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Destiny's Child

Survivor

(Sony)

By Keith Harris

Since his media-circus trial for weapons charges, Puff Daddy may have wilted into P. Diddy, but his biggest gift to popular rhetoric survives him. "Playa haters get away or my lead will spray," the Notorious B.I.G. declares on Puffy's 1998 single "It's All About the Benjamins," and on the same track Lil' Kim derides "all that bullshit you kick, playa hatin from the sideline." Based on the notion that we all secretly despise the most popular kid in school, "playa hatin" indemnifies the famous from criticism--you only hate me because I'm successful, and the more you hate me, the more successful I must be. As Dean Martin might have put it, you're nobody till somebody loathes you.

How did this haughty elitism capture the imagination of nobodies like you and me? By the simple process of identification that keeps the world of celebrity afloat. Living inside a pop song, I can pretend that I'm the big-time player you're hating. But the artist can't become too big a star, or he begins to crowd us out of the experience: few of us could empathize with the bloated Puffy when he had his day in court, and a round-the-way comer like Jay-Z can become a tiresome bully overnight. Stars shine to be admired; megastars shine to be admonished, as Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child is in the process of discovering.

That lesson is particularly relevant to women in the glamorous world of R & B, which often suggests the world's cattiest high school. When Destiny's Child debuted on the Men in Black sound track in 1997, Knowles was your typical sister with a will to power and pushy showbiz parents. But now that the group has sold more than 15 million records, Knowles is undeniably a player among players. Like all budding megastars, she's worked overtime to draw ill will, replacing group members LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, performing at the president's inaugural gala ("When I say George, you say Bush!"), and now, sadder but wiser at age 19, declaring herself a survivor. On Survivor, the group's third album, she's ditched high-profile producers Rodney Jerkins and Kevin "She'kspere" Biggs and taken over the assignment herself.

The results are more exciting than most player haters will admit. "Bootylicious" is a prick tease in the fine never-gonna-get-it tradition of En Vogue. "I don't think you're ready for this jelly," the girls taunt, one-upping their stepmamas by making the boy prove his moves on the dance floor (and being open-minded enough to nick Stevie Nicks's "Edge of Seventeen"). "Survivor," the first single from the album, uses every shade of bombast on the pop palette, swiping a classical keyboard filigree from "The Final Countdown" by the 80s hair-metal band Europe, lifting frenetic high-hat triplets from Limit Records, and unloosing the high-capacity lungs of Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams into a baroque arrangement of dizzying melismatics.

Rock fans commonly dismiss R & B starlets as producers' playthings, but they miss the point: the starlets' anonymity makes it easier for their fans to identify with them. Like us, they're trying to make their way through a world that's beyond their understanding and show a little class along the way. No matter how many copies Survivor sells, its music will dribble out to the world as a collection of fabulous singles, and teenage girls will wrench its songs away from Knowles to imagine themselves as survivors. While the singer of "Bills, Bills, Bills," the group's chart-topping 1999 single, was looking for a sugar daddy, the new album opens with "Independent Women Part I," which equates feminine autonomy with buying your own shoes. (In the world of commercial R & B, it's about as close to an anthem as we're likely to get.)

But Survivor will be less digestible to those who celebrate the group's incipient womanism, because many of the new disses cross the gender line. "Nasty Girl," for instance, is a virulent beatdown of a round-the-way honey who shows off her body. It's one thing to call out a brother who won't pay your "automo-bills," but it's another thing entirely to call out a sister just because her clothes are skimpier than yours. Destiny's Child has always excelled at yanking righteousness from the maw of bitchiness, but "Nasty Girl" seems hypocritical, considering the sheer area of skin Destiny's Child has exposed to the world.

"Don't hate us because we're famous" is the strident subtext of Survivor--and of course no sentiment is more likely to erode a fan's tenuous identification with his hero. "Gospel Medley," which brings up the rear of Survivor, is the kind of prayerful puffery that's become a staple among pop megastars, stressing not only their piety but their humility. Unfortunately, it also reveals the odious Calvinism of the rich and famous: Jesus loves me, this I know, because Billboard tells me so. Four years ago, when Beyonce Knowles was glamorous enough to be envied but faceless enough to be emulated, her I-am-somebody sermons resonated. Now that she really is somebody, she'll have to deal with the unspoken predicate--that we're not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Spicer.

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