Sunday was the one-year anniversary of Beyoncé’s earth-shattering visual album premiering on HBO. And sometime next month Queen B will be giving birth to twins. In this special time for Beyoncé and her followers, let’s take a look at how we got here by revisiting the titular catalyst in Beyoncé’s current brand: Lemonade’s predecessor, Beyoncé.
There’s a lot to say about Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth studio album. You know the one — the one she dropped at 3 a.m. one random December morning that stopped the entire world?? Yes, that one. Anyway, since then a lot has happened. Record-release day has moved from Tuesday to Friday and surprise albums have become main stream (@Rihanna, @Frank, @Everyone: It’s cool, just remember who invented the game).
Not only did it serve as a chasm within the music industry, it served a very specific purpose within Beyoncé’s own career trajectory — as does every professional and personal move when you’re running as tight of a ship as the Carters. Let’s start at the beginning for those who don’t spend a good chunk of everyday thinking about Beyoncé, listening to Beyoncé or ranting to anyone who will listen about Beyoncé.
The easiest place to begin is the most well-known, “Single Ladies:” an important song for a couple reasons. First, it’s lead single (co-released with “If I Were A Boy”) from I Am … Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé’s final album before professionally splitting from her long-time manager and father Matthew Knowles. In her 2013 HBO Documentary, she says of the time, “I was doing too much … always thinking about the next tour, video shoot.” “Single Ladies” was Beyoncé’s most recent number one single.
In the eight years since the release of “Single Ladies,” the space that Beyoncé occupies within music and pop culture has not only continued to expand, but her creative output has alternately narrowed. The shift can’t be seen more clearly than when comparing “Single Ladies” to her most recent lead single, the divisive “Formation.” Even at initial observation, the differences are stark. The audience isn’t women. It’s Black women. She’s no longer singing against the grain of her public image, but rather embracing it, repurposing the microscope that presides over her life for her own gain. At the height of “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z were already married. One year ago yesterday, the world sat quietly and watched while she seemingly aired her marital laundry out in the form of an album film airing on HBO. So how did we (the BeyHive) get here?
Well, it wouldn’t have been without self-titled.
To be honest, it has been a rollercoaster involving a Super Bowl blackout, police boycotts, Solange kicking Jay’s ass in an elevator and two stunning pregnancy announcements. Nonetheless, Beyoncé’s discography simplifies the timeline. 4, the follow up to I Am … Sasha Fierce, saw Beyoncé conquer genre — the basics, in a way. A tour de force of R&B, seamlessly sprinkled with pop, soul, funk and hip hop, proof beyond any reasonable doubt that Beyoncé is a masterclass artist. Nonetheless, it was her first album to not have a single reach number one: A concrete indication of an artist moving away from producing easily-digestible radio singles toward something more nuanced.
This is where Beyoncé comes in. Speaking in oversimplified terms, “Single Ladies” saw Beyoncé at her most mainstream, “Formation” exemplifies how far Beyoncé’s brand has shifted, effectively placing that shift in the eras of 4 and Beyoncé. So, if 4 is Beyoncé’s mastery of the genre, self-titled is her mastery of the business; she effectively dared anyone to underestimate her after it dropped.
A feat for endless reasons, Beyoncé, brought ushered in a new era: a Beyoncé that swears; a Beyoncé with explicit sexual desires; a Beyoncé that experiments in sounds outside her usual repertoire; a Beyoncé that is all about surprises and always doing the most. However, contrary to popular belief, Beyoncé didn’t introduce the concept of “visual album” to Beyoncé’s career. B’day, her second solo album features songs for every track, but when factoring in the surprise-factor and stunning art direction of Beyoncé’s videos, the ante was undeniably raised.
“Loose” or “relaxed” aren’t words often associated with the Queen B (or her fans), but self-titled feels loose and relaxed in a way due to its openness and relative experimentality, both of which have been visibly parlayed into her career moves since the LP’s release. Without the robotic reverberations of “Haunted,” there wouldn’t be the sparse atmospheric feelings of “Love Drought” or “‘Forward” created by the electronic elements. Sex work themes in “6 Inch” are the blossoms of seeds planted in the video for “Yoncé.” The ferocity of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” wouldn’t exist without the in-your-face, fuck-you-I’m-fine attitude of “***Flawless.” And while we’re at it, Beyoncé’s public association with the feminist movement began with a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” in the latter, a move which further aligned her persona with politics after endorsing President Obama with her debut instagram post. (Now, one instagram post from the Queen is estimated to be worth a cool million dollars.)
Now in 2017, one year post-Lemonade, in-depth conversations of Beyoncé are amiss without mention of her role as a political force. Between endorsing Hillary Clinton, including the mothers and family members of boys and men lost to police brutality in Lemonade, receiving an (ill-conceived) rant from Tomi Lahren and turning Black on “SNL” Beyoncé is at her most controversial as of late.
But when considering Beyoncé in retrospect, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who was paying attention. Beyoncé’s brand was adult and not trying to be for everyone, something Bey herself has acknowledged and Lemonade was even more so. She not only flaunted her marriage’s fire with “Drunk in Love” and “Partition,” but even some of the cracks. “I ran into my ex / Said what up to his besties / Now we reminiscing how we used to flex in Texas / Don’t be jealous” (“Jealous”) for all intents and purposes is as telling as “Becky with the good hair” (“Sorry”).
Additionally, Beyoncé didn’t turn Black during last year’s Super Bowl half-time cameo. She was already candidly strutting through New Orleans with grills and a fur coat in “No Angel,” rocking natural hair outside the Funplex in hometown Houston alongside sister Solange in “Blow” and not so subtly challenging the police state in “Superpower,” standing alongside Destiny’s Child members Kelly and Michelle against a line of police in riot gear.
Through attempting to untangle the web of wealth, sex, confidence, love and insecurity, Beyoncé offers a narrative almost as telling and complex as that of Lemonade, even if not as blatantly. The single bonus video “Grown Woman” serves as the album’s epilogue; As a grown Beyoncé swigs liquor alongside the trophies that tortured her in “Pretty Hurts,” wearing the same pink pageant gown, singing “I can do whatever I want,” the story of independence comes into clarity.