(Music World Music/Sony Urban Music/Columbia)
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BEYONCE'S 2003 debut, "Dangerously in Love," yielded hits, Grammys and sales of more than 4 million, but instead of sticking with its formula, the high-glamour diva steps into some new, decidedly unglamorous territory on her follow-up, which is due in stores Tuesday.
That's not a bad idea. For all its commercial clout, "Dangerously" was largely a slog through sappy balladry and by-the-numbers dance pop. With edgy sonic manipulators such as Swizz Beats and Pharrell coming aboard on "B'Day," Beyonce heads into a new, more challenging terrain.
The backing track for the seductive "Get Me Bodied," produced by Beats, Beyonce and Sean Garrett, is formed almost entirely of interlocked clicks, handclaps and vocal exclamations. "Suga Momma" (Rich Harrison and Beyonce) is built on a scratchy sample of gutbucket funk blues, while Pharrell (with Beyonce) contributes the spare "Green Light" and a quirky piece of Eartha Kitt-style penthouse pop, "Kitty Kat."
Where her debut seemed eager to please, these songs just sound like fun for Beyonce, connecting the Houston native with deep, vital cultural roots. The playful chant of "Get Me Bodied" suggests both children's street game and traditional work song, and the whiff of Louisiana in the beat taps her own Creole heritage.
Some of the experiments don't click, but by reconfiguring and repurposing century-spanning components of black music, she's aligned herself more with Gnarls Barkley than Mary J. Blige, and if she's risking a drop-off in hits, she's gained an artistic high ground in return.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.