Beyoncé

B'Day (Sony Urban Music/Columbia)

The music industry has a lot in common with the average automobile plant. Lots can go wrong, but when everything's operating at peak efficiency, it's still capable of turning out impressive products. Like, for instance, B'Day, a sleek new model that displays all the benefits of custom manufacture. Granted, Beyoncé Knowles provides promising raw material; a team of engineers couldn't design a performer with broader appeal. But rather than relying upon her basic allure to shift units, producers like Stargate and Rich Harrison have created a slew of settings that take advantage of her attributes, whether it's the way she purrs at lower speed (the Neptunes-helmed "Kitty Kat") or her seldom-used upper gears (the unexpectedly persuasive "Ring the Alarm"). And they don't skimp on extras. Also included is the toweringly melodramatic "Listen," a hidden-track preview from the forthcoming movie Dreamgirls, whose soundtrack will be the next Beyoncé tie-in to roll off the assembly line. Thanks to its machine-tooled nature, B'Day feels about as organic as a Lexus. But it's bound to get great mileage.

 
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