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A master plan in motion

Phase 1: Mega-singing success with girl group. Check. Phase 2: Soaring solo career. Check. Now Beyonce tackles the big screen in `Dreamgirls' with no less than Oscar in her sights.

September 03, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

BEYONCe walked out of her dressing room with a barely there black outfit, glossy lips and spiked heels and took her place between the camera and a plain white screen inside corporate offices disguised for the day as a high-fashion music video site. She smiled and nodded to the director. Music began to blare, and the singer pretended to belt out her new song -- just another day at the office for one of pop's biggest stars.

But then a funny thing happened.

Instead of shimmying to a dance-floor anthem or fluttering her eyes through a heartfelt song of devotion, Beyonce began rocking on her toes, pumping her fists and whipping back that famous mane of hair. She pumped her fists like the righteous Mary J. Blige and glowered like Tina Turner. So this is what it's like when Beyonce is angry ...

"Yes, it's a pretty empowered song and it's a mature song, definitely," she said later of the music-video taping for "Listen," which as a relationship song is pretty much the musical equivalent of a face slap. She chuckled at that description. "It is a lot of fun to sing."

The song is one of the singles planned for Beyonce's "surprise" album, "B'day," which hits stores Tuesday (the title is a nod to the fact she turns 25 the same day). It was recorded in less than three weeks and submitted to officials at her label, Music World Music (part of Sony's Columbia Records), who weren't expecting a new batch of work from her until next year. That makes the whole affair sound like a toss-off project, but the singer says it's really just a function of her revving career motor. "I just don't know how to relax, really."

Clearly. That's why the second half of 2006 is shaping up to be the season of Beyonce. In December she stars with Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy in "Dreamgirls," a film adaptation of the Broadway show about the tempestuous backstage life of a 1960s girl group that sure seems like the Supremes. "Listen" was inspired by the film and will be the only song on the soundtrack that is not part of the original Broadway show. (It will be a bonus track on "B'day.")

In the film, which is expected to make an Oscar run, Beyonce portrays a character named Deena who was modeled on Diana Ross -- one who struggles to find happiness amid the bruising machinery of show business.

"As a woman she is just so trapped," the singer said of her screen role. "She has lost herself, and she lost her dreams. She is with a man who is so controlling, and she completely didn't know what she wanted in life."

In "Listen," Beyonce said she uncorked all the emotions that she experienced walking in the shoes of the fictional girl-group veteran. "I was this character for six months. And it all came out in this song."

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Talking tough, standing firm

NO matter the inspiration, a scolding song by Beyonce these days will instantly be parsed for coded messages about her relationship with Jay-Z, the superstar rapper who has been her beau since 2000. The singer laughed when asked whether she expects "Listen" to be heard as something it's not.

"That's what people do, I know that, but there's nothing I can do about that. That's how it is. It's part of the whole thing, right?"

The new album has hard, lean beats, and it's brimming with uptempo songs. The themes are female independence and venting. Swizz Beatz, Rodney Jerkins, Rich Harrison, and the Neptunes represent the expected gallery of high-profile producers, but (in part because of the condensed recording period) Jay-Z is the only guest artist heard. Beyonce said she looked back in her career for a template for the musical and the album: " 'The Writing's on the Wall' is the best Destiny's Child record to me. It was very aggressive, and it was all the records that I think some women needed to hear to give them strength. This record is like that, very empowered and a lot of the subjects are about a woman in this relationship and she's ready to break free."

This is Beyonce's second solo album, following "Dangerously in Love," a big hit in 2003 (it has sold 4.3 million copies) and the CD that spawned that year's most memorable summer hit, the disco-shimmery "Crazy in Love." On its heels came talk that she would return to Destiny's Child, the R&B group that brought her fame, but the film career and this new solo effort seem to be pulling her further and further from a shared spotlight. It may be that the only girl group you'll see her in any time soon is the Dreams, the faux 1960s act of "Dreamgirls."

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