By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
It was August 2006, and Beyoncé Knowles was holding court at Sony's Hit Factory, doing press for her second solo album, B'Day, and her first Oscar-seeking Hollywood vehicle, Dreamgirls. The film remake of the Broadway musical about the breakup of a Supremes-like girl group starred the former Destiny's Child frontwoman as Deena, a Diana Ross figure who emerged as the group's focal point and moved onto a wildly successful solo career after a dramatic split. But when one journalist alluded to the parallels between the star and her character, Beyoncé smoothly preempted the discussion, singing her real-life former bandmates' praises and even adding a gracious nod to DC alumnus LeToya Luckett, whose single, "Torn," had just hit #1.
She went on to insist she was completely different from the meek, puppet-like Deena and even the over-the-top persona she embodied onstage: "I don't like to wear makeup as much—I mean, I like to dress up, but there's a time and a place for it," she said, rocking a black cocktail dress with stacked-heel patent loafers. "I love to sleep late, play with my nephew, and eat food. Bad food. I'm just like any other woman."
Except most other women don't have a bad-girl alter ego they publicize. Eminem had Slim Shady, Garth Brooks (briefly) had Chris Gaines, and in Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé has her own dirty doppelgänger who allows her to turn the lights off and promote a grittier, more dangerous side of herself. Back then, just as Internet rumors about a romance between then-boyfriend, future-husband Jay-Z and ascendant pop star Rihanna had reached a fever pitch, the vicious B'Day track, "Ring the Alarm," found Beyoncé screeching, "Ring the alarm! I'll be damned if I see another chick on your arm!" This, evidently, was the ballsy, powerhouse, sex-symbol Sasha talking. "I don't know if it would be as entertaining onstage if it was just me," she told us. "I've created this other person, so I can keep them separate and still maintain all the qualities that make me who I am."
And what are these qualities? The unanimous consensus is "dignified," "humble," "sweet," "polite," "reserved," "thoughtful," "detail-oriented," "professional," "gracious," "assertive," "unassuming"—oh, and "really, really, really, really nice," according to Essence writer Jeannine Amber, who's interviewed Beyoncé multiple times. Entertainment Weekly staff writer Margeaux Watson concurs, noting that even at raucous parties, Beyoncé is perfectly poised. "I met her a couple of times just socially with Jay, and she was always super-polite and very professional, almost. When I've seen them together, he's out front. She just stands by her man. I don't know if that's a Southern thing, but she's not 'Sasha Fierce.' "
Now, with her third release, the double-CD I Am . . . Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé is trying to be both. She segregated her ballads to the first half (I Am . . .), presented as the thoughtful, soft-spoken side of her personality, distinct from the explicit, in-your-face anthems on disc two, Sasha Fierce. Sonically, the result is schizophrenic and lopsided, heavily tipped in the latter's favor. For the former, she moves away from the tightly edited thematic throughline that's worked in the past. If 2003's Dangerously in Love gave voice to the out-of-body experience of falling in love—while B'Day focused on the anguished howls of a scorned, lovesick woman—this time, she hopscotches between balladic genres, from the opera-tinted "Ave Maria" to the folksy "Disappear" to romantic-comedy soundtrack fare like "Broken-Hearted Girl" and "Smash Into You." This half of the album seems more focused on proving that Beyoncé can do more than the hip-hop-flavored r&b tracks she's best known for, but less focused on what she actually has to say. The tracks by themselves are great one-offs, but would've fared better if shelved until each single could become part of a cohesive whole.
Sasha Fierce suffers no such identity crisis. Brassy, big-headed, confrontational, and witty, each incendiary track challenges you to leave your inhibitions at coat-check. Starting with the call-and-response anthem "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," Beyoncé moves on to flirt outrageously with "Ego" ("He got a big ego/He walk like that 'cause he can back it up") and "Video Phone," further identifying herself as a "diva" (defined as "the female definition of a hustla"). But even amid all the racy braggadocio, tracks like "Radio" (which introduces a sistah-gurl inflection to her voice) and "Hello" (whose chorus echoes the infamous "You had me at hello" line from the mother of all rom-coms, Jerry Maguire) show Sasha's just a good girl playing fierce.
"Beyoncé is one of the purest souls I know," says Stephanie Gayle, who worked with Destiny's Child at Columbia Records. She remembers trying to convince the budding star to stop suppressing her inner Sasha—though back then, Gayle and Beyoncé had a different, secret name for the fiery persona who'd take over onstage. "The most beautiful thing to me has been to see her slowly but surely letting go," Gayle says, "so that now we have this amazing supernova in front of us—because in the beginning, she did have to hold back, whether she was conscious of it or not."