Beyoncé’s latest album Lemonade was nominated for four Emmys at this year’s ceremony – it failed to scoop a single prize. The much-lauded record was nominated for Directing for a Variety Special; Outstanding Picture Editing for Short-Form Segments and Variety Specials; Outstanding Production Design for a Variety Nonfiction Event or Award Special and Outstanding Variety Music or Comedy Special. The fact she went away (in spirit as she did not attend the awards) empty-handed does not detract from the fact Lemonade is one of 2016’s finest albums – and one of the strongest statement from the former Destiny’s Child star. In respect of that, The Metropolist looks at Beyoncé’s varied and impressive back catalogue – deciding which albums are hip-shaking genius and which fall short of the mark.
#6 – I Am…Sasha Fierce (2008)
The third album from Beyoncé was initially marketed as a double-disc release – intended to showcase Beyoncé’s multi-faceted artistry and variegation. The first disc, I Am…, consists slow and mid-tempo pop numbers and ballads whereas the second-half, Sasha Fierce, is more uplifted, defiant and brings electropop and Europop together. Shouting out to Jay Z and Etta James for pushing her music and inspiring new confidence: The album draws from folk, jazz and alternative rock; Beyoncé worked with a variety of producers and writers including Babyface, Ryan Tedder (who worked with Michael Jackson) and Sean Garrett. Tedder was a big hand when it came to the ballads and lending his experience and intuition – ensuring the album’s opening disc had plenty of soulfulness and heart. Beyoncé had expectation on her shoulders by album three and crafted some of her strongest and most edgy lyrics to date – bolder and more adult than her first two albums.
I Am…Sasha Fierce achieved mixed reviews and states how individual songs stood out whereas the concept/double-disc approach was less consistent and reliable. Perhaps lacking depth – the first disc was criticised for its emptiness and radio-friendly vibes – it was missing that individuality and personal perspective. A host of writers perhaps muddled the album: It would have been better to hear from Beyoncé rather than hired mouthpieces and writers. A little gimmicky and ambitious in concept: The execution was a little short-sighted. Tracks like Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) were upbeat pop numbers designed for young women – excluding potential (male) listeners and a little too familiar to previous Destiny’s Child material. Split-personality and unbalanced; feminism diluted and not as potent as later albums Beyoncé and Lemonade.
The ‘80s synthpop sounds of Radio is a brave attempt to step away from her pop-led persona but falls a little short. What I Am…Sasha Fierce did is show Beyoncé was not willing to play safe and repeat the same material. If the results are a little patchy then the spirit and desire behind the double-album is to be commended. There are some strong moments to be discovered. Diva has plenty of tricks and, if not completely memorable, it is a brave nature from Knowles. Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) has plenty of sass and boogie; a song that spoke to a lot of young women. Video Phone finds Beyoncé at her sexiest and most voyeuristic – “You want me naked? If you like this position you can tape it”. It is one of the most exciting and salacious songs from an album that is too slight and tuneless to compel.
#5 – Dangerously in Love (2003)
During the recording of Destiny’s Child’s third album (Survivor) in 2001, the members announced they would be releasing solo efforts. Recording – the separate records – from March 2002 to March 2003 – it put a hiatus on the band and saw Beyoncé step into the studio to lay down Dangerously in Love. Unlike her work/role in Destiny’s Child; Beyoncé chose which tracks to produce/co-produce on the album and had a much bigger role in the songwriting – co-writing the majority of the songs and down as executive producer for the project. As would define her later work: that contrast of tender balladry and funked-up dancefloor filler was rife throughout Dangerously in Love. Arabic influences and hip-hop threads weaved in alongside R&B and soul. A lot of the songs confronted Beyoncé’s relationship with Jay Z – the hip-hop legend’s name and legacy can be heard in many of the songs.
The album would win five Grammys and was seen as an artistic leap for the young singer. Dangerously in Love is Beyoncé going back to her roots and away from Destiny’s Child. Members Williams and Rowland would focus on gospel and alternative pop respectively – Beyoncé’s love of R&B could be fully exploited on her debut album. Beyoncé commented: “My album is a good balance of … ballads and … mid-tempos with just ridin’-in-your-car feels, to a lot of … up-tempo club songs, to really sexy songs, to songs that make you feel emotional. It’s a nice mixture of different types of tracks.” There are plenty of up-tempo numbers on the album – Naughty Girl and Crazy in Love – but there is a greater leaning towards slow, emotional tracks. Beyoncé wanted to be taken serious as a ‘serious artist’ rather than a girl band member – thus, the variation of genres and mature angle to the lyrics.
Once more, as is a staple with her music, there is a host of cooks in the kitchen. On the debut, perhaps some misguided advice led to the album being received with generally mixed reception. The ballads were seen as forgettable and arriving too soon in her career – going in hard would be best whereas ballads are more suited further down the line. A top-heavy album with a few missteps in the later stages – there is enough confidence, ambition and spirit to ensure plenty more demand and attention came her way. While her Destiny’s Child cohorts were struggling to craft memorable solo cuts: Beyoncé’s coming-of-age, occasionally wondrous (Work It Out is a standout) album showed she had enough potential in her blood. Is pastiche and underwhelming at times; later albums would improve on her debut foundation and show what she could really accomplish.
#4 – B’Day (2006)
B’Day arrived three years after her debut and took time to capitalise on the momentum of that album. During the recording of Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé had forty-five songs in the vault – she planned to release an album of the unused tracks. Her record company intervened and mandated she focus on Destiny’s Child’s (undercooked) final album, Destiny Fulfilled. Not only did that album happen but Beyoncé got to sing the U.S. national anthem at Superbowl XXVIII – fulfilling a childhood dream in the process. After further delaying the release – she would star in 2005’s Dreamgirls – there was hype and impatience in equal measures. The lady would not be rushed and this meticulousness and patience went into an album that exceeded her debut album’s promising (if flawed) foundations.
During a one-month vacation following Dreamgirls’ completion: Beyoncé headed studio-way and released her emotions (she claimed to have so many feelings and ideas bottled up) and began the album in relative secret – she did not even inform her father (and manager) Matthew Knowles. Inspired by (the film’s) themes of empowerment and feminism: Her sophomore album reflected those issues and addressed them head-on. Unlike Dangerously in Love; B’Day introduced urban contemporary and modern-day R&B; nods to the 1970s and ‘80s; blues-guitar snippets and ‘80s go-go melodies. Here, Beyoncé employed more sampling and incorporate more elements into her sound. Déjà Vu is 1970s-influenced while Upgrade U samples Betty Wright’s 1968 song, Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do. By dipping in to ‘60s and ‘70s artists’ music, it gave B’Day a sense of history and vintage cool – one that seamlessly sits alongside Beyoncé’s planet-straddling vocals.
It is the vocals – and, perhaps, the high-tempo numbers – that define the album and give its huge sense of power and authority. Songs are huge and anthemic; there are fewer ballads than in her debut – it is a more commanding and leaner album. It is an eminently likeable and universal album that helped mark as a truly outstanding solo artist. One cannot understate Jay Z’s influence as a muse: Someone who brings out a more feral, determined and bold woman to the forefront. Some of Lemonade’s cautionary tales and put-downs (aimed at Jay Z) are in there – Irreplaceable takes no prisoners and shows Beyoncé is not a woman to be trifled with. Even if there are a few weak and filler tracks: It is a definite evolution from Dangerously in Love and was worth the three-year wait.
#3 – 4 (2011)
Few established artists create their finest albums further down the tracks – the best work usually comes early and the decline happens after. That is not the case with Beyoncé. Following I Am…Sasha Fierce’s tepid reception, she went back to the drawing board and created 4: a stunning album that would begin a tremendous 1-2-3; the start of an upward arc that we see in 2016’s Lemonade. Artists that take three-year gaps – the second in her career – run the risk of being overlooked and ignored (what happened to London Grammar, for instance?). 4 marks the end of a creative hiatus and finds Beyoncé working alongside The-Dream, Tricky Stewart and Shea Taylor. One finds (compared to I Am…Sasha Fierce) a mellower and intimate album – subverting expectations and seeing Beyoncé create something more personal.
The themes of sexual inequality, female empowerment and self-reflection are predominant but spliced with genuinely touching and moving numbers. With Swivel working on the entire project, the relaxed and open working environment – whatever Beyoncé felt like recording on a particular day would define the mood – she brought more horns, drums and guitars into the music. It stands as one of Beyoncé’s most rounded, accomplished and confident albums – from a singer in no short supply of it. With a greater number of ballads, it allowed Beyoncé’s warm, rich and pure voice the opportunity to come through – replacing the abrasive and overly-energetic feel of her early career. Most artists in Beyoncé’s position – fame and popularity increasing – would load an album with hard and upbeat songs; perhaps straying along the avenues of egotistic and arrogant. The fact 4 is the opposite of this made it a favourite with critics the world around.
Most end-of-year polls had 4 in them – normally in the upper-half. As I stated earlier: 4 was the jumping-off point for two career-defining albums (Beyoncé and Lemonade). At this point in time (2011), Beyoncé was the People’s Queen – a leader in the music world that was addressing important themes but still able to show vulnerability and a down-to-earth touch. It is an album that sounds fresh and nuanced to this day. If Run the World (Girls) and Party do not get the body reacting then the emotion of Best Thing I Never Had surely will. 4 went on to debut number one on the Billboard 200 and enjoyed first-week sales of 310,000 copies. Although the first-week sales were the weakest of her solo career: The critical praise was at its peak and showed just how popular she was becoming to those in the industry. Not only able to touch the steely-browed critics but seduce the general population – an album that is hugely influential and important in the career of one of music’s finest performers.
#2 – Beyoncé (2013)
Artists usually self-titled albums to reveal a peak in confidence of a signifier that this is the most personal and true music they have created. Both is true when it comes to Beyoncé. Released in December 2013, the songs were accompanied by non-linear films – a concept that was more-fully explored on Lemonade. This was the point Beyoncé became more of a visual artist and expanded her music – appropriate considering the dark subject matter and feminists themes of sex and monogamy. More assertive and defiant than any point in her career: Beyoncé is one woman breaking free and putting a huge declaration out to the world. Beyoncé started recording in New York and invited producers and writers the chance to live with her – getting a sense of who she was working with an accessible, close-hand way of hearing songs take shape. Boots was brought in to produce and, as such, electronic, soul and R&B were welded with blues and rock.
The fourteen-track album came with seventeen short films: One video for each track and two additional videos for the two-part tracks Haunted and Partition. Part-dubstep with future-R&B strands – another brave and unexpected move from Beyoncé (the album was a secret release; adding to that mystery and unexpectedness). Dark and edgy production – incorporating more electronic elements – was a slight departure from 4’s template and meant Beyoncé was the most experimental work of the aforementioned singer’s career. That diversity and range did not apply to the compositions alone. Beyoncé’s vocals were encouraged to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. Some songs are half-sung; others rapped whilst there is a comparative lack of vocal belting and runs – giving the album a sense of tension and moodiness. In the run-up to her solo career – and the need to be a role model and ambassador for children – issues of sex were largely muted – replaced by positive messages and self-respect. Into her 30s during the recording and a chance for an untamed and sexual human to come out – still a feminist blueprint but one with some dark blue edges and red-hot passions.
Beyoncé embraces black female sexuality in mainstream music through the guise of hip-hop – a genre predominantly utilised by men to address the same topics (with a greater emphasis on braggadocio and shallowness). Beyoncé also introduces issues of fear, loss and insecurities (in monogamous relations) to provide the record a sense of anxiety and fragility. Motherhood, bulimia ad postnatal depression are also covered: A hugely brave and mature record much deeper and relevant than most albums at the time (and Beyoncé’s previous work). Critics drooled over the sexed-up falsettos (or hood rap rapping as one critic brilliantly noted) and technical assuredness that emanated in every song. Beyoncé showed why she was/is one of the world’s greatest vocalists: Running as gamut of emotions and able to shift from tense and dark to gospel-high and incredibly powerful. The preference for a sultry, sleek and hushed was a gamble that paid off and introduced her music to a legion of new followers.
#1 – Lemonade (2016)
The third three-year gap in Beyoncé’s career was the most exciting and explosively-realised. Speculation and conspiracy surround the inspiration and themes of Lemonade’s angry and imperious anthems. Rumours of Jay Z’s indiscretions and tom-catting seem like the most likely agitators, but Beyoncé claims something less personal and more universal compelled Lemonade’s creation. The second ‘visual album’ of her career is also her finest: Lemonade was accompanied by a one-hour film aired on HBO. Predominantly R&B – throwing off the electronics and seduction of Lemonade’s predecessor – and brimming with accusation and fireworks – this was Beyoncé going back to her elemental, beat-like attack mode. Whereas earlier albums augment and emphasis female empowerment against large-scale oppression – Lemonade is deeply personal and the angriest record Beyoncé has created. Those naïve to the fact Jay Z (for better or worse) provided that spark only need listen to Don’t Hurt Yourself’s foul-mouthed tirade and f***-you kiss-off.
Those praising Beyoncé’s genre-experimentation and fusions were hardly prepared for the enormous treasure chest of sounds that emerged through Lemonade. County, blues and rock; soul, jazz and pop – it is hard to name a genre that wasn’t represented. What is more amazing is how naturally every sound hangs together and Beyoncé’s command of each. Bringing in guest vocalists James Blake, The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar (Jack Whit appears on Don’t Hurt Yourself): It is one of the more collaborative (vocally, anyway) of Beyoncé’s career. Another number one on the Billboard 200: Lemonade sold 485,000 copies in its first week and saw Beyoncé embark on the Formation tour in April of this year. Critics acclaimed the boldness and accomplished songwriting; what a strong and filler-free album it is. Spin’s Greg Tate sums up Lemonade’s appeal best: “(It) is out to sonorously suck you into its gully gravitational orbit the old fashioned way, placing the burden of conjuration on its steamy witches’ brew of beats, melodies, and heavy-hearted-to-merry-pranksterish vocal seductions. In her mastery of carnal and esoteric mysteries, Queen Bey raises the spirits, sizzles the flesh, and rallies her troops.”
Beyoncé is in-control and laying down the law: Her heart will not be toyed-with and she is not a woman who takes indiscretions and adultery laying down – even if she claims the songs weren’t shots at Jay Z. If Dangerously in Love and sapling work were aimed at radio audiences and fitting into demographics: Lemonade was an album that didn’t care about playlists and pleasing executives – it was a testimony from a woman on the edge of sanity and struggling to keep her emotions in-check. There is sweetness, humility and personal revelation (in Lemonade) but the abiding sensation is of edginess and imperious disregard. Wanting respect and transposing gender expectations – the woman subservient and submissive – this is the lioness roar loud enough to extinguish entire species and demolish empirical constructs. Beyoncé had been handed lemonades – had them squeezed in her eyes by the sounds of it – but created a cathartic batch of Lemonade – perhaps one tinged with vodka and cigarette ash. Don’t Hurt Yourself is Beyoncé dropping the F-bomb like a power-made general in the skies; Formation is Beyoncé in political and conscientious observer mode – addressing the singer’s affiliation to conspiracy theorists about the Illuminati (“Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess”). Whether seen as a fiery black anthem or a political rebellion: A vital and eye-opening song concerning race and police brutality.