Beyonce has never been short on ambition or self-belief. By 2003, the future Mrs. Carter had pretty much done it all. Destiny’s Child was a global phenomenon and her position as the unacknowledged-but-obvious centerpiece of the group had brought money, fame and even a budding movie career. But the 21-year-old sensed she had a higher calling and set about making the oft-tried, rarely successful transition to solo stardom. To say Bey achieved her goal is something of an understatement. Dangerously In Love sold 11 million copies worldwide, produced four top 10 hits — including two chart-toppers — and garnered five Grammy Awards. Beyonce was not just a viable solo star but the new Queen of R&B and arguably the hottest female artist on the planet.
For such an influential and important album, Dangerously In Love was greeted with palpable disdain from many critics upon release. Rolling Stone praised the uptempo songs but dismissed the ballads, declaring: “Beyonce isn’t in a class with the likes of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey as a singer.” The LA Times described her voice as “tiresome” and lamented her “diva acrobatics”, while The New York Times went a step further — calling Billboard‘s Millennium Award recipient “no Ashanti“. The general consensus was that Bey’s debut tried too hard to please everybody to the project’s overall detriment.
There is an element of truth to that. Dangerously In Love is the triple threat’s least cohesive offering but much of the album’s considerable charm stems from its eclectic nature. In many ways, it lays the blueprint for I Am… Sasha Fierce by dabbling in commercial pop and soulful R&B — the only difference being that the genres aren’t clearly delineated here, which could explain some of the initial confusion. I also believe critics misinterpreted Beyonce’s ambition as a lack of focus. She wasn’t so much pandering to all-comers as trying to show what she could do. And she can do a lot. Really, really well.
Beyonce — “Crazy In Love”
Let’s start with the now iconic singles. When I saw Beyonce perform at the Roseland Ballroom in New York in 2011, she recounted how execs at her label said she didn’t have a single hit record on the album. Quite the contrary, Dangerously In Love is defined by the greatness of “Crazy In Love”, “Baby Boy”, “Me, Myself And I” and “Naughty Girl”. Those songs ruled the airwaves and MTV for most of 2003 and 2004, bridging demographics in a way Michael Jackson did in the ’80s. It was that quadruple punch that enabled the album to sell five million copies in the US and all but ended the careers of her contemporaries.
The Rich Harrison-produced “Crazy In Love” stands out, not only for bringing B closer to her future husband, but for utilizing one of the catchiest hooks ever captured on record. The incessant percussion was a breath of fresh air and the video established the singer as the sex symbol du jour, sparking a dance craze with its super-sexy choreography. “Crazy In Love” was quite possibly the most perfect single of the year. Even the initially unconvinced critics agree. NME named it the best song of the decade in 2009, while Rolling Stone placed it at #3 on their list. Pitchfork also voted it the fourth-best song of the 2000s. It was always going to be a tough act to follow but B caught lightning in a bottle three more times.
Beyonce featuring Sean Paul — “Baby Boy”
Scott Storch was the first producer avid letter writer Beyonce approached, and it turned out to be a wise move. The man behind Justin Timberlake‘s “Cry Me A River” and Christina Aguilera‘s “Fighter” was responsible for giving Dangerously In Love a pop sensibility and three additional Top 10 hits. From the playful dancehall vibe of ”Baby Boy” (another #1 on the Hot 100) to the emotional rawness of “Me, Myself And I” and the Donna Summer-sampling, disco-tinged escapism of “Naughty Girl,” Storch allowed Beyonce to demonstrate her incredible versatility and range.
Even non-singles garnered substantial airplay and Grammy Awards. The title track, which originally appeared on Destiny’s Child’s 2001 opus Survivor, reached #57 on the Hot 100 and won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance without ever being officially released. Beyonce delivers a career-best vocal on the towering ballad. She coos, croons and screams like a woman possessed. It’s mesmerizing, completely over-the-top and remains my favorite track on the album. She takes a more relaxed approach on “The Closer I Get To You”, her duet with the late Luther Vandross. A cover of an old Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway standard, their version was only a minor airplay hit but still managed to win a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance By Duo Or Group.
Beyonce — “Naughty Girl”
Time has been kind to the mid-tempo R&B jams that comprise the bulk of Dangerously In Love. There is something endearingly naive and innocent about “Yes” that, no doubt, still speaks to young women, while the sultry “Speechless” is one the diva’s best bedroom anthems. It manages to be sexy and sensual without being explicit and even has a random guitar solo that sounds out-of-place but completely amazing. Another highlight is the second Rich Harrison contribution, “Be With You”. The song still delights with its quirky hooks and synths. The track was Bey’s first attempt at channeling Prince and she does a pretty good job.
That said, there are a couple of duds on the album. “Daddy” is a best forgotten ode to the superstar’s father complete with stomach-churning lyrics like “I want my husband to be like my daddy”, while “Gift From Virgo” is best left for astrology enthusiasts. On the whole, Dangerously In Love has stood the test of time remarkably well. The plethora of contributors and featured acts make more sense today and the lack of a cohesive sound actually works in its favor. Like I Am… Sasha Fierce, Bey’s debut walks the line between R&B and pop music with skill and flair — an impressive achievement for a 21-year-old.
Join us on Twitter this afternoon for our Dangerously In Love re-listening party. Do you have any special memories of Beyonce’s debut album? Let us know below, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter!
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