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Beyoncé In 10 Songs

With Lemonade stirring discussion, we break down the many facets of Queen Bey

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Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

From bursting onto the scene with Destiny’s Child in 1998 to high-profile endorsements, clothing lines, movies, mic-drop pregnancy announcements and solo mega stardom, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s resume is so layered that she really doesn’t need an introduction. In fact, she falls into the category of public figures that are instantly recognizable around the world at the mention of just a first name: Beyoncé.

As a brand, Beyoncé has come to represent a tireless work ethic, high-energy performances, strength, and beauty, all of which have inspired fierce loyalty to the woman in charge of it all. But we only have suggestions as to who she really is, because she is notoriously private and gradually stopped granting interviews to any outsider who might try to lift the veil.

lemonade Beyoncé In 10 Songs

On April 23rd, her new album dropped out of the sky as a complete visual experience called Lemonade. Shucking the norms for release schedules and redefining what an album is, no longer just something you can listen to but something you can also watch, Lemonade is one of the most exciting things to happen in popular culture so far this year. With its many cameo appearances, references to Southern American culture, and maybe even glimpses of troubles that were hinted at but never confirmed, it has given listeners and viewers so much to dissect.

At every stage of her career, Beyoncé’s relentless creativity has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a star. Few other artists can provoke such wide-ranging discussion. Either way Bey probably won’t sweat it. After all, you know you’re that bitch when you cause all this conversation.

–Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
Contributing Writer

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R&BEGINNINGS

“Hey Ladies” from The Writing’s on the Wall (1999)

Before she became the powerhouse that she is today, Beyoncé was a member of Destiny’s Child – originally a quartet of talented young singers from Houston, Texas. They went on to be one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Through lineup changes and breaks for solo careers, the group released four studio albums packed with infectious, pop-infused R&B songs. On each new album, Beyoncé has bent the R&B genre to her will in different ways. There are the slow burns like “Dangerously in Love” and “Broken-Hearted Girl” and the grown-and-sexy album 4, which featured songs like “Countdown”, “Love on Top”, and “Party” that took us back to the golden era of R&B. Of the more animated strain, “Hey Ladies” off the group’s second album, The Writing’s on the Wall, is an example of DC at their best – sisters coming together to support one another through good and bad times. They tackle the minefield that is young love, in this case taking aim at a cheating boyfriend and letting him know that he’s got to go, but in the most melodious and danceable way possible. Now that we know “hot sauce” isn’t just a condiment that Beyoncé carries around in her bag, the guy who crossed her back then is probably thankful that he got off so lightly. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

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AVE MARIA

“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” from The Fighting Temptations Soundtrack (2001)

On their first three albums, Destiny’s Child had a tradition of closing out each record with a gospel track. This had stopped by the time the group released their final album, Destiny Fulfilled, in 2004. Beyoncé herself didn’t exactly carry this practice over to her solo work, but themes of spirituality, if not necessarily religion, remained present in much of her work. There is her take on “Ave Maria” on I Am… Sasha Fierce and the haunting “Heaven” from Beyoncé, which deals with loss and what happens to a departed soul. The visual component of Lemonade features a lot of spiritual imagery in all its beauty and mystery. Occasionally she rejects it altogether.

You don’t have to practice any particular faith to know that gospel songs, hymns, and spirituals lend themselves to some of the strongest vocal performances. When Beyoncé has taken these on, she has done them well – pushing her voice as far as it can go. Regardless of what you thought of The Fighting Temptations, young Bey’s “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” rendition in the film is incredible; in fact, that soundtrack is probably the most memorable part about it. The film was released before she decided to go it alone, but this song was yet more proof that she could handle the big ballads with little to no help and that it was time to answer to a higher calling. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

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SOLO STARDOM

“Crazy in Love” from Dangerously in Love (2003)

By 2001’s Survivor, it was clear that Destiny’s Child had settled into their new status as a trio: Kelly, Michelle and Beyoncé. But from early on, it was quite clear that Bey was leading from the front, and even casual observers could tell it was only a matter of time before she decided to break away. As the first single off her solo debut album, “Crazy in Love” confirmed what many already suspected – Beyoncé had the star power necessary to take pop culture by storm. It seems like the obvious and cliché choice here, but the importance of this song in Bey’s oeuvre cannot be overstated. Not only did it cement her status as a superstar, but it was also the first public acknowledgement of the relationship that has been a huge part of her life and the inspiration for so many of her subsequent songs that we know and love. It is also one of the strongest tracks from an album that had excellent singles but fell flat elsewhere. From the time the horns hit, resistance is futile. In the accompanying music video, 21-year-old Beyoncé struts confidently up to the camera, cocks her head to the side, and asks: “You ready?” Looking back on it now, we probably weren’t. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

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SELF-LOVE

“Me, Myself and I” from Dangerously in Love (2003)

Beyoncé has known how to speak to her audience from the start. “All the ladies if you feel me/ Help me sing it out,” she asks on “Me, Myself and I”. And, oh yes, the ladies feel her. Some of Beyoncé’s most beloved hits have come fresh off a supposed split (“Irreplaceable” off the 2006 B’Day, “Best Thing I Never Had” off 2013’s 4). But this song is less about the breakup and much more about self love. “Me, Myself and I” was included on Beyoncé’s solo debut, and even though she is clearly addressing a man and broken relationship, the song speaks volumes about her departure from Destiny’s Child — she’s on her own in more ways than one.

While the majority of the songs from Dangerously in Love contemplate a two-person relationship, here Beyoncé celebrates the one she has with herself, stating she even “took a vow” to be her own best friend, a promise she’s kept throughout her career. On “***Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)” off Beyoncé, the notion of practicing self-love and owning the label of feminist (defined in the song as “the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”) come full circle. It’s no question Beyoncé exudes confidence and encourages others to as well, and that self-assurance can be traced back to “Me, Myself and I”. With a message as timeless as putting yourself first, this song still hits home. –Lyndsey Havens

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OK LADIES!

“Get Me Bodied” from B’Day (2005)

Songs like “Freakum Dress”, “Kitty Kat”, and “Run the World (Girls)” all come at womanhood from different angles. Although they’re all constructed differently, they find common ground in their encouragement of women to feel empowered both at work and at play.

On “Get Me Bodied”, Beyoncé takes looking good, feeling good, going out while worrying about absolutely nothing, and boils them down into one irresistible song. If it had been released in the era of the #CarefreeBlackGirl movement, there’s a good chance it could’ve been the anthem.

In recent years, Beyoncé has taken a lot of criticism for the way she expresses her feminist values – much of the critique revolving around the notion that she exploits the label for her own gain without actually believing in any of it. This argument is tricky because it relies on the premise that feminism can only work one way and that anyone who doesn’t adhere to its strictest reading is doing it wrong. In the same way that feminists come in many varied forms, so too must the expression of feminist ideology.

Bey undoubtedly enjoys the privilege that comes with being wealthy. But she is also a black woman, one of the toughest stations from which to navigate the world. Her world view, and the way it influences her music, has to be understood in that context.

Over the course of her career, she has sought to uplift people through her art: both herself and others. She has done so by taking complete control of her image, being shrewd in business and, along the way, providing us with many songs to dance to as we go boldly forth. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

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SASHA FIERCE

“Halo” from I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008)

As a teenage and now solo success, Beyoncé faced the struggle all pop culture icons encounter sooner or later — the inevitable and incessant spotlight. But Beyoncé found relief, and even more success under the safety (and sensuality) of Sasha Fierce, her alter ego. Her third record, I Am… Sasha Fierce, teeters between topics of gender, love, and loneliness — she toys with the idea of life as a boy (“If I Were a Boy”), reminding herself and others how to treat a woman, and tells the world that “a diva is female version of a hustler,” making it crystal clear that’s exactly what she, and Sasha, are.

Beyoncé may have found comfort in concealment, but the inherent honesty of her songs gave her away. They revealed Beyoncé at the core, which is best heard on “Halo”. “Remember those walls I built/ Well, baby they’re tumbling down,” she sings, soaking in vulnerability. “Halo” chronicles a love story, but it’s bigger than that — it tells the story of Beyoncé stepping out of one spotlight and into another, “the light of your halo.” Whomever Beyoncé is speaking to, a man or maybe even society as a whole, when she sings, “I ain’t never gonna shut you out,” it’s clear she has shed her Sasha cloak and is ready to embrace what’s ahead. –Lyndsey Havens

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SINGLE ANTHEMS

“Single Ladies” from I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008)

Since the early ’00s, Beyoncé has provided women with a closet of clever comebacks — proving how easy, and refreshing, it can be to brush off a breakup. And then came “Single Ladies”, arguably the single anthem. Beyoncé made it widely acceptable, admirable, and maybe even desirable to be single and revel in it. And the song doesn’t stop there. Men and women, single or taken — all felt welcome to sing along and, more importantly, try to emulate the video’s choreography in the privacy of their bedroom or publicly on the dance floor … or elsewhere, as illustrated in countless YouTube videos. There are even dozens of tutorials.

In the song, Beyoncé’s request is simple: “Say I’m the one you want/ If you don’t, you’ll be alone/ And like a ghost, I’ll be gone.” Because in Beyoncé’s world, there’s no time to waste on an indecisive man, and this single anthem aims to show that should be the standard for all. So as for leaving a relationship headed nowhere, Beyoncé — and recently single women everywhere — only have one thing left to say: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” –Lyndsey Havens

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LOVE FOUND

“Drunk in Love feat. Jay-Z” from Beyoncé (2013)

“Drunk in Love” is, for lack of a better word, sonic pornography. Reading through the lyrics, it can easily be confused as a passage from an erotic novel. For a person as private as Beyoncé, she has no reservations here. In 2003, she was “Crazy in Love”, and 10 years later, she felt intoxicated by it. “Drunk in Love” shows a (much) more mature version of Beyoncé in love, a love that no longer makes her crazy because it’s stable (though some rumors would disagree), not fleeting — she has a family to fall back on, her youthful-crush-turned-husband and baby Blue Ivy.

At the 2014 Grammy Awards, the power couple kicked off the night with a steamy performance of the song (Beyoncé’s chair dance was enough to make any man jealous), giving viewers a taste of what to expect from their On the Run tour that would follow, and left everyone craving more. This song captures such an intimate intensity that only a couple comfortable enough in the spotlight, as surely these two are, could deliver. “Drunk in Love” illustrates Beyoncé’s newfound willingness to open up. This song, and the surprise release of Beyoncé as a whole, didn’t only mark a turning point in Beyoncé’s career, but it also paved the way for Lemonade to dig even deeper. –Lyndsey Havens

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PARTNER LET ME UPGRADE YOU

“Runnin’ (Lose It All)” by Naughty Boy ft. Beyoncé and Arrow Benjamin (2015)

Aside from Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé’s studio albums have been relatively light on features unless they were guest verses from husband Jay Z. On Beyoncé and Lemonade, she shared the marquee with a few more people – Drake, The Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar to name a few – most of whom are already heavy hitters in their own right. This holds true for the other artists whose tracks Beyoncé has graced with her vocals: Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, and Coldplay. (Psst, hey Amil! It was a simpler time…)

In music, a co-sign from a megastar can go a long way, especially for those who are coming up. Having someone like Beyoncé featured on your song is basically a guarantee that it will reach a huge amount of ears, not least because of her beautiful voice. Naughty Boy’s “Runnin’ (Lose It All)” was one of the few tracks to benefit from the Bey treatment. Alongside Arrow Benjamin, the song is a house-power-ballad hybrid about missing the one you love and doing what you can to get them back without losing yourself in the process. It might not have done so well on the Hot 100, but it charted high on Naughty Boy’s side of the pond and many other countries around the world. Of course Naughty Boy isn’t a newbie – the English producer’s 2013 debut album featured the likes of Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith – but a little love from Beyoncé certainly helped boost the signal.

The credits for Lemonade’s visual component have already been the subject of numerous articles, being trawled through to figure out who was responsible for the stunning cinematography and whose faces we see through the filters. From poet Warsan Shire to singers Ibeyi and more, those who collaborate with Beyoncé can expect to register a change in their profile – you can probably guess what kind. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo

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POLITICAL TAKES

“Formation” from Lemonade (2016)

We are still being introduced to Beyoncé, the political activist. Society has been quick to consume the surprise release of Lemonade, but it will take much longer to digest. On the album, we hear Beyoncé openly addresses race, police brutality, and her own roots. She chronicles this exploration of present reality as she simultaneously digs up her own past. Her Southern and Black identity are well on display throughout the record, both visually and sonically, by delivering equally compelling imagery and lyrics that hit hard. Beyoncé has the platform and power to fuse pop and politics, bringing mainstream attention to issues receiving far too little. The themes of suffering and feeling wronged are deeply embedded throughout Lemonade as Beyoncé delivers personal anecdotes from her own life and borrows from others, like when Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner are shown in photos held up by their mothers. While songs like “Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” are more explicit, “Formation” stands out for its surplus of implicit imagery.

“Formation” packs decades of history into 3 minutes and 26 seconds. And Beyoncé squeezed in even more history during her “guest” appearance at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show when she performed the song in Black Panther-inspired costumes (debatably to honor the Black Panther Party’s 50th Anniversary). While the song itself is strong — Beyoncé comments on her heritage, “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama,” and self-made success — the visual imagery of her halftime performance, but more so the music video, transform it into a political proclamation. In the video, striking images of a post-Katrina New Orleans are shown among clips of Beyoncé flipping off her haters, a young black boy ordering a police front to put their hands up, a graffitied wall that reads, “Stop shooting us,” and finally, the New Orleans police car Beyoncé sits on sinking under flood water. The lyrics and video together form a call to action, for listeners and for Beyoncé herself. “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me,” Beyoncé sings, acknowledging that her status and wealth may place her in a different ring, but proving she’s aware they don’t remove her from the fight. –Lyndsey Havens

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