June 30, 2003 12:01 AM EDT

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Humankind has not yet invented the right punctuation for Beyoncé Knowles. No comma or period can contain her exuberant idiom; no semicolon can keep her from her meandering linguistic path. In the middle of her runaway sentences, Beyoncé usually interrupts herself with deep, rolling spasms of laughter. Whether the subject is her tendency to forget lyrics while performing, her lack of time to devote to a boyfriend or her profound inability to play guitar, every utterance arrives with its own disruptive laugh track. Then there are the pauses–earnest, eyes-drifting-into-future-space jobs that can stretch 10 or 15 seconds. Thus a typical Beyoncé sentence goes, “As far as acting … I want to … hmm … play some kind of a … like a … a dark character? Even though … no … I don’t know!” Then: “Aaah-hah-hah-hah–hah. Lord!”

Beyoncé is not a syntactic moron, just a 21-year-old with some miles to go on the journey to womanhood. That she is simultaneously on the road to one-name multimedia stardom might explain some of the giggling. After selling 11.7 million albums (according to Nielsen SoundScan) with girl group Destiny’s Child and scooping up the only bits of critical praise thrown near last summer’s dreadful Austin Powers in Goldmember, Beyoncé is right now making her move from ensemble player to center stage. Her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, arrives June 24 with enormous commercial expectations, and in September she makes her debut as a romantic lead in The Fighting Temptations opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. “I’m soooo excited,” she says with one of those laughs, “but I’m kind of a mess right now too.”

A Star Search contestant at age 10, Beyoncé (it’s her mother’s maiden name) has rehearsed for fame her entire life. And she’s still nervous. Despite the industry perception of Destiny’s Child as Beyoncé and two warm bodies in stilettos, she insists that Michelle Williams and her cousin Kelly Rowland are crucial collaborators, and she misses them. “It’s scary. I’ve been singing with Kelly since I was 9, and every day of my life, every time I’ve been on a stage, every interview, she’s [been] there. So it makes me nervous she’s not here.” After a relatively quick pause, she continues. “But it’s a necessary challenge because I’m an adult. We’re all adults now, and we need to learn things about ourselves, and sometimes you can’t do that unless you’re by yourself.”

Embracing adulthood also meant ditching the supervision of her parents. Mathew Knowles famously quit his job as a medical-equipment salesman in 1995 to manage the teen Destiny’s Child, and Tina Knowles, a former hairstylist, designed the group’s look. Both still work full time on their daughter’s career, and during the two weeks a year when she’s not traveling or touring, Beyoncé lives in her parents’ Houston home. To make Dangerously in Love, however, she left the nest and took up residence for several months in a Miami hotel. “The last Destiny’s Child album was recorded in, like, 12 days. Twelve days. For this album, I just wanted to get away from any kind of pressure and take my time. I wrote 43 songs … And I recorded 43 songs. That’s a bunch of songs,” she says, giggling. “Literally, songs that no one else in the world would understand or like–I still did ’em. Stuff with no choruses in them, over jazz beats, whatever. I completely was”–lengthy pause–“an artist. If you listen to the album, you’ll see that I’ve evolved into a woman.”

Britney Spears (whom Beyoncé replaced in January as Pepsi pitchwoman) winkingly kept the world up-to-date on her development with I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman. Beyoncé doesn’t do innuendo, or at least she doesn’t do innuendo that’s quite so obvious. Her appeal lies in her ability to be both pious and real; as a devout Methodist who has been linked to Jay-Z (she denies they’re anything more than friends), she is too cool not to talk about sex, but she’s also too serious to wink about it. Dangerously in Love doesn’t wink either. “It’s a serious album, a romantic album,” Beyoncé says. “There are some songs that talk about making love, but it talks about all different steps of relationships, from the first time you meet a guy and you’re attracted to him to the first time you tell him no. Everything. First time you say you love someone, first time he disappoints you. It just talks about everything that women go through.”

At times, Dangerously in Love’s 15 songs sound like everything Beyoncé imagines women go through. There are a few high-energy, up-tempo tracks, including the album-opening standouts Crazy in Love (which has a thumping, hip-hop, wall-of-sound quality–it’s already a Top 10 hit) and Naughty Girl (which peaks at Victoria’s Secret levels of naughtiness). But the core of the album is slow and moody. Beyoncé’s voice is wonderfully emotive, yet songs like Me, Myself and I and Yes lack the youthful energy that makes her such an obvious star force. It’s as if she mistook seriousness for maturity, particularly on her sober cover of The Closer I Get to You with Luther Vandross. The florid arrangement and middle-aged duet partner make her sound like a young fogy.

Beyoncé admits that she wanted to sound old. She originally nixed the track Daddy (sample lyric: “I want my unborn son to be like my daddy”) because she thought it made her seem immature. It’s plenty corny, but it’s also the one song on Dangerously in Love that reflects her life at this transitional moment, as she arrives at adulthood in a very public way. She’s still not sure it was a good idea to include Daddy. “So I put it last,” she says with a laugh so forceful, she tips over sideways onto a restaurant banquette. “They can find it if they want. I think it’s a beautiful song, but it’s really personal, and people don’t want to hear that all the time. Anybody who wants to skip it, I’m not mad at them. I’ve got tons of songs–enough to maybe put out another solo album in December–and they’re gonna like some of them.”

She’s slightly less confident about her film career. Her Pam Grier–inspired Foxxy Cleopatra was the only thing in Goldmember that didn’t mug the camera, and her hip-hop Carmen (in a 2001 MTV movie) showed a likeness to Dorothy Dandridge. Beyoncé thinks maybe she can act. But she would much rather find out for sure in low-expectation, late-summer movies like The Fighting Temptations. (She plays an unmarried small-town singer kicked out of the church choir after she has a child.) “I wanted to do something that wasn’t glamorous,” she says, “because Foxxy Cleopatra was so over the top. And I didn’t want to star … or at least I wanted another star around to take the pressure off. I need to wait a couple more movies to make sure I know what I’m doing before I take over.” Oh, yeah, and then she laughed.

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