Twenty years on from her debut album, Beyoncé remains one of the most talented singers in the music industry. A titan in the pop sphere, Knowles has risen to such a level of popularity that every new album is like a global event. A natural hitmaker with live shows extravagant enough to rival Michael Jackson and Prince, the singer has earned her title as one of the greatest musicians of all time. Besides her impeccable talent as a vocalist, Beyoncé also has a fantastic discography under her belt.
Dangerously In Love (2003)
On her glamorous debut, Beyoncé proves her worth as a solo musician. After four albums with Destiny’s Child, the singer had made her talent undeniable, but it was not until Dangerously In Love that her vocals were unleashed to their fullest potential. Take the opener, “Crazy In Love”, and the spike in quality is obvious. Fast-paced verses, an addictive chorus, and a range of impressive vocal inflections, all performed with inhuman levels of energy. Top it off with a triumphant brass backdrop and a quick-witted verse from Jay-Z, and the intro is one of the greatest hits in pop history. Pieces of the LP recapture the same cinematic flair as its opener, but not many. Instead, most of the record consists of slick R&B tunes, with thick basslines, sparse percussion, and irresistibly smooth performances from Beyoncé. The content is not as vibrant or unique as her later work would be, but there are standout tracks to be found. Highlights like “Speechless” and “Me, Myself, and I” are among her best songs, but some of her worst material brings down the experience. “Signs” is ruined by its irritating theme, with every line relating to a different star-sign, but never in any clever or compelling way. Not many cuts reach the same lows as that, but as a whole, Dangerously In Love is one of her least consistent releases.
Just three years later, B’Day released, outshining its predecessor in every possible way. Sharper writing; more impressive vocals; and some of the best production Beyoncé would ever sing over. The album starts strong with “Deja Vu”, another hard-hitting collaboration with Jay-Z where Knowles’s voice rises higher and higher, growing more impassioned as the track progresses. Standouts like “Suga Mama” and “Get Me Bodied” keep up the momentum, with the rustic hip hop aesthetic bringing out some of Bey’s most fiery performances. With sample-laden beats and dusty drum patterns, the instrumentation of B’Day is a stark departure from the smooth passages of Dangerously In Love, but the change is a welcome one. In contrast to the rougher production, Beyoncé’s vocals are slicker than ever, reaching new heights on explosive showstoppers like the abrasive “Freakum Dress” and the insatiably groovy “Green Light”. From front to back, B’Day is Beyoncé in prime form. Potentially her best produced record, the thudding drums and funk-infused basslines bring out a rawness in Knowles’s performance she would never replicate.
I AM…SASHA FIERCE (2008)
SASHA FIERCE is a strange record. The first double album from Beyoncé, its first disc contains some of her most generic material, whereas the second disc harbours some of the most unique songs in her catalogue. It starts off strong with the one-two punch of “If I Were a Boy” and “Halo”, two of the strongest singles of her career. While the synth-laden production has not aged well, thanks to Beyoncé’s stunning performance, those issues go unnoticed. However, things quickly deteriorate. On “Disappear” and “Broken-Hearted Girl”, Knowles brings a fiery presence, but the instrumentation is bare and colourless, composed mostly of derivative piano melodies and melodramatic string sections. Ballad after ballad follow after, ruining any sense of pace or structure in the LP since so many slow tracks are crammed into its first half. Thankfully, as the album transitions from I AM into SASHA FIERCE, things improve immediately. The second disc opens up with “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, a mesmerising banger with a chorus so catchy it’s easy to forget the otherworldly production she sings over. “Radio” is not quite as brilliant, but the next song picks things back up. “Diva” is among the best songs in Beyoncé’s entire discography. Switching between singing and rapping, Knowles tears apart the repetitive beat, creating a single as chaotic and hypnotic as Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”. Taking more of an electronic direction in the second half, SASHA FIERCE is a far stronger set of tracks than I AM. With eccentric production, versatile performances, and numerous iconic choruses, SASHA FIERCE makes up for all the uninspired quirks of the first disc. Trim the fat and pick out the finest songs from both halves, and this could have been Queen Bey’s best album. Unfortunately, the end-product is her most inconsistent.
After another three years, Knowles returned with 4. Combining the commercial polish of I AM with the off-the-wall vibrancy of SASHA FIERCE, this LP is a solid compromise between both sides of the double album, delivering a record full of accessible tunes but never holding back on the colourful production. 4 opens stronger than any other Beyoncé album – “Love On Top” is the perfect intro, showcasing the singer’s vocals at their most raw and intense, performing over a fluffy swirl of synths, horns, and electric bass. Songs like “I Care”, “Rather Die Young”, and “Start Over” contain similarly ferocious performances from Beyoncé, flexing her skills as a vocalist with a series of soulful shouts and angelic riffs. “Run the World (Girls)” feels like Knowles’s attempt to recapture the empowering glory of “Single Ladies”, and though the new tune might not be as memorable, the stuttering production is too bizarre to resist. There are low points on 4, but the less notable tracks are never as bad as the worst moments from I AM or Dangerously In Love. Instead, the weakest parts of 4 are merely good, serving as adequate pop songs, but failing to reach the impassioned heights of her finest efforts.
Out of nowhere, Beyoncé dropped her self-titled album as a surprise release in December of 2013. Selling 430,000 copies in just 24 hours, this record was evidence that Beyoncé didn’t need any singles or flashy album rollout to shatter the charts. Diving deeper into the music itself, the LP is patchy in places. As always, Beyoncé kicks off the record on a high note, with the operatic chorus of “Pretty Hurts” defining the project’s epic, cinematic scale. “Haunted” is a chilling piece with a brilliant beat switch in the middle, containing some of Knowles’s best writing to date. “Blow” might be the best song on offer, with an irresistible, bubbly synth-line, summery guitar-work, upbeat harmonies like something straight from RENAISSANCE, and a killer breakdown in the middle of the track. In every regard, it is a musical masterpiece, making the weaker tracks later on all the more noticeable. “No Angel” is an immediate downgrade, where Beyoncé’s breathy falsettos come off as if she is straining her voice, struggling to hold the bizarre tone she insists on using. “XO” is a strangely generic song for the singer, with a blaring instrumental and obnoxious backing vocals that make for a radio-friendly hit any popstar could have claimed as their own. This LP has so much potential, and numerous phenomenal ideas, but the execution is seldom satisfying. “Blue” is a beautiful closer to end the album on, but even so, I’m left dissatisfied after each listen of BEYONCÉ.
Through the early 2010s, rumours began to spread about the state of Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z. Talk of infidelity flooded headlines, but it wasn’t until Lemonade that Queen Bey addressed the rumours, using the album to express her heartache after being cheated on. This is Beyoncé at her most raw, emotional, and outraged. There are sombre moments like the tragic opener “Pray You Catch Me”, a soft-spoken ballad where she hopes she never has to confront her partner directly, praying that he realises on his own that she knows the truth. Other songs like “Hold Up” take a more comedic approach, where Knowles brings her signature swagger while reciting some of the most saddening lyrics of her career. One of the most compelling aspects of Lemonade is the sheer versatility Beyoncé brings – going country on “Daddy Lessons”, diving into rock on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, and adopting a Southern hip hop aesthetic on “Formation”, she masters every style, weaving them all together with effortless vocals and harrowing lyrics. The album reaches its climax with “All Night”, a gorgeous blend of soul and pop where she admits she’s ready to try again with Jay-Z. Considering the heavy material on Lemonade, it is not the easiest record to revisit, but for its stellar writing and flawless production, it stands as one of her best albums.
Beyoncé’s latest album is her best effort yet. Embracing the sound of dance music, RENAISSANCE is a full crossover between the worlds of pop and house, with danceable grooves and intricately-layered production from front to back. Speedy drum patterns, sporadic samples, and booming basslines make up the colourful soundscape of the LP. Despite never having touched house music, Beyoncé sounds so comfortable, delivering an endless array of raunchy verses with the same elegant confidence she brought to SASHA FIERCE. To pick out favourites would be pointless because RENAISSANCE is a complete piece, unable to be divided into good tracks and bad. Each one transitions into the next, making for a musical experience which feels truly whole and purposeful. It may not showcase her deepest writing, but with stunning choruses, playful verses, and a consistently catchy backdrop, RENAISSANCE is everything a Beyoncé album should be. Framed as Act I, the LP gives me hope that Queen Bey will continue to explore house music, and with time, she may outdo herself yet again.