Destiny’s Child - Survivor - Review
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critics' view

Anyone searching for a cautionary tale about pop stardom's perils could do worse than read Mary Wilson's biography. Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme reveals that spending the 1960s standing behind Diana Ross, occasionally cooing a mellifluous "oooh", was not the bed of roses one might imagine. The sequins and smiles apparently hid a life of tantrums, manipulation and shady business deals, all dictated by the ruthless personal ambition of their leader. The book has two simple messages: that Diana Ross was Richard III in false eyelashes, and that being a member of the biggest girl band in the world is no fun at all.

Destiny's Child are currently the biggest girl band in the world. Their clever twist on R&B - dramatic, staccato rhythms topped with man-bashing, money-obsessed lyrics, like girl power with a working knowledge of bulls and bears - has sold 19m albums worldwide. But recently all has not been well with the Houston trio. Last January, two members of the band were summarily sacked. They are currently suing the band's manager, Martin Knowles - father of lead singer Beyonce - alleging rampant nepotism and irregular business practices. One of their teenage replacements further sullied the sisterly image by lasting only five months before bizarrely claiming she was leaving Destiny's Child owing to "dehydration".

Whatever has been going on behind the perfectly manicured facade has allowed Beyonce Knowles to emergence as the band's sole driving force. In contrast to the band's two previous albums, Knowles co-writes, produces and arranges every one of Survivor's 18 tracks. The result is indulgent in every sense. At well over an hour, Survivor is much too long. Four minutes are given over to a self-regarding spoken-word piece that essentially consists of Destiny's Child congratulating each other for completing the album and, as is the way with R&B groups, thanking God. Who in their right mind wants to listen to this? Almost as superfluous is an interminable a capella gospel medley, the sort of thing most artists would use to pad out their live set but would never consider recording for posterity.

Lyrically, much of Survivor sounds less like a rallying cry for emancipated sisterhood than a prolonged and rather vindictive attack on the band's ousted members. "Now that you're out of my life, I'm so much better," snaps Knowles on the title track. "Thought I wouldn't sell without you, I sold nine million," she adds, lest anyone think the song is about a former lover.

As mealy-mouthed and mean-minded as Survivor is, it's hard not to be frequently beguiled by the music. The lyrical tongue-poking may betray her immaturity, but at 20 years old Knowles is already remarkably assured behind the mixing desk. She has learned her tricks from former Destiny's Child collaborators Rodney Jerkins, Sheke'spere and Timbaland. They are visionary producers who have transformed R&B from a cliche-ridden, ballad-led genre - the favoured sedution soundtrack of the suburban teen lothario - into perhaps the most exciting and ground-breaking music on the planet.

Knowles has inherited their ability to deftly mix commercial hooks with avant-garde studio experimentation. Sexy Daddy bristles with discordant harmonies and thundering ragga rhythms, while Fancy is driven by pizzicato strings and unexpected, lurching key changes. A scattered and abstract re-recording of the recent number one, Independent Women, finds Destiny's Child singing over the sort of music that usually accompanies characters sneaking about in Czech cartoons.

Survivor matches its lyrical ire with tough, thrilling music. The European pop clogging up the British charts is regulated and uniform - the anaemic end result of factory-line songwriting and production techniques - but this is pop that draws in the listener by surprising them. Its selling point is its difference from its competitors, rather than its similarity.

The album loses its way when the tempo slows. A trio of identikit ballads, bafflingly placed together, hark back to an era when R&B divas existed solely on a diet of gloopy saccharine. Overwrought with showy vocal flourishes, My Heart Still Beats could be the work of Celine Dion, and it sits uncomfortably alongside tracks such as Bootylicious, which comes complete with startling, hiccuping vocals and wittily samples Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, herself no stranger to inter-band ructions and upheaval.

Those ructions, and Knowles's petulant musical response, may yet see Destiny's Child the subject of a Dreamgirls-style muck-raking. The combination of glittering success, vast wealth, disgruntled former members, a shadowy manager and the alleged megalomania of their leader is almost too salacious to resist.

But it would be a shame if Destiny's Child became better known as a kind of singing soap opera than a genuinely vital musical force. In all its flawed, arrogant pomp, Survivor has a rare individuality, and a hint of genius, hidden in its grooves.

Alexis Petridis
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