History in the Making: 20 Years of Beyoncé

Posted on June 28, 2023

by Eric P

Beyoncé’s first solo album dropped exactly twenty years ago, and the weirdest thing about that factoid is its revelation that apparently there was a time when we all existed, somehow, before Beyoncé. We’ll talk to our grandkids about it. “In my day nobody had ever heard ‘Halo.’ We had to walk uphill both ways to the record store just to get a new Mariah Carey cassingle. In tough times a whole family would have to share one Sugar Ray record.”

A lot has happened since 2003; we’ve all gone through changes. A selective trip through her discography tracks Beyoncé’s progress from bootylicious diva-in-training to flawless conqueror who came to slay – a journey distinguished less by sharp changes of direction than by a determined consistency. Turns out she’s always known who she is.

Dangerously in Love


Nowadays it’s easy to forget that she wasn’t always Queen Bey. Back in 2003 Beyoncé Knowles wasn’t even the first – or the second – member of Destiny’s Child to record a side project, and even this debut album was entangled with Beyoncé’s girl-group origins: the title song, “Dangerously in Love,” was refurbished from a track on the Destiny’s Child album Survivor.

But the album was a monster hit. Two of its singles, including “Crazy in Love” with its infectious Chi-Lites sample and a terse rap interlude from future husband Jay-Z, went to number one, and the album would go on to sell eleven million copies. Her journey from mere celebrity to mononym-level pop royalty had begun.

We were already living in Beyoncé’s world; we just didn’t know it yet.

I Am… Sasha Fierce


By the time Beyoncé’s third solo album dropped in 2008, her pop stardom was firmly established and everyone in the country was humming “To the left, to the left” whether they wanted to or not. But Sasha Fierce, with its promise of a new alternate persona, could easily have been a misstep or an overreach. Alter egos in pop music have a dicey history: sometimes you get Ziggy Stardust or Dr. Octagon; other times you’re stuck with Chris Gaines. And does any artist need the protective armor of a persona less than Beyoncé? She said she created Sasha Fierce to unleash her “fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side.” Which is like Little Richard saying he needs an excuse to be more flamboyant.

But no missteps here. This was the album that gave the world “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” an aggressively catchy single that dominated the airwaves and launched a video whose iconically imitable choreo got invoked on Glee and Saturday Night Live. It was also the video that prompted Kanye to storm the Video Music Awards stage and interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, itself an incursion that spawned a million memes and comedy bits. Basically, “Single Ladies” is directly or indirectly responsible for approximately 12% of all early-2000s pop culture.



By April 2016, Beyoncé had married Jay-Z, delivered a daughter, sung at President Obama’s inauguration, had a scrap of her songwriting borrowed in the juggernaut musical Hamilton, and performed at the Super Bowl halftime show; she had officially moved into the American consciousness and started rearranging the furniture. She could easily have spent the rest of her life doing exactly what she’d been doing – releasing ingeniously soulful and poppy R&B hits and collecting all the money – and her stature would have been secure. But few people saw something like Lemonade coming.

Spurred by hurt and anger following Jay-Z’s infidelity, Beyoncé spent a year writing and recording this astonishingly eclectic and impassioned cycle of songs in conversation with one another about trauma and triumph, with collaborators ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Jack White and packing echoes of Isaac Hayes, Andy Williams, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The result is both uncommonly personal and publicly engaged, as well as being more overtly occupied with Black identity and culture than her previous work. It’s also, not for nothing, one of the world’s great albums. If you never figured out why everyone was going around in 2016 talking about hot sauce in their bags and Becky with the good hair, give Lemonade a few listens.



In 2018, Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline the Coachella music festival, and the show was off the hook: 100 dancers, five costume changes, a full HBCU marching band, majorettes, step dancing, dozens of guest artists, and enough invocations of Black American history and culture to fill a Wikipedia page. It was both a party and an education. Most live albums are just glorified greatest-hits comps padded out with crowd noise and stage patter, but Homecoming is a little bit synthesis, a little bit manifesto. The set list included not only reimagined renditions of her bangers but also “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and snippets and samples of material from Jamaican dancehall to Nina Simone to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Malcolm X. The whole thing is a total jam, but it’s also an announcement: this is important. Pay attention.



Beyoncé’s most recent album, released in the full flower of her regal authority as a legit cultural icon, was a product of pandemic isolation, yet it feels like a profoundly gregarious record. If Lemonade came across as an individual retreating to her studio to transform her private pain into public art, Renaissance fully slaps, an invitation to come outside and party. One song flows into the next like a DJ playlist, lending the project a nonstop four-on-the-floor relentlessness. Beyoncé’s strategies, by now familiar, are all present – prodigious borrowings both sly and overt, diverse genre influences excavated and repurposed with musicological zeal, lyrics that oscillate between defiance and vulnerability and juxtapose the deeply personal with social activism. Renaissance doesn’t have the sonic variety of some of her other records, and sometimes the hooks have to fight the clubby thumping to get noticed, but this collection of songs is as unified as it is confident, landing with the impact of an hour-long banger.

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