In 2009, Kanye West crashed the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Music Video and infamously declared, “Hold on, Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”
The video in question, for Beyoncé’s hit, “Single Ladies,” was a simple one, without special effects, abstract messages, even color; just Beyoncé and two backup dancers in nearly identical leotards, dancing to the tune of “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Yet even with such a minimal setup, Kanye acknowledged the power and presence Beyoncé brings to the stage. While Kanye shouldn’t have interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, the video was accessible, bold, elegant and, even before Kanye’s somewhat questionable endorsement, iconic.
All of these words have been used to describe the music and persona of Beyoncé, whose ascendance to the top of the music world has been as much a product of her natural talent as her singular power and work ethic.
From a young age Beyoncé showed raw ability. As a seven-year-old in Fredericksberg, Texas, she was out-singing teenagers a decade older in local competitions. Her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in a Houston music academy, and by age eight she had joined Girl’s Tyme, an all girls hip-hop dance group. A relentless performer, pushed by her father as well as her developing desire to conquer the stage, Girl’s Tyme tore through the local talent show circuit, eventually catching the eye of a scout for TV’s most popular talent show, “Star Search.”
It was Beyoncé’s first exposure to the national stage but not a triumphant one. Girl’s Tyme would go on to lose the competition, Beyoncé believing they had chosen the wrong song, and should have sang instead of rapped. Girl’s Tyme spent the next few difficult years in search of a record deal, suffering numerous lineup changes and grueling summer boot camps run by Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles, who also managed the group. They caught their big break in 1996, when the remnants of Girl’s Tyme signed with Columbia records as Destiny’s Child and skyrocketed to international fame. Their self-titled debut two years later was certified platinum after selling an impressive one million copies.
Though they became one of the most successful groups of the early 2000s and one of the best-selling trios of all-time, increasing friction between members of the group and the intense and inconsistent managing style of Mathew Knowles led to the group’s official disbandment in 2006, allowing Beyoncé’s solo career to go into full swing, beginning her meteoric rise towards being a multimedia celebrity and superstar. Her 2003 debut “Dangerously in Love” showcased both sides of her musical influences, with upbeat R&B singles featuring future-husband Jay-Z and duet ballads with Luther Vandross. 2006’s “B-day” further established her R&B sound in singles “Upgrade-U” and “Deja Vu,” which both incorporate energetic brass ensembles and hip-hop rhythms, along with the slower tempo smash hit “Irreplaceable.” Although “My Name Is…Sasha Fierce” and “4” would not match the sales of her debut, Beyoncé continued to explore themes of love, loss and female empowerment in slightly different directions while capitalizing on her beautiful voice and celebrity image.
Meanwhile, she cultivated her celebrity image with supporting roles in “The Pink Panther,” “Austin Powers: Gold Member” and as a Diana Ross-based character in “Dream Girls,” developing her status as a multimedia presence and landing her dozens of magazine covers. Her high-profile engagement to rap mogul Jay-Z further elevated her status, the couple becoming the highest-earning ever in the music industry. Yet despite her virtually unparalleled success, Beyoncé continues to innovate as a musician and performer. Her past year has been especially busy, with a headlining performance at President Obama’s inauguration, the Super Bowl halftime show and an autobiographical documentary on HBO for which she was the executive producer, narrator, writer and co-director. Most recently she debuted her latest album, “Beyoncé,” in late December, with no prior promotion or leak whatsoever. Such a feat, especially in today’s age of music piracy, is a virtual miracle and was viewed by many critics as a definitive statement of her power and influence in the music industry.
Beyoncé’s latest record cements her status as one of the most talented and versatile artists in popular music. As one might expect from what seems intended as her summative work, “Beyoncé” showcases’ the singer’s wide range of vocal and performing abilities, at times expressing herself as a seductive diva or desperate lover. She even raps, improving on her “Star Search” days with hard flows and trap influences in “Flawless” and “Partition.”
Lyrically, she draws from her own experiences with committed relationships and motherhood, detailing the universal insecurities even those at Beyoncé’s level face. The album takes on a noticeably darker tone, but “Beyoncé” is meant as a celebration as well. “Blue” recounts the birth of her child, Blue Ivy Carter, whose featured cries on the track made her the youngest ever top-charting artist. Beyoncé also spends much of the album expressing the freedom and thrill of sexuality, found even in the monogamy of marriage, in graphic and often explicit detail.
And of course, “Beyoncé” is a celebration of Beyoncé, told through spoken word samples from her life and rise to fame. “Flawless” opens with Girl’s Tyme’s introduction on “Star Search,” while snippets from TED talks on feminism, interviews and, controversially, news about the Challenger shuttle explosion, are scattered throughout. “Beyoncé,” a self-described “visual album,” also comes with a DVD featuring a music video for each track. Many of these, though not thematically ambitious, are beautifully made, glossy and fun to watch.
The album’s production is luxurious and smooth, handled by an A-list production team featuring Pharrell “Big Hat” Williams, Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean and Timbaland. On “Blow,” Beyoncé channels her inner Janet Jackson in an irresistible atmosphere of lush synthesizers, breaking midway through to an even catchier chorus of squirming guitar lines and popping beats.
A cummulative expression of her past, present, future and self, “Beyoncé,” is a larger-than-life encapsulation of all that many have come to love about the iconic R&B superstar, and an impressive showing by an artist who, by most standards, has little room to improve on such a fantastic career. It seems that despite Kanye’s antics, he had a point: Beyoncé is one of the greatest artists of our time.