This article originally ran in 2016 and has been updated.
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From bursting onto the scene with Destiny’s Child in 1998 to high-profile endorsements, clothing lines, movies, mic-drop pregnancy announcements and solo mega stardom, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s resume is so layered that she really doesn’t need an introduction. In fact, she falls into the category of public figures that are instantly recognizable around the world at the mention of just a first name: Beyoncé.
As a brand, Beyoncé has come to represent a tireless work ethic, high-energy performances, strength, and beauty, all of which have inspired fierce loyalty to the woman in charge of it all. But we only have suggestions as to who she really is, because she is notoriously private and gradually stopped granting interviews to any outsider who might try to lift the veil.
In April 2016, a surprise album dropped out of the sky as a complete visual experience called Lemonade. Shucking the norms for release schedules and redefining what an album is, no longer just something you can listen to but something you can also watch, Lemonade is still one of the most exciting things to happen in popular culture. With its many cameo appearances, references to Southern American culture, and maybe even glimpses of troubles that were hinted at but never confirmed, it has given listeners and viewers so much to dissect.
At every stage of her career, Beyoncé’s relentless creativity has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a star. Few other artists can provoke such wide-ranging discussion. Either way Bey probably won’t sweat it. After all, you know you’re that bitch when you cause all this conversation.
— Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
“Hey Ladies” from The Writing’s on the Wall (1999)
Before she became the powerhouse that she is today, Beyoncé was a member of Destiny’s Child – originally a quartet of talented young singers from Houston, Texas. They went on to be one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Through lineup changes and breaks for solo careers, the group released four studio albums packed with infectious, pop-infused R&B songs. On each new album, Beyoncé has bent the R&B genre to her will in different ways. There are the slow burns like “Dangerously in Love” and “Broken-Hearted Girl” and the grown-and-sexy album 4, which featured songs like “Countdown,” “Love on Top,” and “Party” that took us back to the golden era of R&B.
Of the more animated strain, “Hey Ladies” off the group’s second album, The Writing’s on the Wall, is an example of DC at their best – sisters coming together to support one another through good and bad times. They tackle the minefield that is young love, in this case taking aim at a cheating boyfriend and letting him know that he’s got to go, but in the most melodious and danceable way possible. Now that we know “hot sauce” isn’t just a condiment that Beyoncé carries around in her bag, the guy who crossed her back then is probably thankful that he got off so lightly. — V.O.O.
“Crazy in Love” from Dangerously in Love (2003)
By 2001’s Survivor, it was clear that Destiny’s Child had settled into their new status as a trio: Kelly, Michelle and Beyoncé. But from early on, it was quite clear that Bey was leading from the front, and even casual observers could tell it was only a matter of time before she decided to break away. As the first single off her solo debut album, “Crazy in Love” confirmed what many already suspected — Beyoncé had the star power necessary to take pop culture by storm. It seems like the obvious and cliché choice here, but the importance of this song in Bey’s oeuvre cannot be overstated.
Not only did it cement her status as a superstar, but it was also the first public acknowledgement of the relationship that has been a huge part of her life and the inspiration for so many of her subsequent songs that we know and love. It is also one of the strongest tracks from an album that had excellent singles but fell flat elsewhere. From the time the horns hit, resistance is futile. In the accompanying music video, 21-year-old Beyoncé struts confidently up to the camera, cocks her head to the side, and asks: “You ready?” Looking back on it now, we probably weren’t. — V.O.O.
“Me, Myself and I” from Dangerously in Love (2003)
Beyoncé has known how to speak to her audience from the start. “All the ladies if you feel me/ Help me sing it out,” she asks on “Me, Myself and I.” And, oh yes, the ladies feel her. Some of Beyoncé’s most beloved hits have come fresh off a supposed split (“Irreplaceable” off the 2006 B’Day, “Best Thing I Never Had” off 2013’s 4). But this song is less about the breakup and much more about self love. “Me, Myself and I” was included on Beyoncé’s solo debut, and even though she is clearly addressing a man and broken relationship, the song speaks volumes about her departure from Destiny’s Child — she’s on her own in more ways than one.
While the majority of the songs from Dangerously in Love contemplate a two-person relationship, here Beyoncé celebrates the one she has with herself, stating she even “took a vow” to be her own best friend, a promise she’s kept throughout her career. On “***Flawless (feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)” off Beyoncé, the notion of practicing self-love and owning the label of feminist (defined in the song as “the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”) come full circle.
It’s no question Beyoncé exudes confidence and encourages others to as well, and that self-assurance can be traced back to “Me, Myself and I.” With a message as timeless as putting yourself first, this song still hits home. — Lyndsey Havens
“Get Me Bodied” from B’Day (2005)
Songs like “Freakum Dress,” “Kitty Kat,” and “Run the World (Girls)” all come at womanhood from different angles. Although they’re all constructed differently, they find common ground in their encouragement of women to feel empowered both at work and at play.
On “Get Me Bodied,” Beyoncé takes looking good, feeling good, going out while worrying about absolutely nothing, and boils them down into one irresistible song. If it had been released in the era of the #CarefreeBlackGirl movement, there’s a good chance it could’ve been the anthem.
In recent years, Beyoncé has taken a lot of criticism for the way she expresses her feminist values — much of the critique revolving around the notion that she exploits the label for her own gain without actually believing in any of it. This argument is tricky because it relies on the premise that feminism can only work one way and that anyone who doesn’t adhere to its strictest reading is doing it wrong. In the same way that feminists come in many varied forms, so too must the expression of feminist ideology.
Bey undoubtedly enjoys the privilege that comes with being wealthy. But she is also a black woman, one of the toughest stations from which to navigate the world. Her world view, and the way it influences her music, has to be understood in that context.
Over the course of her career, she has sought to uplift people through her art: both herself and others. She has done so by taking complete control of her image, being shrewd in business and, along the way, providing us with many songs to dance to as we go boldly forth. — V.O.O.
“Halo” from I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008)
As a teenage and now solo success, Beyoncé faced the struggle all pop culture icons encounter sooner or later — the inevitable and incessant spotlight. But Beyoncé found relief, and even more success under the safety (and sensuality) of Sasha Fierce, her alter ego. Her third record, I Am… Sasha Fierce, teeters between topics of gender, love, and loneliness — she toys with the idea of life as a boy (“If I Were a Boy”), reminding herself and others how to treat a woman, and tells the world that “a diva is female version of a hustler,” making it crystal clear that’s exactly what she, and Sasha, are.
Beyoncé may have found comfort in concealment, but the inherent honesty of her songs gave her away. They revealed Beyoncé at the core, which is best heard on “Halo.” “Remember those walls I built/ Well, baby they’re tumbling down,” she sings, soaking in vulnerability. “Halo” chronicles a love story, but it’s bigger than that — it tells the story of Beyoncé stepping out of one spotlight and into another, “the light of your halo.” Whomever Beyoncé is speaking to, a man or maybe even society as a whole, when she sings, “I ain’t never gonna shut you out,” it’s clear she has shed her Sasha cloak and is ready to embrace what’s ahead. — L.H.
“Single Ladies” from I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008)
Since the early ’00s, Beyoncé has provided women with a closet of clever comebacks — proving how easy, and refreshing, it can be to brush off a breakup. And then came “Single Ladies,” arguably the single anthem. Beyoncé made it widely acceptable, admirable, and maybe even desirable to be single and revel in it. And the song doesn’t stop there. Men and women, single or taken — all felt welcome to sing along and, more importantly, try to emulate the video’s choreography in the privacy of their bedroom or publicly on the dance floor … or elsewhere, as illustrated in countless YouTube videos. There are even dozens of tutorials.
In the song, Beyoncé’s request is simple: “Say I’m the one you want/ If you don’t, you’ll be alone/ And like a ghost, I’ll be gone.” Because in Beyoncé’s world, there’s no time to waste on an indecisive man, and this single anthem aims to show that should be the standard for all. So as for leaving a relationship headed nowhere, Beyoncé — and recently single women everywhere — only have one thing left to say: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” — L.H.