Poor Michelle: since the Destiny’s Child split, she has had to watch her bandmates have considerable success while she dances the paso doble with Brendan Cole. Yet she earns a place on this list for this spectacular Christian pop hit from a few years ago. The story goes that she sent an early version of the track, which combines an old Nigerian gospel song with an Afrobeats rhythm, to her old bandmates and they loved it so much they asked to make an appearance/completely upstage her. When Beyoncé arrives on the second verse it is actually as though Jesus herself has popped by, her soaring vocal like the touch of the divine. As if to drive the point home, she wore a white tunic in the video and performed in front of a halo of light. Subtle.
The greatest moment in TV talent show history – when 2008 X Factor finalist Alexandra Burke introduced Beyoncé on stage. Burke acquits herself well on the song’s opening verse, but once Beyoncé starts singing she can only just hold on to the harmonies through streams of tears and snot. After they’re done, she is overcome with emotion and ends up clinging to Beyoncé’s waist and crying into her chest like she is her actual mum. Talent shows make a lot of overblown claims about making dreams come true, but when Beyoncé cheers, “Sing it girl!” at Burke you can see those dreams viscerally coming to life. This also marks the last time Beyoncé was seen conversing with another ordinary human, before she became so famous she was only allowed to hang out with Chris Martin and the Obamas.
The problem with putting a speech about feminism by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the middle of your song, as Beyoncé did on the original 2013 version of Flawless, is that while it’s a powerful and motivating statement on the first couple of listens, once you’ve fully absorbed it, it becomes a bit of a buzzkill on an otherwise club-friendly track. Sensing that TED talks don’t necessarily lend themselves to repeat listens, Beyoncé released a new version featuring a verse from Nicki Minaj, so basically “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” becomes “flawless city, with these flawless titties, I got all these hundreds, you got all them fifties”. Same thing, basically.
Beyoncé’s first venture into country came on Lemonade with Daddy Lessons, a song about passing on life advice from one generation to the next. Queens of country the Dixie Chicks started working a cover of the track into their set, and so Beyoncé arranged for them to all play the track together at the 2016 Country Music Awards. The version that emerged combines country with a New Orleans second line-style brass bassline and felt like a precursor to this year’s Coachella show, where she doubled down on the brass bands. Expect the next album to be all tuba.
This album track from Elliott’s second record Da Real World is a reminder why she was the greatest producer of her era. It bumps and grinds along a synth line so lewd and flirtatious it needs to go to compliance training. Released in 1999, this also marks the first non-terrible thing Beyoncé as a solo artist did and demonstrated how her vocals have an intensity that goes way beyond girlband R&B. Unfortunately, after this she would get distracted and make a bunch of terrible movies – lest we forget the MTV-produced Carmen: A Hip Hopera – and it would be a further four years until she made another solo record this good.
This was a bonus track on Solange’s 2002 debut album Solo Star, which has since been deleted and is not available on streaming services. It resurfaced on a EP Beyoncé released in 2004 to tie in with a Tommy Hilfiger promotion, although that too appears to have been scrubbed from the internet. It is worth hunting out, though: a slinky Chink Santana production, it’s a song about sisterly advice and condescension, with Beyoncé trying to warn Solange off a dodgy bloke. There’s a good line from 90s rapper Da Brat, too, about what would happen should a man wrong the younger Knowles sister: “Mathew [Knowles] would drill the boy.”
Standing on the Sun (Remix)
Originally recorded for Beyoncé’s self-titled album, the original 2013 version of this track ended up being demoted to a H&M advert. You can see why: it sounds a bit “generic summer song”, the audio version of an InStyle article about the 10 best bronzers. But this bashment remix featuring king of the dancehall Mr Vegas is the closest we’ve got so far to Beyoncé making a proper carnival track. There’s even a bit of a Lady Chann flow to the second verse, Beyoncé rapping, “Want you to watch me while I wind.”
Love in This Club Part II
Perhaps Usher thought Love in This Club, his famous EDM ode to doing it in a disabled toilet at a busy Oceana, was a little too gauche, and decided he needed to make a version. This song has the same subject matter and hook as the original, but the tempo is slowed way down and the big synth line is replaced with bathtub R&B; less a quickie in the bogs and more two hours of gentle caressing by the bins in the smoking area. Beyoncé tries her best to add a touch of class to proceedings, reminding Usher: “I strongly doubt this velvet rope would hold me up”, but eventually succumbing to the charm of his erection: “I’m ready and willing, almost got to go/ Got you standing at attention, keep it on the low.” How romantic.
My First Time
This only appears on the unreleased rarities mixtape Speak My Mind, but it’s kind of crazy that it was never a huge hit. Produced by the Neptunes, it’s not miles away from some of Pharrell and Bey’s more recent collaborations such as Blow. The lyrical content is a little odd, with Beyoncé inviting someone to take her virginity with a cooing refrain of “I think I’m ready”. But you cannot argue with the production, that sickening Pharrell slick bass and randomised beat drops that make you want to smoke a blunt on a skate park on the roof of an abandoned LA car park, or whatever it was that cool people did in 2004.
Irreplaceable (Live at Glastonbury)
Why is this so moving? I think it’s because of the meeting of worlds. Beyoncé on stage: a life spent in the upper echelons of America, a human so seemingly perfect it’s impossible to imagine them pooing. The Sunday-evening Glastonbury crowd: wary and damp, covered in a considerable amount of actual poo. Beyoncé is left so gobsmacked by the singalong response that she gives up singing, letting the hordes scream “to the left, to the left” in what’s left of their voices. The day after this performance, she released it as a single, recognising that there is nothing quite like the sound of battered Pyramid stage crowd. SW
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How Beyoncé made the personal political with Lemonade:
Beyond the hits and deep cuts, 2016’s visual album Lemonade elevated the star from accomplished performer to totem of America’s complex culture and a national talking point. Claudia Rankine examines its impact.
Lemonade, Beyoncé’s 2016 “visual album”, catapulted her into national conversations overnight. The record addressed everything from police profiling to mass incarceration to the break-up of the black family, while giving her fanbase a glimpse of her personal life. Her husband’s infidelity and the notorious altercation in the lift between him and her sister Solange – the messiness of all that – needed and received public resolution with the launch of the album.
Here was where she mixed high and low, black and anti-black culture; swagger and vulnerability; feminism and consumerism. The simple truth was laid bare: she was as vulnerable as anyone. Hot sauce in her bag apparently doesn’t always turn into swag. This was the overt plot of the album but the real genius of her work was that the subplots placed her personal drama into the larger frame of the historical victimisation of black people, especially black womanhood. An excerpt from a 1962 Malcolm X speech found its way on to Lemonade in case this point was missed:
The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
With Lemonade, Beyoncé’s brand and spirit was restored and recast as revolutionary and militant, although still patriotic. After a period of silence, she had returned to the Super Bowl with Black Panther outfits, handing back to mainstream America and the world a reminder of the injustices Colin Kaepernick and others would kneel for later that same year. This was a Beyoncé for the Trump era, not the one who sang Etta James’s At Last for the Obamas’ inauguration dance.
At Last was in that historic moment, the integrationist anthem that Beyoncé has always stood for. The most present Queen Bey brand brings a more complete history, white supremacy and all, to the stage. In the press for the OTR II tour she wears a cowboy hat on her blond hair and stands alongside her husband, Jay-Z, who also signifies belonging and citizenship in his American flag T-shirt, both of them representing a complex America we all know to be vexed and changing, both personally and politically. CR