Imagine if Whitney Houston never had Clive Davis steering her career for those first few important image-defining albums. The result would have been Beyonce Knowles ’ new "B'Day," the follow up to her huge-selling debut album "Dangerously in Love."
"B'Day" launches on September 5, one day after Beyonce’s real 25th birthday.
Last night I got to hear tracks from the new album after a short listening party concluded at a Regent St. nightclub in London.
Beyonce and her mother, Tina, turned up for the event and stayed a little over an hour, then bolted for greener pastures at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
I was told that one day earlier, the singer and her parents made an appearance for Sony execs and played the album for them.
Beyonce’s world is made up of family, and they are close-knit business partners. Her dad, Matthew, is her controversial manager. Her mom makes her outfits. Her sister Solange sings and gets writing credits on her songs, as does a similarly named cousin, Angela Beyince.
More importantly, her boyfriend, rapper Jay-Z, casts a huge influence over her sound.
The result of so many cooks in the kitchen, and none of them objective, is that post-Destiny’s Child Beyonce serves up a mixed bag of Tina Turner-inspired videos, shrill singing and invariably tuneless songs.
Her biggest hit, "Crazy in Love," was an invention of producer Rich Harrison that was heavily sampled from an old Chi Lites song called "Am I Your Woman?" written largely by the late great Eugene Record.
Harrison then took the major elements of that song and reworked them for several more artists, including Usher and Jennifer Lopez.
But on "B'Day," there is no Chi Lites song to act as a saving grace. The closest they come to a defining single is "Déjà Vu," written and produced by Rodney Jerkins with a team he’s used on Lopez’s records, among others.
Jay-Z contributes an extended rap and appears in the video. The song is catchy if you hear it enough times — like a sidewalk drill — but it lacks a consistent melody.
I am told that focus groups (yes — can you imagine?) don’t care for it. A London radio DJ told me last night that "Déjà Vu" and Justin Timberlake’s new "Sexyback" recently tied for least-liked records in his station’s polling. Ouch!
That isn’t to say that "B'Day" doesn’t have its charms, or its hits. They’re just not by the cynical people who created this thing or have the most to gain from it.
A clever ballad called "Irreplaceable" is the most memorable track, and has the most potential of catching on with fans quickly. It’s also the only song on "B'Day" that you might actually want to sing along to, written and produced by Stargate, an anonymous Norwegian pop hit production team akin to Max Martin’s boy band factory of a few years ago.
(As with all the songs, Matthew Knowles makes sure his daughter gets a songwriting credit and publishing royalty on "Irreplaceable," a sop for making the composers rich. Knowles, like Celine Dion’s husband before him and other managers of contemporary singers, is canny to do this, since there is no such thing as a performance royalty. In years to come, when the records aren’t selling, Beyonce will have that money to look forward to. That’s one thing Whitney didn’t do and likely regrets now.)
The other potential hit from "B'Day" is the bluesier soul number called "Green Light," written and produced by melody makers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka The Neptunes.
"Green Light" precedes "Irreplaceable" late in the album’s running order (they’re 8 and 9, respectively, not usual spots for singles), but the well-made song stands out as the album's possible chart redemption once "Déjà Vu" has run its course as Beyonce’s club hit.
Among the tracks that sound less obvious — and more tired — are the next planned single, "Ring the Alarm." It features an extremely annoying siren and is accompanied by a bizarre video depicting a wildly angry and unappealing Beyonce telling off someone (maybe Jay-Z?) for cheating as if she were an enraged guest on Maury Povich.
The pair of Harrison-produced tries at "Crazy in Love" fall short of originality but mimic the Chi Lites percussion section yet again.
Harrison is like the Indiana Jones of soul, constantly pulling out forgotten gems of the past for sampling.
This time, in "Suga Mama," he quotes heavily from Jake Wade and the Soul Searchers’ “Searching for Soul.” You can hear the original funk instrumental at www.pandora.com, a Web site created in 2000 by the Music Genome Project to catalog obscure music.
I’ve no doubt that Harrison is a subscriber. You can’t help but think: Thank God someone wrote music in the past that can be repurposed now.
So, where does that leave Beyonce? In the next few weeks, before the Grammy deadline expires on September 30, we’re going to have new and similar endeavors from Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson and Sean "Diddy" Combs.
They will each be billed as “hot” and “sexy.” They will all be pushing some envelope in a bid for publicity and attention at a time when the music industry desperately needs a hit. They will also, to some degree, promote monotony.
In Beyonce’s case, she may have the upper hand. For Christmas, she’ll co-star in the big-screen version of "Dreamgirls," which I told you looks to be an Oscar nominee, based on a presentation at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
One new song from "Dreamgirls," called "Listen" — “co-written” by Beyonce with the musical’s original composers — is included on "B'Day" as a “hidden track.”
If the two projects — "B'day" and "Dreamgirls" — arrive with any synergy, then it won’t matter if "B'Day" suffers from a sophomore slump.
Bruno Kirby was one of those great actors who worked constantly and was an audience favorite yet was virtually unknown by name except to friends and critics.
He played Billy Crystal’s pal (and Carrie Fisher’s husband) in "When Harry Met Sally," but his credits are extensive. He just appeared in an episode of "Entourage," but he’d been MIA recently and I wondered why. How terribly sad it is that he passed away on Monday from leukemia at age 57.
A decade ago, Kirby helped me with a story I wrote unmasking the story behind the book "Sleepers" as a fraud.
He’d grown up in Hell's Kitchen, which was a famously poor section of Manhattan, and knew that author Lorenzo Carcaterra had not.
Later, Kirby made a cameo in the movie version, a nod from director Barry Levinson to some veracity.
Bruno Kirby was not only a great actor, but had a great smile, too. Movie fans will always look at films from the last two decades and say, "Hey, who is that guy?" He will be sorely missed.
Sighting: "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon, dressed down with no makeup and still beamingly pretty, headed to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland with sun-dappled partner Christine Marinoni for a week before starting rehearsals for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody" in New York.
Nixon, you know, won the Tony Award this year for Best Actress for "Rabbit Hole."
And it’s not news that disgraced ex-con Dana Giacchetto has a book coming out about how he swindled millions from movie stars and real people.
I told you back in 2001 that writer Emily White had signed a deal to write this book. Surprise! Now his victims are alleging that White is kicking back her advance to Giacchetto. For some reason it took them five years.
Anyway, the lawsuit is posted on The Smoking Gun Web site. Giacchetto remains a lovely chap, don’t you think? I love it when people learn from their mistakes. Maybe the plaintiffs, if they win, can take over his canned food business.