NEW YORK (Billboard) - For the past three years, Beyonce’s solo career has flurried in and out of focus, with a series of oddball singles, one-off collaborations and curious strikeouts (“Ring the Alarm,” anyone?). The 27-year-old is obviously now paying attention to dominant muse Rihanna — 10 years her junior — who has effortlessly played dominoes with the charts during the same period by playing the melodic field: dance, pop, R&B and yes, even ballads. Two singles head to radio from Beyonce’s upcoming third album, “I Am.” “Ladies First” is standard screech-thump fare, but “If I Were a Boy” is Beyonce’s most affecting offering since “Listen” from “Dreamgirls.” Her vocal performance is breathtaking: exquisitely emotive, mournful and mature.
SINGLE: WOMANIZER (Jive Records)
Everyone loves a good comeback, though it’s ironic that commercially, Britney Spears never went anywhere. If anything, her personal troubles heightened interest in last year’s “Blackout” album and top-five smash “Gimme More.” “Womanizer” from new album “Circus” (December 2), finds Brit in futuristic electronica mode (similar territory to peer Christina Aguilera). Credit producers/writers the Outsyders for injecting a bit of reality into her lyrics, in this case directed at a certain ex, in which Spears chastises, “You say I’m crazy ... I got your crazy.” While the repetitive hook might result in chart longevity, the best news here is Spears’ engaged vocal, unlike last year’s tracks, which focused more on production tricks to cover unfocused delivery. After triple-play wins at MTV’s Video Music Awards, where a coherent Spears appeared grateful and surprised, could it be our Britney is truly back?
SINGLE: LIVE YOUR LIFE (Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records)
T.I. has made stupendous chart history twice in the past month: Latest single “Live Your Life” made the largest one-week move to the No. 1 spot, leaping from 80 to 1 (a record Britney Spears would soon break) — in fact, replacing himself after “Whatever You Like” made history September 6 by catapulting from No. 71 to the summit. “Life” also set the highest first-week digital sales record, with 335,000 downloads. Considering the quality of the song, such success isn’t surprising, as T.I.’s ability to balance substance and swagger always serves him well. And with Rihanna singing the chorus, Just Blaze crafting the beat and a sample courtesy of the O-Zone, the song’s mass appeal is undeniable. T.I.’s title as “King of the South” might now be shorted to just plain King. And given the success of the accompanying “Paper Trail” album, which opened with sales of 568,000, he won’t be abdicating his throne anytime soon.
SINGLE: GET UP (Shady/Aftermath)
50 Cent’s harshest critics might say he got rich and stopped trying. After the low sales of G-Unit’s latest album and the lukewarm reception of 2007’s “Curtis,” the denouncement isn’t without merit. But 50’s latest single, “Get Up,” proves he’s far from over. Atop a Scott Storch beat, he sounds as hungry as he did in his mixtape heyday at the beginning of the decade. 50’s confident delivery complements commanding bass, and his rhyme skills sound better than in recent times, too. If the rest of album “Before I Self Destruct” is as good, it will re-establish 50 just as “Mama Said Knock You Out” did for LL Cool J and “Stillmatic” for Nas.
SINGLE: LIGHT ON (19/RCA Records)
David Cook’s “The Time of My Life” was that rare “American Idol” victory anthem that forged past souvenir status into a bona fide career-breaking cross-format hit. The first “legit” single from his full-length debut (November 18) makes clear the musical recipe Cook intends to use: Collaborators are all name-brand rockers, from producer Rob Cavallo to writers Chris Cornell and Brian Howes. Cook certainly does his part, with the most aggressive, growling and howling vocal we’ve yet heard from the talented singer, offering a newfound machismo in his lower register. Melodically, there’s no question that this bullet is heading right for the brain, where the only thing stickier than the chorus is Cook’s appreciably sweaty performance. Like Chris Daughtry before him, here’s an Idol who is bound for true rock cred. “Light On” is right on.
SINGLE: NOT AS WE (Maverick Records)
For a woman who’s made the confessional song her art form, exposing her post-relationship vulnerability in new single “Not As We” is terrain Alanis Morissette has tread before. Nonetheless, the amount of rawness the singer-songwriter reveals in the wake of a breakup is startling: “Reborn and shivering, gun shy and quivering ... For now I’m faking it till I’m pseudo making it.” The radio edit is more uplifting than the album version, draping sole piano accompaniment with instrumentation arranged in careful accents: a violin here, an oboe there, tinny percussive beats ticking underneath. It somewhat abates the ballad’s sadness without diluting impact. Both genders can relate to Morissette’s message of trying to move on, even if it’s with tentative, shaky steps.