Hitting consumers in a bewildering array of formats--including a standard version with 11 tracks and a "deluxe edition" with 16, both spread over two discs--the complicated marketing plan for the third solo album by wayward Destiny's Child Beyoncé Knowles threatens to overshadow the music. You see, Sasha Fierce is Beyoncé's new alter ego, the hard-strutting, hyper-sexual diva, which the singer helpfully defines for us: "A diva is a female version of a hustler." Sasha tackles the second disc, heavy on the electro-R&B club thumpers, while plain ol' Beyoncé, the sensitive and vulnerable artiste, holds forth on the first, a set of romantic, pseudo-confessional ballads, though real emotions remain elusive from this enigmatic cover girl, actress, singer and half of one of pop music's most lustrous power couples.
If you're having trouble following any of this, don't sweat it: The concept is pretty much irrelevant to enjoying the best moments here, in whatever version you wind up with. Allegedly inspired in part by a newfound love of Coldplay, the ballads actually show considerable stylistic diversity, ranging from the gentle folk-rock of "If I Were a Boy" to the classically-tinged "Ave Maria" (an "interpretation" of the famous aria, rather than a straight cover) to "Halo," a clear attempt to rewrite Rihanna's "Umbrella." And while none of them have the soulful intensity to really bring you to tears, at least they won't put you to sleep.
For that matter, while none of the up-tempo tracks are guaranteed, no-reservations party-starters, they're all at least very pleasantly groovy, even when the sub-Daft Punk electronic flourishes are far too heavy handed (as on "Radio" or "Video Phone") or the lyrics resort to repetitive, played-out clichés ("If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it," Beyoncé tells an errant lover again and again in "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," though you get the feeling she'd be better off dumping the bum than marrying him).
Boasting a long roster of superstar producers including Ryan Tedder, Stargate, Babyface and Rodney Jerkins but minus the too-often gratuitous hip-hop and R&B cameos (this one is all Beyoncé... and Sasha), "I Am... Sasha Fierce" is ultimately a more focused and less schizophrenic ride than the hype might lead you to believe, especially on the shorter standard version. And if you don't really feel like you know this distant superstar any better when you're done, at least it's enjoyable spending time an hour with her, in any and all of her personas.