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First listen: Beyonce's Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)

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Irreplaceable diva (and occasional actor) Beyonce Knowles. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

There's something to be said for "realness," that elusive quality so often celebrated by drag queens, America's Next Top Model and '70s disco diva Cheryl Lynn. Trying to pin down a precise definition of what constitutes realness can be difficult, but the general consensus is that it's about straight-up authenticity, a quality product and not some cheap knockoff. To be real, it seems, is to be solid and honest. And I've gotta say, based on Beyonce's latest single, that unstoppable, Irreplaceable diva is all about the realness.

If I Were A Boy, the first single off Beyonce Knowles's forthcoming album, was a surprisingly down-tempo slow-burner, a self-reflexive ballad based around strummed acoustic guitar and a slight hint of gussied-up strings. The slow jam, while lovely, was a strange choice for a lead single, especially since it felt like a pointed move away from Knowles's R&B roots, a calculated crossover into the generic pop market. If I Were A Boy took the plaintive crooning of Irreplaceable and diluted the soul factor.

But Single Ladies, the second cut from the record -- the video for which debuted yesterday -- is Beyonce at her best. It's instantly addictive, a bouncy featherweight dance-pop track that glides on a punchy, organic beat that simultaneously evokes staccato handclaps, African gumboot dancing and schoolyard double-dutch chants. The production is minimal -- odd spacey video-game synths sporadically zoom in and out, but for the most part, the arrangement is spare and stark. Knowles's vocals are the meat of the track. She sounds gleefully sassy and she purrs the singalong kiss-off to an ex who messed up, are sassy and coy -- and, most importantly, real. In contrast with the Auto-Tune epidemic that seems to be plaguing so many of her mainstream pop peers, it's a real joy to hear a voice that changes timbre naturally, a voice with actual cracks and fissures (however slight).

The video, a nicely minimal black-and-white affair that features Knowles busting out choreographed moves with two leotard-clad ladyfriends, suits the song -- it's playful, irreverent and real. One of my favourite parts of the clip comes right at the end, as the final notes of Single Ladies ring out. As Beyonce and her girls finish their last few steps -- having sweated through a non-stop, lightning-fast routine -- the camera zooms in on the singer's face. Beyonce tries to maintain composure, but you can see her panting and gulping as she tries to catch her breath. And then, with a wink, she flexes the mechanical glove strapped to her hand. It's a neat play on the tension between manufactured pop product and authentic singing talent, and a rather endearing display of self-awareness on Beyonce's part.


--Sarah Liss

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