, babe.”
As if the title track’s aforementioned contradiction in terms wasn’t enough, Knowles throws in a second contradiction of sorts by following up “Bootylicious” with the track “Nasty Girl”, which is actually a condemnation of women who dress too scantily: “Don’t walk out of your house without some clothes on, I told ya / These men don’t want no hot female that’s been around the block.” Musically, the song imitates Timbaland’s stutter-step beats and riffs.
In “Fancy” – as in “I don’t fancy you too much” – all three group members trade vocals while at the same time switching back and forth between putting down another spineless cheating male and the now ex-girlfriend that the narrator has apparently caught them with: You take my kindness for weakness, you take advantage of people / One day you shall reap what you sow, girl get your head up out of the clouds.”
“Apple Pie A La Mode” follows, where seemingly, the band members make like the cast members of Sex And The City and go on the prowl for potential soulmates. While the thought of Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle making like Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte is amusing, musically this is a rather weak cut. “Sexy Daddy” is more of the same, with a very minimal musical arrangement – vocals and percussion. Both cuts make sense in a continuity standpoint, but are otherwise undistinguished.
Next up is “Independent Woman Part II”… a totally different song having nothing to do with the Charlie’s Angels movie, but having a similar lyrical attitude… although it’s a little hard to take seriously considering that the song’s chorus samples the “Peabody’s Improbable History” theme from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons! If you end up getting a vision of the little man with the mustache sweeping up behind Peabody & Sherman’s parade, I don’t blame you, ’cause I get the same vision every time I hear this track. Using that sample is a cute idea, and the song as a whole seems to make up for how weak the previous two tracks were.
The upward climb continues with “Happy Face”, which sounds almost like a techno-country song with its arpeggiated acoustic guitar riffs and swirling synth bass lines. It also features some of the group’s best backing vocals and harmonies on the disc, while Beyoncé tries to go for Mariah Carey-esque high notes near the end of the song. (She misses by an octave, but no, it doesn’t hurt the song at all.) Not surprisingly, the title implies a heavy dose of optimism in the lyrics. If you don’t feel the same way after hearing this track, bad news – you’re probably dead.
Following “Happy Face” is a cover version of “Emotion”, the Bee Gees-composed hit for one-hit-wonder Samantha Sang. While the group handles the vocals very efficiently, as a producer Beyoncé shamelessly rips off TLC’s “Dear Lie” for the musical arrangement, right down to the Babyface-styled acoustic guitars and finger snap/cymbal percussion.
The acoustic ballad vibe continues with “Dangerously In Love”, which dangerously recalls India.Arie with its minimal backing, until strings and tubular bells come in during the chorus and take the song in a different direction entirely.
Having imitated TLC and India.Arie in the previous tracks, Destiny’s Child take up with one of Mariah Carey’s frequent collaborators, producer/songwriter Walter Afansieff, for “Brown Eyes”, a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of MC’s back catalog. The collaboration with Afansieff was a very good choice, as it results in what is easily the best ballad on the album.
On the next track, the band once again tries to plunder TLC’s Fan Mail, this time borrowing the lyrical theme of “Unpretty” for “The Story Of Beauty”. Musically, however, the group goes for a more baroque sound – think J.S. Bach’s Bradenburg Concertos filtered through Kraftwerk’s Computer World album.
Next up is the album’s lowest point, as the group takes up three and a half minutes with an acapella gospel medley, Musically, they pull it off quite well. However, I realize that Beyoncé stated flat out in the album’s title track, “I won’t compromise my Christianity”, but that doesn’t mean that the group has to shove it down their fans’ throats either. This is nothing new to the group, as this is the second album in the row that Destiny’s Child has subjected their listeners to religious proslethyzing. Hopefully, on their next album they’ll realize that very few people like being witnessed to.
Rather than close the album with an impossible-to-follow uptempo number, they waste four more minutes and another mock-Timbaland beat doing a “thank you” track where they thank God and each other ad infinitum. Aren’t there enough thank-you’s in the liner notes, and haven’t the listeners who don’t give a damn about the group’s religious beliefs been punished enough after the gospel medley? This was a very stupid way to close out an otherwise good album.
Survivor is the group’s best effort to date and the pros do outweigh the cons. Having trimmed the fat in the band’s lineup, hopefully the band will take their music the next step further come album four by not wasting CD space or their fans’ time on either weak filler tracks or needless religious witnessing.
If you like the singles that the group have delivered so far from this album and/or you liked their previous work, you won’t go wrong with this album. But if you want a solid R&B album without any bullshit of any kind, you’d probably be better off buying TLC’s Fan Mail and India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul first.