Beyoncé's Split Personalities

12/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A "robohand" is a hard act to follow, especially when attached to everyone's favorite cyborg, ahem, songbird, Beyoncé Knowles. But even more, it's certainly a difficult act to live up to. With last week's debut of her third-solo album, I Am...Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé attempts just that with what many would consider a far removal from her usual repertoire. Having already introduced two singles, inspired a barrage of pop cultural references, and revealed her larger-than-life dual personalities, Beyoncé is preparing the world for a return of bionic proportions. Of course, this time much more is at stake as she tackles the hefty task of identity (and wardrobe) reclamation. Like a caped crusader, Bey straddles the life of a pop-friendly songstress by day and a badass diva by night. She at once mourns the unraveling of a relationship, while breaking out in choreographed song and dance over her newfound freedom from a lover's constraints. It's all very "Sybil," yet Beyoncé's alter-egos don't seem necessarily at odds with one another. There is no Battle Royale occurring on this album, no weave pulling in the least. Sasha Fierce, Bey's stage persona manifested on vinyl, is much more of a protective agent than anything.

Once evoked, Ms. Fierce subsumes an awesome role: as the sexual, confident and brazen side of Beyoncé that belies the singer's almost bashful public persona. Sasha stomps, booty shakes, and growls about on stage, panting and staring you squarely in the eye with a look that dare's you to cross her. Ms. Fierce prefers the darker side of things, making her right at home in the Lee Bowery-inspired designs of Gareth Pugh or the avant-garde offerings by Alexander McQueen. She's "up in the club, acting up" until the wee hours of the night, and hardly dodging the glare of the spotlight. Sasha's weaves are bigger and her ego even larger. She does, admits, and wears the things Beyoncé could never get away with. Yes, Sasha Fierce is the greatest of costume changes: she writes away the overtly uncharacteristic behavior of Beyoncé and maintain's the singer's virtue. She is made culpable for all things that transpired whence Fierce's evocation -- things that normally female entertainers, especially those that are Black, are chastised and repudiated for.

It's a brilliant strategy considering most of us are in need of a doppelganger to hold accountable for a myriad of party fouls or fashion faux pas, but considering Black women have almost always existed within some dismembered, disjointed state, Sasha Fierce is ultimately a disappointment. Historically, Black women have worked within a dichotomous matrix, where we are at once hyper sexual and asexual; hyper visible and invisible, but fundamentally never female. We've been written outside the monolithic canon of beauty and rarely see our image reflected in a corrective or nuanced representation. So it's very discouraging to see one of the most highly visible, if not placated Black female public figures falling subject to this inherited legacy. Beyoncé, in all her mainstream appeal, is seemingly still dogged with the same worrisome task of claiming a counter-hegemonic Black female sexual identity for herself.

Upon listening to the album, this idea is only further crystallized and one comes to realize that Sasha Fierce is simply not developed. Sure, an asymmetrical leotard will help flesh out the wardrobe of an alter ego, but it does not a record make. Fierce's songs are underdeveloped, trite, and surprisingly forced. Overwrought with finger-snapping and large pronouncements of her number-one stature, Fierce appears much more as an artifice than an organic offspring. The "Bey"-side is where the artist shines and has produced some of her greatest work. It's robust, assured, replete with direction, and clearly where Beyoncé feels most confident. In this, Sasha Fierce seems to be more of a disparate response to the wants of her fans and the ever-evolving music scene -- an evolution that has a lot to do with a single hair cut.

No one can deny the impact that "Lil' Miss. Sunshine," Rihanna Ventry, has had on pop culture in the last two years, making her mark off the insanely infectious riff "ella-ella-eh." With her iconic Aeon Flux-inspired look, which is at once edgy and adorable, she has been transformed into some kind of monster...but in a really, really good way. By re-releasing her album Good Girl Gone Bad (and making it stretch), snagging Cover Girl and Gucci ad deals, guest starring on several Top 10 hits, and procuring a look that is heavily replicated, Rihanna has gotten the hang of this svengali routine. But what is even more recognizable about RiRi's rise is the image she projects: she's essentially everything Beyoncé is not. Donning vinyl and leather, Rihanna shorn her lacefront and offered an alternative representation of Black female beauty. Is it some radical project? I would never kid myself, as Rihanna still works within the confines of the music industry and is much more of a product as her star rises. But she is refreshing and has certainly made Beyoncé work much harder on this latest album to be original and inventive. I mean, even after Bey performed with the robohand recently, Rihanna showed up in a bedazzled eye patch: talk about a face off. As Kanye West put it, "Rihanna is the best thing that ever happened to Beyoncé."

Gotta' love Yeezy for the sound bytes, but he does make an excellent point. Rihanna's overt dalliances with her dark side ("Disturbia," anyone?) forced Beyoncé to do the same, even if to mixed results (refer to Beyoncé's patent leather spiked toe ballet shoes... the verdict is still out on that one). What I am still ultimately confused about is why Beyoncé's two identities cannot coexist within one single Black female form? I'm sure the singer wasn't thinking as deeply about this matter as I am when she conjured up this otherwise marketing strategy, but I am perturbed as to why Bey can't simply be? Why is she still not afforded a sexual agency that would allow her a multiplicity that isn't explained with some guise? I write this after just viewing pics of Beyoncé on set for her new Sasha Fierce video, wearing dominatrix booties (cute, though) and silver wraparound sunglasses laced with fringe. It's all smoke and mirrors with this one, when essentially all Beyoncé is looking for is a little subjectivity.