Ladies' night? 

Beyonce, Alicia, Missy miss-matched on historic jaunt

On the page and the street much has been made of the historical significance of the "Verizon Ladies First Tour," which packages together African-American women, each of them brand-name commodities in the white-hot fields of R&B and hip-hop. As watershed tours centered around specific genres go, it's at least as momentous an undertaking as the "Monsters of Rock" tour that cemented the pop-cultural bragging rights of Metallica and the Scorpions in the mid-'80s. Which is as it should be: There's no arguing that the pairing of hip-pop diva Beyonce Knowles, classically trained R&B songstress Alicia Keys and sassy rapper Missy Elliott (not to mention opening songbird Tamia) is a landmark moment in the mainstream cachet of both African-American art forms and the role of women.

An arena tour featuring three major black female R&B and hip-hop entertainers is such a welcome and arguably overdue occasion, in fact, that it's a bit of a letdown that the "Ladies First" lineup is an awkward and contrived joining together of superficially similar but markedly non-complementary acts. No one's saying that such a bill should feature three indistinguishable doppelgangers: Diversity of talent is a thing to be celebrated in any genre. But the contrasts between Knowles, Keys and Elliott ultimately serve to point up each performer's deficiencies, rather than emphasize the expansive range of the tour's two stylistic touchstones.

The mono-monikered Beyonce, who conceived and headlines the tour, is undisputedly the most ubiquitous diva since Jennifer Lopez, and that high celebrity quotient is not unearned. Beyonce's arresting "Crazy in Love" took second place only to OutKast's relentlessly insinuating "Hey Ya!" in many critics' year-end Top 10 singles lists. And there's little sense in arguing against her talent as a singer and dancer -- not to mention her striking cover-girl looks.

But as commanding a single as "Crazy in Love" is, there's nothing in Beyonce's body of work (no pun intended), either as a solo artist or as leader of the R&B trio Destiny's Child, that even attempts to suggest that she's in the same creative class as Elliott or Keys. Bottom line: She's a performer, as opposed to an artist. Her talents, impressive as they might be, are cut from the same cloth as those of "American Idol" contestants, sitcom actors and Broadway hoofers. She's programmed to entertain rather than edify, as her overarching ambition and show-biz career accessories (movie roles, famous and wealthy boyfriend) make clear.

That's in marked contrast to piano-balladeer Keys, whose intense earnestness bogs down her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys. Where Beyonce seeks to dazzle through charm and exuberance, Keys seeks to impress with her precocious seriousness, a tactic that too often achieves exactly the opposite effect. Although Diary hints at a sprightly funkiness, as on the Timbaland-produced "Heartburn," it's largely hindered by an adult contemporary sheen and Keys' adolescent journal-entry lyrics. Keys is obviously striving to build on her overwhelming debut and perhaps grab a slice of Beyonce's star-power, but her youthful reach can't help but exceed her grasp.

If Beyonce lacks critical depth, and Keys a corresponding, populist breeziness, Missy Elliott possesses both in spades -- not to mention that oh-so-elusive street cred. But if Elliott represents the hoped-for center-point on a line tracking the tour's topography -- with the other performers staking out the two poles -- last year's This Is Not A Test! finds her powers waning. While it's an undeniably fun disc, Test! is also a noticeable re-tread of the assertive grooves and raunchy, empowering themes of 2002's engaging, critically hailed Under Construction.

What's more, early reports of "Ladies First" dates have painted Elliott as the weakest performer of the three, a charge her recent lackluster turn on "Saturday Night Live" confirms. Elliott may have a thing or two to teach her tourmates about brassy sexuality and ebullient humor, but she's nonetheless an awkward fit in terms of music, presence and demographic appeal. As such, she's the living embodiment of the stylistic, attitudinal and charismatic gulfs between the three principals. Those differences threaten to overshadow a watershed event, casting each of these ladies as a first among unequals.


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