If you’re familiar with her music, nine times out of ten you’ve engaged in the debate of “what’s Beyoncé’s best album?” Whether that’s proclaiming “SELF-TITLED” in Twitter mentions and on stan threads. Or watching her Coachella livestream, cheering on her scissor leg alongside Solange, going “Ayy! B’Day had the hits!” Or better yet, grocery shopping for lemonade, singing along to “Halo” (thanks to the store’s intercom), and conceding, “Well, Bey did have an incredible run during her I Am … Sasha Fierce era.”
With Beyoncé’s debut album, Dangerously In Love, turning 15 this Saturday (June 23) and the recent release of her Carters’ joint LP, Everything Is Love, it’s an appropriate time to reignite the conversation.
But have you ever considered playing devil’s advocate against yourself when declaring Yoncé’s best? Have you ever stopped and wondered how could others favor a different album? Have you ever slipped up, and realized that maybe LEMONADE holds a lot of potential for being the actual victor?
Well, that’s what about to happen.
Dangerously In Love (2003)
Dangerously In Love could be considered Beyoncé’s best album because it’s an iconic introduction to a solo star destined to become a legend. The blaring brass horns at the start of the LP’s first track, “Crazy In Love,” symbolically played as a fanfare for the arrival of music’s latest royalty. It’s almost as if the choral rush of “uh oh”-s on the eight-week reigning No. 1 was a warning to the world about Beyoncé’s impending command on the charts, pop culture, the art of entertaining, and our daily lexicon.
During its run, Dangerously In Love became one of the central albums— alongside the likes of Usher’s Confessions and Ashanti’s eponymous—that helped shape contemporary R&B in the early aughts. It also retailored, for new millennium pop, the meaning of success for a debut effort. And with her needing to break away from the girl group shadows of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé had to deliver bold statements musically, visually, and on the stage—by her own doing.
The dancehall seasoning added to “Baby Boy” whined away from Bey’s previous funk and electro sonics, indicating her capability to venture out her comfort zone. “Naughty Girl” sampled Donna Summer’s disco mosey “Love To Love You,” proving Beyoncé could tackle grown and sexy R&B due to her affinity for 70s Soul Train grooves. “Me, Myself, & I” became a prime example of Beyoncé’s knack for ad-libbing in melisma with herself. The album’s titular track not only saw her passionately foxtrotting through octaves, it bookmarked a revolving theme in her future projects.
The deep cuts also added some R&B legacy: Missy Elliott co-penned the horoscope anthem “Signs”; Tink would go on to sample “Yes”; and her cover duet of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get To You” with the late Luther Vandross would eventually be serviced to adult R&B radio and win a Grammy.
Dangerously In Love was a debut effort coming from someone who was hungry to captivate the masses with an aptitude for slaying. You could tell by the moment she arrived hanging upside down from a ceiling to perform “Baby Boy” at the 2003 VMAs. Or when she shimmied alongside Prince at the 2004 Grammys—a rite of passage for those deemed talented enough by the Purple One. Beyoncé made performing look effortless, and in the process she trademarked her signature, grandiose stage presence which matched the dramatics of her music.
In hindsight, Beyoncé’s first Album of the Year snub at The Grammys would actually be for Dangerously In Love. Although OutKast rightfully claimed the W, DIL deserved a nod as it was a worthy competitor that snatched up five trophies, anyway.
B’Day could be Beyoncé’s best album because it’s the first time we see her aware of her solo gamechanging power. Punnily titled as an acknowledgement of her 25th birthday, this LP also laid the foundation for her self-titled one, as well as her present state of being a fearless artist. Of course there’s the music video anthology comparisons, but there’s also a matching sense of boastful autonomy on this record similar to BEYONCÉ. We even saw the early development of an important persona: the raptress, Yoncé.
The release of B’Day became the first opportunity for us to experience Bey’s eagerness to elevate elements of her previous era. In ways, parts of her sophomore effort deconstruct “Crazy In Love.” “Déjà Vu” plays on the notion that the first single of this era also features JAY-Z, and it too is about falling head over heels in love—this time around with a Creole twist. The trumpets get brasher on “Déjà Vu,” just as they do on “Upgrade U,” the song that first introduced a gold-grilled Yoncé. In addition to the “Crazy In Love” influences, the “Naughty Girl” of the disco burlesque from DIL decided to return and pull out her “Freakum Dress.”
But things weren’t all roses, as B’Day signaled some trouble in paradise (see: “Resentment”) causing Beyoncé to get a bit candid with her discoveries in love (see: “Flaws And All”). Allusions to a break-up would become evident on “Kitty Kat,” the first time Bey rapped a platinum-encrusted 16 bars. Eventually those heartbreakers would find themselves in rappers’ punchlines about women listening to B’Day to ease the pain of heartache: Lil’ Wayne quoting her longest running solo charttopper, “Irreplaceable,” on Tha Carter III‘s “Comfortable,” and Cardi B referencing “Resentment” on Invasion of Privacy‘s “Thru Your Phone.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, B’Day fulfilled its intent of being a fun, party album. It did so in a triumphant, feel-good manner—painting Beyoncé not only as a maestro, but a music industry superwoman. A superwoman who’s pulsated by her all-female band, named after the funkdafied-country romp “Suga Mama,” and by the hyped-up chanting of “Go! Go!” from her own background vocals on “Green Light” and producer Swizz Beatz on “Get Me Bodied.” Ultimately, we’d witness this trenchcoat-wearing heroine perform “Ring The Alarm” at the 2006 VMAs with a Matrix-style choreography breakdown midway.
B’Day also showcased how Beyoncé wanted to have a cultural impact with her music. Bey’s duet with Shakira, “Beautiful Liar,” had been a Spanglish sneak peek into her Latin deluxe tracks. In retrospect, it was quite fitting for her setlist at Coachella to include many songs from B’Day as this album soundtracked the black experience during its run.
I Am … Sasha Fierce (2008)
I Am … Sasha Fierce could be Beyoncé’s best, simply because of its divisiveness and the ripple effect that it caused. Split into two discs, the I Am A-side contains adult contemporary ballads representing the reserved components of her artistry, and the B-side of uptempos enacted by her fierce alter ego Sasha Fierce. Essentially, we were witnessing Beyoncé duel against herself.
Her marketing strategy of releasing two singles simultaneously to see which would thrive on their designated radio platforms, and potentially crossover, resembled a method black musicians and their A&Rs favored in the 90s to spread their appeal. Sasha Fierce‘s “Single Ladies” would top I Am‘s “If I Were A Boy,” and the Hot 100, thanks to its more iconic video, dance steps, and leotards. However, her signature ballad “Halo” ended up outpacing the Yoncé rekindling “Diva.”
Musically, I Am … Sasha Fierce granted her access to infuse other genres into her predominantly R&B sound. Electropop pumped up the volume on “Radio”; a crunk beep flipped the ringtone-age into a “Video Phone” one; opera technique radiated on “Ava Maria” and “Scared of Lonely;” and industrial techno made “Sweet Dreams” a beautiful nightmare worldwide.
In terms of bare bones, hit factory pop&B, I Am … Sasha Fierce is not just a standout in Beyoncé’s catalogue, but in general. The era contained spectacles—arguably as major and pop culture-shattering as Michael Jackson’s Thriller phase (the robotic silver glove in “Single Ladies” would fit that case perfectly). Her line “I got every reason to feel like I’m that bitch” on “Ego” had become a fulfilled prophecy. Beyoncé had always been an international superstar since Destiny’s Child—but I Am … Sasha Fierce sewed up any loose ends.
In order to receive 4, we had to endure the intentionally-manufactured I Am … Sasha Fierce stage. It’s almost as if the latter represented a retirement party for the Beyoncé who cared about radio sovereignty and the impact of singles. The Beyoncé on 4 arrived to eschew those trends in order to regard artistic merits and experimentation first. 4 could be Beyoncé’s best because it’s the first LP presenting her in complete control of her artistry, as she severed ties with her father as manager.
4 marked two significant phases in Beyoncé’s life: her 30th birthday coming that September and her first pregnancy with Blue Ivy. To summarize these changes, Beyoncé returned to strictly R&B roots to emote how those instances added a depth of richness to her vocal talent: “Start Over” occupied her head voice; “I Care” dug into the deep pits of her diaphragm; and “Best Thing I Never Had” spoke loud from her chest.
“I Miss You” flexed how Bey’s lyricism gained more emotional weight, being one of the album’s most vulnerable tracks. “Run The World (Girls)” placed an early lens on her role as a feminist. Her go-to funk sound, received enhancements of Afroism, as Fela Kuti-inspired drums raptured “End of Time.” But what truly grounded 4 is the backbone of traditional R&B: from the 70s styling of “Party”; to the early-80s bounce of “Schoolin’ Life”; a sensual midtempo performance of “Dance For You”; and the Boyz II Men sample on “Countdown” and New Edition replications on “Love on Top.”
Until 4, the public wasn’t used to none of Bey’s singles hitting No.1 from an era. It’d also be the last one where we’d witness full-on promotion of singles on talk shows, primetime interviews, and morning show performances. 4 made it clear that pop radio didn’t know how to handle spinning traditional R&B into its rotation, even if it came from one of the world’s most mainstream acts.
A random tidbit about the previous four albums: They were all released during the summer. So BEYONCÉ’s “[game changing] digital drop ” on December 13, at the cusp of winter, had been a bit of a surprise, literally. While the other albums contained a warm sensibility, this self-titled opus countered that with an icy and dark aesthetic—as displayed on the menacing production of “HAUNTED” and “DRUNK IN LOVE.” Stylistically, BEYONCÉ would be the start of capitalized titles, unexpected releases, and letting the music speak for itself.
If B’Day represented an awareness of Bey’s clout, then BEYONCÉ basked in the glory of it, owning the conversation. This project formally gave Yoncé her moniker, showing the singer in an unapologetic, “H-Town vicious” light. Here Beyoncé plays by her own rules, frankly giving no fucks along the way. She lives up to her role as hip-hop’s finest matriarch, Mrs. Carter.
Due to its autobiographical intent, BEYONCÉ smoothly transitioned the artist into one with more sexual liberation and explicit lyricism. “PARTITION,” “BLOW,” and “ROCKET” celebrated sexuality’s positioning in monogamous relationships. That same lyricism would bring some catchphrases to the pop culture vernacular, including “surfboardt.”
While she was at her most braggadocious on “FLAWLESS” (continuing the feminist narrative), pockets of vulnerability thematically brought a relatable “I’m human, too” perspective from the entertainer. The balladry of “JEALOUS” and “PRETTY HURTS” lead by example, while “MINE” revealed postpartum depression and a potential rift in her marriage. Then there’s the angelic cry-belting on “HEAVEN” which discusses her miscarriage, before the gracious, whispery cooing celebrating the birth of “BLUE.”
BEYONCÉ could be her best because it comprised all the facets of her artistry: past, present, and future. Just as the chorus of “GROWN WOMAN” suggested, Beyoncé had been mature enough to handle this new lane. She simply mulled around in her confidence until she knew the time was right to shake the table.
Thanks to the work previously done on self-titled, LEMONADE could be considered her best because it granted access to an even more upfront Bey. The video anthology days advanced to the production of a cohesive Emmy-nominated music film.
The Beyoncé presented on LEMONADE was bolder, shouting “who the fuck do you think I is?,” on “DON’T HURT YOURSELF” and flipping the bird on “SORRY.” We saw that vigor stripped away in the second half, a reconciliation phase for a woman who was jilted by the man she loved—”ALL NIGHT” and “LOVE DROUGHT” tapping into the R&B gusto that first made her a star. This would be the first album where a story arc becomes prevalent in structuring a concept.
Sonically, LEMONADE sets on executing a wide array of genres. Afrobeats with a hint of dancehall riddims and soca cadences layered “HOLD UP.” She embraced her southern roots in the country jubilee of “DADDY LESSONS.” And aside from the mainstream trap&B of “6 INCH” and “SORRY,” “FORWARD” and “SANDCASTLES” flexed the singer’s ability to jump into indie alternative.
LEMONADE‘s conscious R&B in “FORMATION” and “FREEDOM” found Beyoncé in a new role as a black cultural figure willing to be a martyr for social commentary. Her lyrics and visuals kept the conversations on Black Lives Matter at the top of cable news headlines; while her willingness to alienate some conservative fans with unfiltered blackness established her as a relic amongst artists who resisted the imminent rise of the Trump regime.
EVERYTHING IS LOVE (2018)
Who would have fathomed at Beyoncé’s start that she would be rap-singing on an entire album— let alone using Auto-Tune as her central instrument? Yet, here we are with EVERYTHING IS LOVE, a record that says its a joint release, but feels like Beyoncé’s own.
That being said, Beyoncé appears at her most self-assured and resilient on wax—her Bonnie & Clyde partnership with JAY-Z, smoothing out her sound throughout the years with a laid-back pompous air, proving she can go toe-to-toe with one of the greatest rappers alive. Their united front is stronger than ever as a duo, with them standing in front of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa in the “APE$HIT” music video symbolizing the public’s knack for judging the Carters, trying to figure them out. Just as the woman in the historic painting, we can’t tell what they’re thinking, or plotting—as they’ve perfected a cool, demeanored poker face.
Beyoncé has too much fun on the record, stealing the show every moment she gets a chance. Not only that, she represents how immersed she is in the relevant world of trap, reminding the world she helped build a part of its mainstream appeal. Her “skrt skrt skrt” and rapid-fire, luxury bridge on “APE$HIT” perfects the flavor of Quavo and Offset in Migos. “FRIENDS” embodies the If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late side of Drake. On the Brooklyn-flavored “713,” Houston’s most famous interpolates “Still D.R.E.” (which was co-penned by JAY) bragging “I’m representin’ for my hustlas all across the world / I’m still dipping in my low-lows, gurl!” before phonetically harmonizing “Ho-oh-Va-ah” repeatedly as her man raps about black queens being the ultimate saviors of the race.
EVERYTHING IS LOVE traces back to the components of Beyoncé’s musical DNA and the influences JAY-Z has had on it. Her usage of an HBCU band during Coachella indicated marketing genius for rolling out the unexpected album—as that sound appears on “BOSS.” “SUMMERTIME” borrows 70s-style R&B while commentating on their habitual reign on music during that season. “HEARD ABOUT US” flips the triumphant, arena soft-rock of their favorite group Coldplay, and of Jay’s “Forever Young” and “Holy Grail.”
Despite only a week passing since its release, EVERYTHING IS LOVE could manage to become her best as it’s Beyoncé at her most updated, cognizant, and experienced.
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