Beyonce, “I Am ... Sasha Fierce” (Sony)
Hitting consumers in a bewildering array of formats — including a standard version with 11 tracks and a “deluxe edition” with 16, both spread over two discs — the complicated marketing plan for the third solo album by wayward Destiny’s Child Beyonce Knowles threatens to overshadow the music. You see, Sasha Fierce is Beyonce’s new alter ego, the hard-strutting, hyper-sexual diva, which the singer helpfully defines for us: “A diva is a female version of a hustler.” Sasha tackles the second disc, heavy on the electro-R&B club thumpers, while plain ol’ Beyonce, the sensitive and vulnerable artiste, holds forth on the first, a set of romantic, pseudo-confessional ballads, though real emotions remain elusive from this enigmatic cover girl, actress, singer and half of one of pop music’s most lustrous power couples.
If you’re having trouble following any of this, don’t sweat it: The concept is pretty much irrelevant to enjoying the best moments here, in whatever version you wind up with. Allegedly inspired in part by a newfound love of Coldplay, the ballads actually show considerable stylistic diversity, ranging from the gentle folk-rock of “If I Were a Boy” to the classically tinged “Ave Maria” (an “interpretation” of the famous aria, rather than a straight cover) to “Halo,” a clear attempt to rewrite Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” And while none of them have the soulful intensity to really bring you to tears, at least they won’t put you to sleep.
For that matter, while none of the up-tempo tracks are guaranteed, no-reservations party-starters, they’re all at least very pleasantly groovy, even when the sub-Daft Punk electronic flourishes are far too heavy handed (as on “Radio” or “Video Phone”) or the lyrics resort to repetitive, played-out clichés (“If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it,” Beyonce tells an errant lover again and again in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” though you get the feeling she’d be better off dumping the bum than marrying him).
“I Am … Sasha Fierce” is ultimately a more focused and less schizophrenic ride than the hype might lead you to believe, especially on the shorter standard version. And if you don’t really feel like you know this distant superstar any better when you’re done, at least it’s enjoyable spending time an hour with her, in any and all of her personas.
The Knux, “Remind Me in 3 Days” (Interscope)
A sibling duo forced to relocate from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Kintrell “Krispy Kream” and Alvin “Rah Almillio” Lindsey, a k a the Knux, have been pegged along with fellow travelers such as Chicago’s Cool Kids and Kidz in the Hall as part of a new school of “meta-rap” devoted to self-consciously reviving the sounds of hip-hop’s pre-gangsta-domination “golden era” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, not unlike any of rock’s numerous garage revivals emulating the fabled “Nuggets” period. But the retro nods to vintage fashion like Adidas and gold chains or a particular fondness for now-antique drum machine sounds are superficial trappings, and on its debut album, the much deeper inspiration that the Knux takes from heroes such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys of “Paul’s Boutique” and early Outkast is the wildly adventurous disregard of genre boundaries, a wide-open spirit of invention and playful imagination and uniquely psychedelic love of sound for sound’s sake.
The brothers’ instrumental and production talents are much more impressive than their rapping — Krispy Kream has a particularly annoying quirk of introducing himself before almost every rhyme he spins — but their sheer exuberance and unashamed dedication to being their geeky selves carries the day. (Few and far between are the rappers brave enough to make a Starbucks metaphor of their sexual desires, yet here’s the Knux repeatedly telling us, “I need a fresh cappuccino with a mocha twist / Fresh fresh cappuccino with a mocha twist / Hey, hey, miss!” in the breakthrough single “Cappuccino.”) And despite a few missteps — chief among them “Pea Knuckle,” a shallow skit starring a vulgar British drug dealer — the intoxicating and always surprising collages of gurgling analog synths, classic-rock guitar riffs, clattering percussion, lovably cheesy beat-box grooves, gleefully melodic hooks, gonzo sound effects, Valley Girl voiceovers and a thousand other ingredients (plus the kitchen sink) all combine to mark “Remind Me in 3 Days” as one of the most joyful and refreshing hip-hop debuts of the new millennium.