Regardless of the extent to which you follow pop culture, Beyoncé’s name draws a collective response. Her tremendous cultural impact, social influence and artistic status are undeniable. It’s no surprise that, since the 2021 Grammy Awards, she is now the most awarded female artist of all time.
We cannot celebrate Women’s History without discussing the musical powerhouse that is Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter and evaluating the art she creates, as well as the stories she tells.
Writer Roxanne Gay refers to Beyonce as the ultimate storyteller, noting how “audiences are forced to deeply engage images of Black womanhood—an identity construct loaded with historical signifiers and material conditions—and to reflect on the sensory perceptions that these images rouse. Beyoncé presents Black female self-improvement through the visual and oral narratives of Black economic enfranchisement, female empowerment, and communal uplift.”
Each Beyoncé album presents a narrative to discuss. Although it’s nearly impossible to choose which Beyoncé album is the “best,” there are some that carry more artistic and cultural merit than others, which are critical factors to acknowledge.
I Am…Sasha Fierce (2008)
“I Am…Sasha Fierce” is one of Beyoncé’s most commercially successful albums. With indelible pop anthems like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” “Sweet Dreams” and “Halo,” the album garnered positive critical reception and numerous accolades, including five Grammys at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, which later helped Beyoncé set the record for most awards received in one night by a female artist.
The album’s tracklist personifies the duality of Beyoncé; the first half of the album embodies her humble personality, with delicate R&B ballads and tender lyrics, while the other half personifies her alter-ego. Songs like “Diva” and “Sweet Dreams” encapsulate the assertiveness and power that make up the one and only Sasha Fierce.
Beyoncé has described Sasha as a separate identity—a personal character—that gives her with the confidence to perform with sublime energy. In her interview with Oprah, Beyoncé explained, “Usually, when I hear the crowd, when I hear the chords, when I put on my stilettos. Like the moment right before when you’re nervous… Sasha Fierce appears in my posture and the way I speak and everything is different.”
A few tracks within “I Am…Sasha Fierce” fall flat or feel like filler-songs. However, some numbers remain immortal—ones that can and will sustain Beyoncé’s legacy through generations.
Dangerously in Love (2003)
One of the most pivotal moments in music history is hearing those opening horns in “Crazy in Love,” as they denote an urgent message: Beyoncé has arrived.
Debuting her first solo project apart from Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé crafted “Dangerously in Love” a classic R&B album that became the genesis of her longevous career and featured one of the most iconic debut singles to ever grace the radio.
The album contains sonic elements of R&B, with sexy, soul-filled vocals and illustrious hip-hop productions that complement its lyrical themes of romance and intimacy.
Flipping the script of Destiny’s Child’s “Nasty Girl,” Beyoncé introduces songs like “Naughty Girl” and “Baby Boy,” which conveyed her newfound assertion of sexuality and foreshadowed her impending journey toward sexual autonomy.
Most of the thematic content on this album does not correspond with Beyoncé’s individual experiences, as this project was constructed to be a “timeless album” that appealed to a universal audience. Although it’s removed from the singer’s personal life, it still emulates her person and her vision, rendering the album undeniably Beyoncé.
One song into this album and you will already be sweating. Starting off the album from high-energy songs like “Déjà Vu” “Get Me Bodied” and “Upgrade You” to belt-heavy tracks such as “Resentment” and “Listen,” Beyoncé refuses to rest on this album.
Beyoncé’s sophomore album “B’Day” was released on the same day of the singer’s 25th birthday on Sept 4, 2006, and it accumulated numerous Grammy awards such as Best Contemporary R&B album.
“B’Day” acted as a transition from “Dangerously in Love” to a more mature and liberating record, one where she carries similar R&B sounds from her debut album and elevates them with various funk affectations and diverse instrumentation.
“B’Day” is her most club-worthy and exhilarating oeuvre and its infectious energy still echoes today.
Breaking free from the chains of Sasha Fierce and her father’s management, Beyoncé’s “4” steps into a new era, one that focuses on creating cohesive bodies of work, rather than her calculated radio-hits and showcases her skills as a pioneer and as an artist.
As Beyoncé matured into her own artistry, she wanted to separate herself from her father’s authority, which empowered her to create. “Being a young woman, I want to set the example that it’s possible for us to own our own businesses and to own our own record labels,” said Beyoncé. “Sometimes, we don’t reach for the stars and we are satisfied with what people tell us to be satisfied with, and I’m just not going for it.”
This album surrounds the sheer vocal power that Beyoncé was born with, as it incorporates complex vocal layerings, impressive key-changes, intricate runs and staccatos, especially in songs like “Love on Top” and “I Care.” Paying and booking the studio for herself, she was able to “have fun” with the new creative freedom.
“Run the World (Girls)” was the first single off “4” and this feminist anthem evoked pertinent discussions about how patriarchal societies run on women and their labor and accomplishments, and their importance to the functionality of the world. . “Repping for the girls who taking over the world,” Beyoncé focuses on uplifting and empowering women through “4” and throughout her career.
When Beyoncé says “world stop,” there is no other choice but to listen.
This surprise visual record transformed the standard album roll-out strategy for the music industry. Dropped with no promotion or announcement (which generated hysteria from the Beyhive), “Beyoncé (Self Titled)” proved to be a major success, charting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and breaking the U.S. iTunes sales record by selling 617,000 copies in 3 days.
The album includes 14 tracks, each with an accompanying music video, and discusses the themes of femininity, motherhood and explicit sexuality.
According to Black feminist blogger Cate Young, “Much has been made about how explicitly sexual this album is, but to me, it’s one of its shining points. This album is sex-positive in a very powerful way, and that’s an important message for black women to receive. It’s incredibly important that black women know that they do not have to shrink themselves or deny themselves access to pleasure in the pursuit of respectability.”
With sultry songs like “Blow” and “Rocket,” where she sings lyrics like “I’m so comfortable in my skin / You look so comfortable in my skin,” Beyoncé empowers women to reclaim their sensuality—to embrace sexual gratification—and assures them that there is liberation within that.
“I was very aware of the fact that I was showing my body,” Beyoncé said in a 2013 interview. “I wanted to show that you can have a child and you can work hard and you can get your body back. I know finding my sensuality, getting back into my body and being proud of growing up, it was important to me that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing…I don’t have any shame being sexual…sexuality is a power that we all have.”
As the first African American woman to headline the Coachella festival since its founding in 1999, Beyoncé dedicated her Beychella performance to celebrating Blackness, Afradiasporic imagery and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). “Instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” Beyonce says in her documentary.
The live-album and 2-hour performance encapsulate the highlights of Beyoncé’s discography, with old and recent material being played by a marching band in Black Panther-inspired outfits, and thus, every song sounds brand-new. The performance features a few guest appearances, such as Jay-Z, Solange Knowles, J-Balvin, and Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams.
“Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” shows exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the performer and her team working tirelessly for 8 months on cultivating the most historical and culturally significant performance of her career. These clips display her vigorous dedication to not only elevate herself but also Black culture. The film also pays homage to quintessential Black voices, from Audre Lorde and Alice Walker to Nina Simone and W.E.B. DuBois, as quotes by them are dispersed throughout the movie.
Whether you like Beyoncé or not, this project showcases the indubitable truth: Beyoncé is one of the most hardworking and most talented live entertainers to exist in the music industry. Simply put, no one puts on a show like the Queen herself.
“The Lion King: The Gift” and “Black is King” (2019/2020)
Described as a genuine “love letter to Africa,” this Beyoncé produced-and-curated compilation album features various African artists, such as Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy and Wizkid, as well as appearances from Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and the one-and-only Blue Ivy.
This album commemorates African creators and authentic Afrobeat sounds, as well as R&B, hip-hop and pop influences. Pushing African artists to the forefront is Beyoncé’s way to give them the proper exposure to the American music industry and to enhance the story of Disney’s The Lion King through cinematic storytelling.
“I wanted to put everyone on their own journey to link the storyline,” Beyonce stated. “Each song was written to reflect the film’s storytelling that gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery, while listening to a new contemporary interpretation. It was important that the music was not only performed by the most interesting and talented artists but also produced by the best African producers. Authenticity and heart were important to me.”
Not only did Beyoncé create this body of “sonic-cinema,” but also has produced and directed the 90-minute musical film “Black is King” to construct a whole new meaning to the work. This movie “demonstrates Beyonce’s process of deconstructing the perceived images of Black women and her challenging the male gaze, while also reclaiming legacy and journeying towards self-actualization.”
After watching, listen to the Spotify podcast Dissect to hear their analysis on the film and Beyonce’s re-afforestation of Black culture.
Beyonce’s most groundbreaking project “Lemonade” is about more than just Jay-Z cheating on her—it is a visual and sonic engagement of Black womanhood that offers historical manifestations of Black American history and pertinent discussions around betrayal and infidelity, Black American politics, the process of grief and the value of restorative justice.
The album contains 12 sonically diverse tracks that range from genres of Classic Rock to R&B to Country— so not one song sounds remotely similar to each other—with visuals and recited prose that elevates this visual experience to eternal levels.
The title of “Lemonade” comes from Jay-Z’s then 90-year-old grandmother Hattie White who Beyoncé says “spun gold out of this hard life” and “conjured beauty from the things left behind.” In speaking about White, Beyoncé recites the aphorism that she was “served lemons, so she made lemonade.”
Through the “Lemonade” film, Beyoncé shares with her audience internalized pain she feels, one that resonates with many other women. However, instead of fueling the anger, she offers a message of restoration. (As mentioned before that Beyoncé is known for being the ultimate storyteller) Beyoncé redefines her narrative as a Black woman in America, who embraces her Blackness, her history, and femininity within visuals like “Sorry,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Formation.”
“Formation” materializes depictions of Mardi Gras, southern plantation-style houses, Martin Luther King, and the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina. Beyoncé unveils these images to give Black culture the exposure it lacks in American media. She dances in the halls of a post-slavery Southern home, where Black portraits of families and individual women embellish the walls. This devises a sense of reclamation; one where she forbids the erasing of slavery and harnesses history to empower herself and the women filling up the foyer.
When releasing “Lemonade” in 2016, Beyoncé disregarded America’s lack of preparation on racial issues and propelled the conversation forward, as she said during her Grammy acceptance speech that her “intention for the film was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness, and our history. To confront issues that make us uncomfortable.”
This resistance helps her give an honest portrayal of Black womanhood but also molds her narrative into what she wants for her other women—to “get in formation” and begin healing.
While patiently waiting for the next project from Queen Bey, it is necessary to keep discussing the material she has blessed us with over the years. These albums continue to age gracefully and remain relevant to popular culture. Evidently, we live in a time where a luminary like Beyoncé creates consistently and we are luckily able to experience it.