As the name suggests, there’s only one infant messiah in Destiny’s Child, and Survivor (note singular) is for all purposes the inevitable first solo record from the young lady with the omnipotent dad and the Astrodome-sized persecution complex. Beyoncé Knowles is the eternal spirit made flesh. She purges unbelievers (“Nobody leaves the group,” the aspiring cult leader told Stuff). She speaks in tongues (or at least she did once, she told CosmoGirl!, when “I was stressed because I knew the group was going crazy”). And she cowrote and coproduced all 15 tracks on Survivor, after putting LaTavia, LeToya, and five-monther Farrah’s numbers on the call block and leaving The Writing’s on the Wall‘s entourage of monster producers (She’kspere, Kandi, Missy Elliott, Rodney Jerkins, et al.) at home. The fabled room of one’s own belongs to her now, with Bible and Rules on her night table and apostles standing watch outside her door (cousin Kelly, née Kelendria, and new recruit Michelle, née Tenetria). Beyoncé (née Beyoncé) depends on Beyoncé if she wants it.
The diva giveth, and the diva taketh away: Survivor, perhaps because it’s so indisputably BK’s show, finds her showering gifts upon her bridesmaids. Sainted Kelly, the poignantly stalwart Mary Wilson/Eric Erlandson figure, croons the part of the title single that everyone remembers (“I’m not gonna dis you on the Internet/Cos my mama taught me better than that”). Michelle, who always looks a bit lost (maybe in part because Mathew Knowles, a/k/a the Colonel, deemed her given name too “ethnic”), is occasionally granted a dispensation to get her Whitney freak on. Both make heartening efforts to empathize with their mistress’s torments: free-ranging paranoia, absolutist romantic embitterment (“Independent Women Part II,” gilding the lily as all sequels must: “If you ain’t in love, I congratulate you”), and ad hominem fixations on girls who dress skimpily and dance around and think they’re so hot. Yup, turns out Beyoncé is an Ironist. That’s why she can dog former members of her congregation by bragging that she won’t stoop to dogging them. That’s why she can hail herself as a sold-my-million winner when it was Beyoncé and Daddy extinguishing the torches.
“Survivor,” bookended by opener “Independent Women Part I” and the speaks-for-itself “Bootylicious,” is thrillingly paced, throw-your-hands-up-at-me bombast, saved from cheesiness by its own disingenuity and as serviceable a Gloria Gaynor shout-out as can be found any weeknight at Lucky Cheng’s. If it hasn’t worn as well as “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ ” or “Say My Name,” it might be due to Beyoncé’s bullying vocal pyrotechnics. (There’s a lesson here to be learned from Aaliyah about affecting humble submission to a song in order to make it humbly submit to you.) The production’s coarser too. Knowles and her studio cohorts aren’t much for beats—the drum parts all sound the same, rotely twitchy rather than shiveringly unmoored. But she revels in iconic faux-snatches of radio play from a mid-’80s toddlerhood. The ersatz pipe-organ intro to “Survivor” equals Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” The dribbling riff that leads the rumptious “Bootylicious” is Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen,” though out of context it summons “Eye of the Tiger” by Richard Hatch. The plucked-violin synth on “Fancy” tweaks ABC’s “When Smokey Sings.” Thriller references abound.
The retro flourishes go hand in hand with lyricized regression. The Writing’s on the Wall provides a world-weary user’s manual to field-playing, punctuated by cheeky tantrum-throwing (as in “Throw! Out! My! Pager!”). Much of Survivor finds Beyoncé stomping out of the dancehall in a huff over some perceived slight, dragging her pair of reluctant but faithful attendants with her. It’s 11:30 and the club is bumpin’ sumpin’, but hey, we’ve got church in the morning! “Fancy” ‘s sassy, sliding three-part harmonies mimic a synth’s brief sustain, in service of an undermotivated schoolyard taunt. As usual, Beyoncé dumps a friend, evidently for dressing well and flirting with an overlapping pool of boys. It’s a ferocious pettiness specific to pubescent girls, who rehearse on each other the real psychodramas that lie in store once hormones rear their heads.
For all DC’s celebration of mamas who profit dollas, “Fancy” might as well be called “Ugly Girl,” and it’s preceded by “Nasty Girl.” “Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on,” Beyoncé nyah-nyahs from on high (failing to add, “That’s for me to do at the Grammys!”). “You’re nasty, you’re trashy, you’re sleazy. . . . Girl, where’s your self-esteem?” Indeed! Who needs age-old bitches-ain’t-shit rhetoric when bitches can do for themselves? The busybody puritanism hits bottom on the mawkish sex-abuse narrative “The Story of Beauty.”
The girl with the most cake can eat it too: She can hate and play the hated martyr. Even in a floating iridescent bubble like “Happy Face,” we’re informed that lots of people hate Beyoncé, but 10 times more people love Beyoncé, and doggone it, she loves herself. But the daily affirmation doesn’t halt this pillow-tossing slumber party, in which the kids romp on a springy bed of buzzing keybs and patty-cake handclaps, and the sugar-smacked birthday girl starts caterwauling at 4 a.m., “I’m FLLLYYYYIIIINNNNGG!!” (The house remix will explode.) “Apple Pie à la Mode” is even yummier: Kelly kicks it off by murmuring to her girlfriends about a cutie who just walked by their table, and space-vessel bleeps fade in as the ladies go starry-eyed. It’s Crystals-clear: He’s their “lullaby love,” their “chocolate-covered strawberry,” and the girls add ballast to the bassline with whomp-whomp backing vocals, delivered like they’ve each got a little mouthful of something sweet.
“Bootylicious” and “Sexy Daddy” (along with “Apple Pie,” the most obvious choices for singles) are saltier gumbos, the latter’s Electra-sick title lending it a slight advantage. So named for the moment that Kelly locks eyes with what she thinks could be “my baby’s fatherfatherfather,” “Sexy Daddy” is the densest conflagration on Survivor, an OutKast-as-girl-group freakout that proves Beyoncé was taking some copious notes during She’kspere class. “I don’t think you heard me—I wanna see you dance! GET UP AND DANCE!” she hollers like she’s venting on a dawdling caterer, while the swoony choruses make casting for sperm donors seem, well, romantic. Pass the prenup! “Bootylicious” is a sweltering snake dance, the trio scatting and hyperventilating and emitting lusty little hiccups (“lookin’ hot-TA!”) while they double-dare the ballers to take a bite out of their raspberry danish.
Odd and disappointing, then, that Survivor seems so consistently sexless. “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” the girls decide, rather preemptively. We’re back to junior high. Beyoncé is the most beautiful, most popular seventh-grader, drunk on her own power, and the reverend’s daughter to boot. She’s a mean drunk, too, rubbing everybody’s face in her Chosen status until she looks around one day and finds she only has two friends left. “Actually, it’s like she had one friend, and her dad had to buy her another,” as an astute buddy pointed out. So let’s say that Beyoncé is at one of those awkward stages. She’s an independent woman who’s a sexy daddy’s-girl. Her love don’t cost a thing—and yet, the house they live in, she bought it. Maybe it’s time to move out.