A belated happy 10th ‘B’Day’ to Beyoncé Giselle Knowles
Ten years ago, Houston’s own Yoncé rang the alarm
There are many things to love about Beyoncé, but if you hail from Houston, your love tends to be shaped by the specificity of shared experiences. That love is magnified if you are closer in age: Beyoncé just turned 35 and I am 32.
When I listen to Beyoncé, I hear home. I know she’s the most celebrated singer and entertainer in the world, but she, like me, went to Welch Middle School and probably heard boys and girls doing the same slow, hazy, kind of flow heard on songs such as Lil’ KeKe’s “Pimp Tha Pen” and Big Moe’s “Barre Baby” during lunch in the cafeteria. I know Beyoncé is someone who listened to 97.9 The Box and heard the same New Orleans bounce mixes played throughout the day. When Beyoncé does her choreography, she reminds me of the same majorettes I saw at Madison High School, Yates High School and Willowridge High School football games. There is no finer example of Houston Beyoncé — her singing, rapping, dancing and art creation all seeping with the many variances of life in Houston — than her majorly up-tempo and entirely glorious 2006 B’Day, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary on Sept. 4, on her 35th birthday — her celebration had a Soul Train theme.
Initially, Beyoncé planned to make her sophomore album a serving of leftovers. In December 2003 — six months after the release of the good but not excellent Dangerously In Love — Beyoncé revealed to MTV News that come spring, fans could expect a sequel consisting of songs that didn’t make the final cut of her debut. Having recorded some 45 songs for that project, she explained, “I love so many songs, and they’re just kind of going to waste sitting there.” Those leftovers — including “Summertime,” “My First Time” and “What’s It Gonna Be?” — should have just gone on the first album. It would have made Beyoncé’s debut a classic. Instead, those and other mostly unheard tracks such as a “metal ballad” called Scent of You never rose from their seats as Beyoncé ultimately opted instead to record a new Destiny’s Child album, Destiny Fulfilled, and take on a role in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. Those choices proved to be for the better. Because with her somewhat delayed second solo album, 2006’s B’Day, Beyoncé made a larger and more definitive statement as an artist.
“I’m,” Beyoncé said at the time, “happy in my life.” She was dating rapper Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. Her first solo album and the Destiny’s Child reunion album and tour had both done well. She was more or less the solo star some of us knew she could be from the terribly underappreciated “Work It Out,” from the 2002 soundtrack to Austin Powers in Goldmember. So while she often said that she herself was “boring,” she channeled feelings of rejection and being taken for granted — and created with B’Day an album that “speaks for every woman.”
How? Beyoncé, reportedly without the knowledge of her father and then-manager Mathew Knowles, booked studio time and with her chosen collaborators — Sean Garrett, Rich Harrison, Rodney Jerkins, the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz — and crafted an album in two weeks. She smartly made the best of the best compete with each other — to assist her in upping her own creative ante.
As integral a role as her father (and mother) played in her professional development, for Beyoncé to do this album without her dad’s knowledge was one of the first indicators that Beyoncé was capable of steering her own career. Also, consider the optics: Though all of the producers are male, this young black woman was very much in charge of her vision. The producers had distinctive styles, but all catered to Beyoncé’s taste to help create a sound all her own. Beyoncé was not simply jumping on whatever hot track was handed to her. “This is about female empowerment,” Beyoncé said of the album in 2006. “This album is different, it’s conceptual and I do things with my voice that I haven’t done before.”
On B’Day, her ideas of female empowerment varied. In some instances, it’s letting your man have it on jilted lover-themed songs such as her cover of the album’s “Resentment” or “Irreplaceable.” In others, it’s by way of consumerism and the ability to ball out as heard on songs such as “Upgrade U.” Sometimes it’s as simple as “Freakum Dress,” where she throws on something nice, tips out, and not so subtly reminds her significant other that it’s best to not lose this good thing. But in all these songs, she’s asserting control — a theme that has ultimately defined her career narrative.
As for trying new things with her voice, you certainly hear this on “Ring The Alarm,” but also the funk-leaning “Suga Mama” and “Green Light.” Once upon a time — summer 2011 — she said she hadn’t wanted to do a contemporary R&B album. So she recorded soul in the spirit of musical artists Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The muted response to 2003’s Work It Out (part of the Austin Powers in Goldmember soundtrack) seemed to alter plans, but listening to “Suga” and “Green,” you get the sense that now that she’d established herself, she could harken back to what she’d described.
B’Day featuring 10 songs on the standard track listing, with three hidden tracks and various bonuses for Japanese, European and Circuit City(R.I.P.) editions, is very much a trek from Houston to New Orleans with all the sounds and images one sees and hears in between. The booklet that accompanied the CD is a backdoor tour of Gulf Coast culture. There are differing opinions on the bonus track Creole (personally, I like anything that makes me think of gumbo), but most seem to at least appreciate the imagery. She also appears looking like an extra from 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, and then holding the chains on two alligators, and then drinking out of a Mason jar. It’s all so wonderfully Louisianan.
The album launches, though, with Deja Vu, a Rodney Jerkins-helmed track that practically ties itself to Michael Jackson’s 1979 Off The Wall, the track featured then-boyfriend Jay Z, but it didn’t mirror the Grammy-winning No. 1 pop success of 2003’s “Crazy In Love,” the debut single from her debut solo album “Dangerously in Love.” The reaction to the video for “Deja Vu” also highlighted how, uh, challenging certain sects of Beyoncé’s fan base can be. An online petition was launched and among its complaints, the central one was, “This video is an underwhelming representation of the talent and quality of previous music video projects of Ms. Knowles.”
I get that quite a few fans didn’t like the video, but do folks not hear this song? The bass guitar, the hi-hat, those horns, her vocals. For all the songs released over the years that sound like a subgenre best described as “Michael Jackson-inspired,” “Deja Vu” is by far one of the best. No, the single didn’t beat “Crazy In Love” — it was deemed a “tremendous disappointment commercially” at the time, but the album itself did sell 541,000 copies in its first week. Nevertheless, the album still took a while to produce the hit singles Beyoncé was used to netting with her first solo effort and her Destiny’s Child days.
See, for example, B’Day’s second single, “Ring The Alarm.” It failed to crack Billboard’s top 10 on the Hot 100 but was successful in showing off Beyoncé’s anger and rage. She’s been telling women off in songs since the first Destiny’s Child’s album, but never before at such growling, high volumes. The materialism of the lyrics, She gon’ be rockin’ chinchilla coats / If I let you go / Hittin’ the house off the coast / If I let you go, didn’t necessarily convey depth, but Beyoncé’s willingness to try new things vocally — screaming frantically and intensely a la Kelis’ 1999 “Caught Out There” did. The song is in many ways a precursor to Lemonade’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”
The lackluster responses to both “Deja Vu” and “Ring The Alarm” proved that some were not ready to experience Beyoncé outside of their comfort zones. Fans seemed to crave songs that were hook-y and danceable, and music videos that featured Beyoncé as they were used to seeing her — which was, at that time, not angry and not kicking up sand in the middle of nowhere, and so on.
The hit the album needed came in the form of “Irreplaceable,” a Ne-Yo-penned track — To the left / To the left. Whenever I hear it, I gleefully sing along, but what I like most about it? The song made sure B’Day — an album that was frantic, dissonant and familiar to me all at once — didn’t suffer from any perceived sophomore slump. I wanted this album to succeed because, as a Beyoncé fan, I knew Beyoncé did what was necessary to satisfy her desire to advance creatively as an artist while dealing with the realities of what was required of her: to be the huge solo star she was long predicted to be. She made that compromise with “Irreplaceable.” She succeeded. I still wanted her to win with a project that felt more true to her and her previously stated goals. I wanted the hometown woman to win, especially with something made on her terms.
The Gulf Coast is just about everywhere on B’Day. “Get Me Bodied,” after all, is that time when Beyoncé more or less got Swizz Beatz to make her an R&B spinoff a Houston-New Orleans bounce track. The video referenced Bob Fosse’s The Rich Man’s Frug, but when Beyoncé asked you to scissor leg, Naomi Campbell walk and “snap for the kids,” she was getting audiences to join her in a contemporary version of DJ Jubilee’s “Get It Ready, Ready.” And toward the end of “Kitty Kat,” Beyoncé starts rapping ever so slowly — like every Houstonian I’ve ever heard, making sure to pronounce down as “diiiiiine” the way one from home is supposed to.
And gay Houston is all the way out — especially on “Freakum Dress” and notably its accompanying visuals. At the time, I knew I was gay, but I struggled with accepting the traits about myself most would deem as “feminine.” The video launches with Beyoncé giving you every bit of expensive Vanity 6 in terms of a look, and she is joined by two gay black men completely and utterly comfortable in themselves. One of those men was choreographer Jonte, and his participation wasn’t just for the one-off look to pull black LGBT culture from. Jonte also went on tour with her and was featured on performances on daytime TV. The minute I’d hear Freakum Dress in the club — or, hell, while walking on a sidewalk — I stopped fighting what I so clearly loved. The same for the bonus tracks on “Back Up” and “Lost Yo Mind,” which gay black clubs played obsessively in cities such as Houston; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta.
I know why the visual albums — 2013’s Beyoncé and the recent Lemonade — are celebrated to the degree they are. But both are built on B’Day. The B’Day Anthology Video Album didn’t come until April 2007, but she did note at that time, “I always wanted to do a video album,” only the rationale back then was to release a DVD so that fans “can watch it whenever they want and not have to go to YouTube.” Her rationale has of course shifted over the years, but she’s long understood how much her music is with strong visual statements.
Similarly, while I understand why some now applaud Beyoncé’s “unapologetic blackness,” Beyoncé has always been that way. It’s in the way she’s never wavered from the mores and customs that come with living along the Gulf Coast. It’s the celebration of black women, first and foremost. It’s the inclusion of black LGBT people. This is all on B’Day and none of it is any less pro-blackthan anything she’s done this year or any recent previous year.
What’s funny is now B’Day tends to be more of a fan favorite than a critic favorite. A lot of that has to do with its tone. For the most part, Lemonade and Beyoncé are somber, where B’Day is loud, energetic and up-tempo. But there’s as much power in an uptempo track than there is one drowning in melancholy. So much of B’Day is dealing with frustrations, sadness and loss — and more or less dancing through them. B’Day always brings me joy: It’s just so loud, black and familiar.
I love how absolutely country and southern Beyoncé is. I adore how she never shied away from this — though I value these qualities the most in her B’Day. The album is my life as a child, it’s the man I’ve become and it’s full of bops that will carry me to the end of my life. Beyoncé — happily 35 this week — is Houston. And if you’ve lived it, you know how much that will always mean to someone who’s done the same.