These days, there’s almost no such thing as an album that doesn’t leak. So it was all the more impressive when Beyoncé, one of the world’s biggest pop stars, released her self-titled fifth album near the end of 2013 with no promotion and no indication that a new album was coming so soon. It was a genuine surprise in a pop-culture climate in which those are few and far between, and considering how many people were involved in making the “visual album” (and the high-budget video that accompanied each track), it was basically a magic trick for Beyoncé to accomplish the feat of releasing it without warning.
For her next act, Beyoncé managed to release Lemonade, another fully formed and daring album with elaborate visuals to go along with it, with just as little build-up as her prior album. It’s as if David Copperfield made the Statue Of Liberty disappear only to do the same to the White House a few years later—with each grand, unexpected release, she raises an already high bar and makes it more difficult for her to top herself. But to let the critics and the Twitterverse tell it, Beyoncé more than ably bested her last album, along with the rest of her discography. The longform music video, which debuted on HBO with nothing more to announce it than an oblique message on her long-dormant Twitter account, is the most breathtaking work of her career. And the music is the most sonically bold and experimental Beyoncé has ever made. Between the fully realized visuals and the startlingly confessional lyrics, Lemonade is such a giant leap forward, it’s hard to believe it came from the same girl who once fronted Destiny’s Child.
The shock would be warranted had there been no activity between “Bills, Bills, Bills” and her current output, but ever since Beyoncé launched her massive solo career with 2003’s Dangerously In Love, there have been indications of her broader ambitions. In hindsight, it’s hard to see her career progression as anything but intentional, the result of her desire to earn her place among history’s greatest mononymic pop stars. Beyoncé has released a ton of awesome songs, so making an hour-long mix of her greatest hits is no challenge. This mix is something different—a road map of the stylistic departures that foreshadowed her overarching career goals early on. Not all of these songs represent Beyoncé’s best work, but they do represent her as an artist more interested in making interesting failures than ho-hum hits.
The earliest indication of Beyoncé’s sonic ambitions came in the form of one of the least memorable songs from Dangerously In Love. “Gift From Virgo” seems like an afterthought next to radio-ready singles like “Baby Boy” and “Crazy In Love,” but it’s a radical experiment compared to the hits. Beyoncé borrows Shuggie Otis’ 1974 instrumental “Rainy Day,” but she doesn’t just sample Otis, she sings in an almost improvisational style over the entire piece. It’s punk as fuck in a “talent imitates, genius steals” kind of way, and Beyoncé frequently referred to to “Virgo” in interviews at the time, boasting about its lack of a proper hook. Given Bey’s tendency to record far more tracks than she plans to use, it seemed odd that “Virgo” made the cut, but it makes perfect sense within the context of her efforts to think beyond current pop-music trends.
Her second album, B’Day, was a grower, an album that initially seemed too raucous and beat-driven for a voice as powerful as Beyoncé’s. “Get Me Bodied” was one of the more instantly appealing songs on the album, catchy and danceable enough to make up for the absence of her melismatic flurries. Swizz Beatz’s track is exclusively made up of percussion and the occasional bass rumble, and the melody is child’s play for Beyoncé. But it’s become one of her most durable dance tracks from an album that demonstrated Bey’s willingness to try different approaches in service of an dance floor-focused album concept. At the time, B’Day seemed like a step backward, but in hindsight, it’s one of the early incremental shifts that led to her current output.
Beyoncé’s signature single bears some similarities to “Get Me Bodied,” namely its focus on percussion and rap-like rhythmic patter. The key difference is the musicality of “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” which features an unassuming guitar lick and futuristic sound effects. The most interesting and telling part of “Single Ladies” comes in the second part of the earworm hook, when the synthesizer strikes an ominous, haunted-house tone, as if to strike fear in the hearts of commitment-phobic men everywhere. The song and video—one of the best of all-time according to Kanye West—also marked the formal debut of Sasha Fierce, a musical alter-ego not unlike David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Prince’s Camille, two of the global icons after which Beyoncé has modeled her career.
Of the many leaps forward on Beyoncé’s self-titled album, the most dramatic is her experimentation with length and structure. “Haunted” is one of three tracks on the album that pushes past the six-minute mark and stitches two songs together to form one massive statement. The first half, subtitled “Ghost,” finds Bey rapping about her frustration with music and the industry around it (“All the shit I hear is boring/All the shit I do is boring”) and ends with a quip about the song’s lack of commercial appeal: “Probably won’t make no money off this/Oh well.” The second half, from which the song takes its title, is reminiscent of a song Beyoncé’s made a lot a money off of. The song’s final push brings back a far darker version of the dread-inducing synthesizers from “Single Ladies,” then transforms again into a slinky, sexy refrain. To add to the track’s otherness, she employs an all-male complement of backing vocals in another one of her musical firsts.
Hip-hop production has long been the norm in contemporary R&B, and early on, Beyoncé embraced hip-hop beats as much as anyone, as evidenced by how many rappers used the “Crazy In Love” beat on mixtapes. The producer of “Crazy In Love,” Rich Harrison, returned to provide one of the hottest beats on B’Day, Beyoncé’s most on-the-nose hip hop record before she started to broaden her musical palette in earnest. Harrison builds “Suga Mama” on an obscure funk sample that seems tailor-made for an MC, but provides a perfect accompaniment to Bey’s gender-flipped braggadocio. While she sang about being an “Independent Woman” with Destiny’s Child, in “Suga Mama” she takes the gender wars further. She’s not just capable of holding her own financially; she’s the financier, taking great pride in her ability to cater to her man’s whims. Despite never being released as a single, “Suga Mama” got its own video directed by Beyoncé and long-time collaborator Melina Matsoukas, an early indication of her Michael Jackson-like desire to pair songs with visuals whenever possible.
“7/11” currently sits atop Beyonce’s list of most-played tracks on Spotify, which is quite a distinction for a B-side. The track was released with the expanded “Platinum Edition” of the self-titled album, an ideal deployment of the track considering how different it sounds from the rest of the record. It’s smaller and simpler than the rest of the album, with a tinny trap beat and auto-tuned vocals that make it sound like a throwaway club track, but it’s also proof of her willingness to try almost anything once. The accompanying video is the real marvel, bearing out Beyonce’s frequent claim that she’s most drawn to the songs and ideas that seem the most fun. The adorable video, self-shot with a smartphone camera and a selfie stick in a messy hotel suite, is the most endearing and human thing Beyoncé has ever made, one of many cases of extreme synergy between her songs and her videos.
Like history’s biggest pop stars, Beyoncé works with name producers, but also loves to discover and highlight less prominent songwriters. For her self-titled album, one of the lesser-known writers who got the call was Caroline Polachek, half of the Brooklyn-based indie-pop duo Chairlift. “No Angel” started as Polachek’s sketch of a song before she concluded that its coquettish lyrics would be better suited to a sex kitten like Beyoncé. Along with producer Boots (who also produced “Haunted”), Polachek and Beyoncé fleshed out “No Angel” into one of the album’s most appealing tracks, with a bare-bones beats that draws attention to Beyoncé’s breathy vocal. The vocal is also slightly pitchy at some points, and though she had Auto-Tune at her disposal (since she employed it on “7/11”) Beyoncé chose to leave the vocal as-is, bolstering her claims of trying to eschew perfection in favor of something more interesting and alive.
For years, Beyoncé has been experimenting with different ways of promoting her new music and tantalizing her notoriously rabid fanbase. Those experiments began with the release of “Run The World (Girls),” a feminist anthem sonically unlike 4, the album she released two months later. Between its militaristic drums and Major Lazer sample, “Run The World” was unlike anything Beyoncé had released, and was the first example of her tactic of releasing a somewhat baffling teaser single before delivering a traditional album down the line. Once Beyoncé had gotten her fans used to the idea of her playing with radically new sounds, only to soothe them later with more middle-of-the-road R&B, she took away the safety net. Pop musicians often struggle with the conundrum of wanting to try new things without alienating core fans, and Beyoncé figured out how to have it both ways.
“Flawless” is another one of Beyoncé’s two-songs-in-one tracks, and the first of the two, “Bow Down,” is reminiscent of “Run The World” as another of her weird outlier singles that signals the imminent release of a new album. The second, “Flawless,” is one of her female empowerment anthems and begins with a portion of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk speech entitled “We Should All Be Feminists.” Lemonade finds Beyoncé pushing her themes, concepts, and imagery to radical new heights, but “Flawless” laid the groundwork for it by showing that despite empty braggadocio like “Bow Down,” Beyoncé had a lot more on her mind.
One of Beyoncé’s many collaborations with Pharrell Williams, “Work It Out” was overshadowed by its association with Austin Powers In Goldmember, Beyoncé’s silver-screen debut. Had the song been released independent of a film featuring a less-than-auspicious acting debut from Beyoncé, it might have been better appreciated as an indicator of her outsize ambition. “Work It Out” is a charming slice of neo-funk, and Beyoncé’s performance is more reminiscent of James Brown and Aretha Franklin than of her soul music contemporaries at the time. The song’s similarity to pro-black musical luminaries is an early example of Beyoncé’s willingness to inject blackness in places where it isn’t expected, and had she performed it during the Super Bowl, it might have hastened The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.
Beyoncé’s 4 is the weakest-selling of albums, which has served to obscure how interesting and bold it is. Prior to the release of the self-titled album, “Countdown” was Bey’s most eclectic and daring track, a sonic gumbo that combines elements of dancehall, Afrobeat, and Latin pop and a Boyz II Men sample. It has a strong groove without ever settling into one, and features a clever video that references Audrey Hepburn’s look and performance in Funny Face, yet another influence that reveals Beyoncé to be a cultural omnivore.
The lead single from B’Day was a bold, brassy R&B stomper, the second album’s answer to “Crazy In Love,” with bright horns and a rap verse from her husband Jay Z. While the song was classic Beyoncé, the video, directed by Sophie Muller, was not. With Beyoncé dancing and twirling in scenic, natural settings and in front of richly patterned interiors, it’s her earliest nod to the aesthetic she brought to fruition with Lemonade.
“Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor,” Beyoncé taunts in the first section of the epic sex jam “Partition,” her most explicitly erotic song yet. Female pop stars often use their sexuality to signal a new direction in their careers and public personas. But where most flaunt sexuality as an expression of youthful abandon before settling into more “mature,” modest identities, Beyoncé waited until she was a wife and mother to express her sexual side. This bold rejection of the Madonna-whore dichotomy speaks to Beyoncé’s broader interest in expressing herself as a whole person, whether she’s talking smack about going down on her husband in the back of a limousine, or confessing her pain and insecurity after discovering that wasn’t enough to ensure his fidelity.
Lemonade is more confessional than anything Beyoncé has ever done, but the first portion of “Mine,” from the eponymous release, was Beyoncé’s first time exposing her private life and inner turmoil in her music. “Been having conversations about break-ups and separations / I’m not feeling like myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it?” she sings, hinting at postpartum depression and the marital strife that eventually boiled over in Lemonade. Beyoncé is a conceptual artist whose medium is pop music, in the grand tradition of someone like Madonna, but with a greater willingness to blur the line between her public and private selves.
Like “7/11,” “Why Don’t You Love Me” was released as part of an expanded version of I Am…Sasha Fierce, so it remains among Beyoncé’s lesser-known tracks. But it’s one that belies Beyoncé’s musically adventurous spirit. The track came from production team the Bama Boyz, who sent music for Beyoncé to listen to after working on an album with her sister Solange Knowles. According to them, they initially left the track out of the bundle of music they sent to Beyoncé, fearing it would be too weird for her, only to be surprised when she wanted it. Beyoncé could have had a massively successful career recording “Crazy In Love” facsimiles for her entire career, but she’s grown into a global phenomenon by continuing to pick, and do, the weird thing no one expects.
Total time: 60 minutes