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Beyonce

    Dangerously in Love (Columbia, 2003)
     B'Day (Columbia, 2006)
     I Am... Sasha Fierce (Columbia, 2008)

When she started out with Destiny's Child, she was Beyoncé Knowles, but by the time the girl group went on hiatus she was simply Beyoncé — a single-named female diva ready for her close-up. Over Destiny's Child's first three albums, Beyoncé grew from a powerhouse singer into an edgy creative force, pushing the act towards grimier beats and more complex vocal rhythms. Her solo debut Dangerously in Love blasts out of the gate with "Crazy in Love," a fist-pumping R&B-hop anthem built on screaming horns and a Jay-Z cameo. With help from producer Rich Harrison, Beyoncé transforms a Donna Summer sample into a slithering Middle Eastern melody on "Naughty Girl" and dancehall star Sean Paul provides an assist on the choppy "Baby Boy." But the record quickly slips into a series of bland bedroom slow jams — "Be With You" and "Me, Myself and I" — which come off like trite retreads of Seventies R&B, and Missy Elliott's dull piece of pop astrology "Signs" can't stop the bleeding. The ballads — even a duet with Luther Vandross on "The Closer I Get to You" — don't measure up to the uptempos on Dangerously in Love, and the dance tracks are in dangerously low supply.

By the time she hit the studio next for whirlwind sessions featuring a grab-bag of big-name producers from the Neptunes to Stargate, Beyoncé had received the memo. Coming off the Destiny's Child album Destiny Fulfilled and the filming of Dreamgirls (in which she plays the Diana Ross figure Deena Jones), Beyoncé is fiercer and ready for risks on B'Day. She starts by smoothly barking for "bass, hi-hat, 808, Jay" — the returning Jay-Z — on the soulfully funky opener "Déjà Vu" and transitions into the drumline bounce of the Swizz Beatz-helmed "Get Me Bodied." An air-horn siren heralds standout "Ring the Alarm," a bumpy screed directed at a cheating lover that lets Beyoncé explore anger, tenderness, regret and confusion in the space of three minutes and 23 seconds. She's less apologetic on blockbuster girl-power single "Irreplaceable," the Ne-Yo-cowritten track that shows a two-timing boyfriend the door over joyfully strummed acoustic guitars. Beyoncé closes the album with epic ballad "Listen," a song she cowrote for Dreamgirls, and she finally unfurls the true range of her magnificent voice. A deluxe reissue of the album includes a collaboration with Shakira called "Beautiful Liar" that recalls the slinky aesthetic of "Naughty Girl."

Beyoncé split her third album into two parts: six songs representing Beyoncé the balladeer, and five embodying her finger-wagging onstage alter ego Sasha Fierce. Both discs of I Am … Sasha Fierce yield stellar examples of Beyoncé's maturity into one of the most innovative and reliably excellent pop icons of the decade. She twists gender roles on "If I Were a Boy," hits divine high notes on "Halo" and rescues "Broken-Hearted Girl" from sentimental schlock. On the flipside, Beyoncé celebrates the innocent pleasure of the perfect FM tune on the synth-powered "Radio" and gets into a dirty groove on the slippery "Video Phone" (Lady Gaga guests on a remixed version for the set's deluxe edition). And thanks to The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, Sasha Fierce also boasts "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," a foot-stomper loaded with attitude that became a monster dance phenomenon thanks partly to Beyoncé's Bob Fosse-indebted video. Beyoncé's clever reinterpretations of the song with her all-girl touring band demonstrate she's also fiercely committed to well-rounded artistry.

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