On the eve of the release of Beyonce Knowles’ seventh studio album Renaissance, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the deeply personal musical memories she’s supplied over the years. Great art and committed artists can make a difference in our lives, and Beyonce qualifies as such an artist for me.
Just to level-set, I am not a member of the Beyhive. I am JanFam all the way, but to deny credit to Beyonce for her astounding body of work is implausible, and for me to deny her impact on my life would be straight-up lying.
As long as the below list is, it is not even close to exhaustive–I left out fond musical memories of “Check On It,” “Lose My Breath,” “Haunted,” “Partition,” “Jealous,” “Ego,” “Heaven,” “Halo,” “Upgrade U,” “Formation,” and “Beautiful Liar.” Among others. But here are a few highlights of What Beyonce Has Done For Me.
• “Bills, Bills, Bills” — vocal phrasing, vocal phrasing, and vocal phrasing. This is one of those records that broke my understanding of how music should work. The chatty, rambunctious rambling of both the lyrics and the beat (credit to Kandi Burruss and Kevin Briggs), and the over-the-top attitude Bey lent to the proceedings, was first funny, then intriguing, then trend-setting. I spent months shaking my head over the absurdity of the line “Can you pay my automo-bill,” but ultimately, I gave in. It was just too good.
• “Say My Name” — marry the vibe of “Bills, Bills, Bills” with emotional depth, and you have “Say My Name.” I was in love with its catchiness before I understood how brilliant the writing was.
• “Bootylicious” — Bey has spent an inordinate amount of time pulling off song concepts that sound ridiculous on paper. Imagine the pitch: let’s add a Stevie Nicks guitar riff to a MJ-inspired dance jam entirely themed around bragging about one’s posterior. What a formula for disaster. Or — a classic that makes everyone smile when they hear it, just like a track from Off the Wall.
• “Crazy in Love” and “Deja Vu” — many of us that were into music in the aughts know exactly where we were the first time we heard these Jay-Z-featured opening salvos from Bey’s first two albums. I was clubbing every weekend during this time frame, and these songs blared out twice a night, every night, for months after they debuted. It was to the point that I crafted personally memorized dance routine to each song. And the ending Josephine Baker-inspired sequence from “Deja Vu” forever silenced any reservations I had about Bey’s dancing abilities–it’s one of my favorite music video memories of all time.
• “Naughty Girl” and “Blow” — word on the street is that Renaissance will be Bey’s return to pop and dance music, and if so, we should be prepared for her to “blow” us away. “Naughty Girl,” from her debut album, and “Blow” from the 2013 Beyonce album, are two sexy pop confections that place her in the same league with Janet herself. I could listen to either song on repeat for hours. They make me happy. (And let’s not even get started about the video for the former, with Bey and Usher dancing together. Yowza.)
• “Flaws And All” — there’s not a lot of songs that automatically make me cry, but Beyonce has the honor of singing two of them. “Flaws and All,” the first, is an off-kilter ballad about being off-kilter, with a subtext of feeling inadequate, needy, and even awkward around your mate, and just being happy they love you anyway. The emotions in this song are palpable and Bey evokes them perfectly.
• “Listen” — this isn’t the second song that always makes me cry, but it gets close. I saw Dreamgirls the day it came out, Christmas Day 2006, and when “Listen” played start-to-finish, I felt like my soul was going to leave the movie theater. It was my first time hearing the song–the moment it ended, I was ready to jump to my feet and applaud, but the rest of the audience was *crickets*. [I ascribe this to 2006 being the all-time low point of Bey’s approval rating, paired with the fact that her somewhat unsympathetic character in the film was essentially the same image that bedeviled her personally.]
• “Sweet Dreams” — Bey was very far along in the cycle for her third album when this sleeper (no pun intended) came out of left field and grabbed our attention. It was disorienting to hear ballad lyrics set to a mid-tempo beat, giving the song a surreal quality that echoed the song’s imagery. When she unleashed the live, slow version of the song, I was in for a second revelation–it’s equally effective as as a straight-up torch song.
• “Run the World (Girls)” — one of my favorite songs of all time. The unmatched energy of the track, the wacky militarism and Mozambican dance moves featured in the music video, and my partner’s absolute loss of control anytime the song comes on–all these things make it a touchpoint of my actual life.
• “Love On Top” — I have unofficially christened this record the best of the past decade. There’s something transcendent and joyous about the arrangement and the vocal delivery. The 2011 VMA performance of the song, where Bey announced her pregnancy by opening her jacket, rubbing her belly and smiling, after executing all the exhausting key changes at the song’s end, is one of many classic moments I cherish.
• “Daddy Lessons” — I was actually riding a bus through Mississippi and Louisiana as I listened to Lemonade uninterrupted for the first time, and the country-blues stomp of “Daddy Lessons” really drove home the deep cultural connections Bey was going for with the song and the entire album.
• “XO” — I didn’t forget about that second tear-jerker. “XO,” from the Beyonce album, is my favorite Beyonce song, a sublime rumination that should appear in the dictionary next to the word “bittersweet.” There’s not another song that I know, not even one from Janet, that succeeds in depicting joy and pathos in full force at the same damn time. This is what good music is about–transporting us to a place of pure feeling.
And ultimately, even with all her razzle and her dazzle, the most fundamental gift Beyonce shares is emotional immediacy. Her voice leaps off the record and out of the microphone and directly into the listener’s feels.
She’s probably about to do it again. I am ready for a Renaissance.
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