*a completely subjective list
Beyonce Knowles is a force of nature. Big voice, big personality, big stage presence, unbelievably and undeniably gorgeous. The fact that she played the role in Dreamgirls that was based on Diana Ross’s Supremes tenure isn’t a coincidence. She comes across as a hip-hop era update of Ross’s poise mixed, somewhat improbably, with Tina Turner’s raw stage energy. She also makes good records, although I can’t say I’m as enthralled by her albums (or her public persona, which is inextricably tied to her music) as most other folks seem to be.
There’s the fact that two decades into her career, she’s written maybe half a notebook page’s worth of meaningful lyrics. There’s also the controversy and drama surrounding almost every one of her projects that seems manufactured (from the musical chairs of Destiny’s Child to the years-long “is she or isn’t she” regarding her relationship with Jay-Z to the cheating rumors that allegedly inspired some of the songs on her latest album, Lemonade). Not to say that there aren’t other artists I love who dream up publicity stunts for the sake of keeping their names in the marketplace (insert name of Jackson here). I mean, the cult of fandom that surrounds Michael and Janet annoys me too–but they also make much better records than Beyonce does.
So, yeah…she’s a little problematic. And I haven’t even mentioned a series of plagiarism-based allegations regarding her songs and video concepts (more on that below). But who isn’t, right? The fact of the matter is that if Beyonce releases an album, I’m interested. I’m disappointed more often than not, but I’m certainly interested. And there are always at least a few good songs to be found on her records. Here are some of the best.
1) Crazy In Love (feat. Jay-Z) (from Dangerously In Love, 2003)
In this case, the first was the best. “Crazy in Love” is the rare example of a song not losing luster after obtaining ubiquity. As soon as those horn blasts (sampled from the Chi-Lites classic “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)”) kick in, all bets are off. Although it’d been nearly a half decade since Beyonce became a household name, this song established her as a powerhouse in her own right. A scorching 16 from Jay-Z didn’t hurt, either.
2) Love On Top (from 4, 2011)
One of my main issues with Beyonce’s last two albums has been a lack of melody. Her lyrics aren’t strong enough to endure without something catchy happening outside of the choruses. “Love On Top” is an ‘80s throwback punctuated by some ridiculous key changes at the end. She’s not showboating for the sake of showboating, though. This is legitimately invested, soulful singing.
3) Say My Name* (from The Writing’s On The Wall, 1999)
4) Still In Love (Kissing You) (from B-Day, 2005)
This beautiful interpolation of Des’ree’s “Kissing You” (which originally appeared on the soundtrack to the late ‘90s reboot of Romeo & Juliet) was added to a deluxe edition of Beyonce’s second solo album, B-Day. Shortly thereafter, Des’ree’s lawyers filed suit against Beyonce, charging that their original agreement prohibited the singer from changing the title or shooting a video, both of which she did. The song was subsequently removed from B-Day, which is a shame. Des’ree’s attorneys must work overtime–they’d previously won a judgment against Janet Jackson for (consciously or unconsciously) her “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”’s usage of Des’ree’s 1995 single “Feel So High”.
5) Party (feat. Andre 3000 & Kanye West) (from 4)
6) Schoolin’ Life (from 4)
So full of life it practically jumps out of the speakers, “Schoolin’ Life” is triumphant, celebratory and even sexy. Beyonce’s throaty rasp as she leans into the chorus is a delight.
7) Upgrade U (feat. Jay-Z) (from B-Day)
Good enough that I can forgive the tone-deaf “I can do for you what Martin did for the people” line.
8) Lose My Breath* (from Destiny Fulfilled, 2004)
9) Drunk In Love (feat. Jay-Z) (from Beyonce, 2013)
10) Countdown (from 4)
11) Stay* (from The Writing’s On The Wall)
Buried deep in Destiny’s Child’s breakthrough album, “Stay” features one of Beyonce’s most restrained and hushed vocal performances.
12) Emotion* (from Survivor, 2001)
An exquisite cover of a song that was pretty damn good in the first place.
13) Love In This Club, Part II (Usher feat. Beyonce & Lil Wayne) (from Here I Stand, 2008)
The hottest male R&B singer in the game (circa 2008) meets the hottest female R&B singer in the game meets the hottest rapper in the game (again, circa 2008). This all-star matchup is slinky, seductive and even Wayne’s Auto-Tuned rasp can’t detract from the song’s quality.
14) Love* (from Destiny Fulfilled)
15) Girl* (from Destiny Fulfilled)
16) Be With You (from Dangerously In Love)
Shuggie Otis + Bootsy + Beyonce is OK.
17) Through With Love* (from Destiny Fulfilled)
Killer vocal arrangement; although for some reason this reminds me of a song I heard on the TV series Fame at one point.
18) XO (from Beyonce)
19) Telephone (Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce) (from The Fame Monster, 2009)
Not the world’s biggest fan of Mother Monster, but this was an awesome collaboration independently of the eye-popping video.
20) Flaws And All (from B-Day)
21) Sweet Sixteen* (from The Writing’s On The Wall)
Random fact: co-written by Jody “I’m Looking For A New Love” and originally featured on her never-released-in-the-U.S. album “Flower” (which is excellent and you should find it.)
22) Blow (from Beyonce)
23) Scared Of Lonely (from I Am…Sasha Fierce, 2008)
Random fact: co-written by Solange Knowles, who I think makes better records than her big sister. “A Seat At The Table” is a well-deserved breakthrough, but she has at least two other albums (well, one album and one EP) that deserves your attention.
24) Speechless (from Dangerously In Love)
25) If I Were A Boy (from I Am…Sasha Fierce)