By Helena Andrews-Dyer and Natachi Onwuamaegbu
Beyoncé officially released her seventh solo studio album, “Renaissance”, on Friday. The title boldly calls up Europe’s centuries-long cultural rebirth, the sparks that yanked an entire continent out of the Dark Ages and into enlightenment.
Can one album – 16 tracks – do all that for a world still blinking against the light of normalcy after years of a pandemic?
The short answer is: Beyoncé’s can.
In her practically lifelong career, the 40-year-old singer has proven herself time and again to be bigger than the stage, the arena, the screen or the catwalk she struts on.
Beyoncé is always on beat, delivering the right steps at the right time no matter the music. She's given us bootyliciousness at the height of the bubble gum noughties, viral dance moves before TikTokers could talk, “Lemonade” when black women were thirsty and glorified athleisure before everyone had a Peloton.
There are few artists – almost all of them go by one name – whose careers are marked by the cracks they leave behind, shifting the culture with every new release in ways both subtle and enormous. There’s little doubt “Renaissance” (which Beyoncé has confirmed is the first in a “three-act project”) will be seismic, which is why the Beyhive has been bracing themselves for a movement since the singer announced its release last month.
In preparation for the earthquake we knew was coming, here's a look back at a few of the singer's groundbreaking moments.
’03 Bonnie & Clyde
On its face, Beyoncé's first non-soundtrack single without her Destiny's Child bandmates doesn't seem particularly earth-shattering. It's a smooth groove over a Tupac sample with Jay-Z's signature lyricism and Bey's R&B improvs.
But the 2002 song was a prophecy. “You ready, B? Let’s go get 'em,” Jay-Z tells his girl, whom he was rumoured to be dating at the time, at the top of the track.
But really he's talking to whoever's listening, because the collaboration functioned like a save-the-date for the next two decades.
The duo would join forces again and again on tracks and whole albums (singles “Crazy in Love” and “Drunk in Love”, the “On the Run” tour and the “Everything is Love” record). “Put us together, how they gon' stop both us?” the rapper announces as Beyoncé muses about how happy they'll be.
He also raps that he “ain't perfect” and, well, news of his infidelity years later proved that right, but also inspired one of Beyoncé's best artistic endeavours to date. (We'll get to that later.)
It's safe to say Beyoncé isn't known for her acting skills, but her performance in 2006's “Dreamgirls” almost contradicts that narrative. (Key word: almost.)
Beyoncé has had plenty of roles in high-grossing films, including in “Austin Powers in Goldmember” in 2002, “The Pink Panther” in 2006, “Obsessed” in 2009, and “The Lion King” in 2019.
But “Listen”, the song Beyoncé's “Dreamgirls” character, Deena Jones, belts out to declare independence from her husband, may be her most convincing performance yet.
There's a slight bend at the waist. One knee locks, another pops. A glance is thrown over one shoulder. Both arms pump toward the ground, one after another.
This is “Single Ladies” and, boy, was it a moment. Despite having married husband Jay-Z six months before its 2008 release, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” was a hit, winning three Grammy Awards (song of the year, best R&B song and best female R&B vocal performance).
Its music video won MTV's video of the year and inspired parody after parody after parody.
No one could get enough of the black and white colouring, Bob Fosse-esque choreography and flashing of an empty ring finger. Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé's brilliant yet devious alter ego, came out to play with this one.
Beyoncé has a tendency to introduce her children to the world in superstar fashion – usually before they're born.
At the 2011 VMAs, Beyoncé kept her choreography to her song “Love on Top” simple (well, simple for her), before quite literally dropping the mic and unbuttoning her Dolce and Gabbana fuchsia sequined tux jacket to reveal her baby bump. The screams? Deafening. Beyoncé? Glowing. The world? Never the same.
Six years later, Beyoncé posted on Instagram a photo that more so resembled a painting.
The singer is draped in a soft green veil, perched on a fake bush, with a cerulean background and a flower arch framing her face. In the caption, she stunned the world: “We have been blessed two times over.” Twins?! From the queen? Less than two weeks later, she performed at the 2017 Grammys, taking the stage in all gold, including a crown that cradled her face in sunshine-like rays.
Dear reader, the internet all but broke in two.
Did you know that Coldplay headlined the Super Bowl 50 half-time show? Yeah, we forgot too. Because in 2016, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter stole the show performing a song her fans knew by heart: “Formation” – which she released just the day before.
Stomping on to the field flanked by an army of dancers in black leather, black berets and black afros – just Black – the singer delivered a performance that would be hailed as one of the half-time show's top 10, a list that included her own solo half-time show just three years before.
The performance was delivered at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement; later that year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police brutality.
What can be said about an album like “Lemonade”? Released in 2016, Beyoncé's sixth studio effort – and another of her surprise drops – still feels as fresh and groundbreaking today as it did then.
The music and its accompanying film, released on HBO, marked the singer's transition from pop artist to simply artist. She could do any sound, any genre.
The visual album, which touched on everything from race to sexuality to Jay-Z's cheating, sparked debates, podcasts and college courses.
And yet, the Grammys gave the album of the year in 2017 to Adele for “25”. Even the British singer herself was surprised as she took the stage: “I can't possibly accept this award,” Adele said. “I'm very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyoncé. The ‘Lemonade’ album was so monumental.”
Beyoncé's Coachella performance (or Beychella, as it's commonly known) was perhaps the greatest in the history of the festival – and it's hard to pinpoint just one reason.
It could be because of the artistry of “Lemonade,” whose songs made up a large part of the set list. Or the fact that it was historical: Beyoncé was the first black woman to headline.
Or it could be the influences of historically black colleges and universities, black feminism, and the onstage collaborations with Jay-Z, her sister Solange and former girl group Destiny's Child.
“Homecoming”, the 2019 concert film written and directed by Beyoncé of the performance, cuts behind-the-scenes prep with the subsequent live sets; it won a Grammy for best music film and earned best music documentary at the IDA Documentary Awards.
The singer continues to write and rewrite what we know about music and artistry and, like in the case of Coachella, when Bey shows up, something shifts.
That said, the world looked a little different on Friday.