Beyonce has officially released her seventh solo studio album, ‘Renaissance,’. 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, to be exact - do all that for a world still blinking against the light of normalcy after years of a pandemic? The short answer is: Beyoncee 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. Beyonce 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 aughts, 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 Beyoncee 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 to come, here’s a look back at a few of the singer’s groundbreaking moments.
‘03 Bonnie & Clyde’
On its face, Beyonce’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 rumored 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 Beyonce 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 Beyonce’s best artistic endeavors to date. (We’ll get to that later.)
The Pepsi commercials
The singer no longer needs to do outright TV endorsements because she is a brand in and of herself. But Pepsi has a deep history with popular music and there was once a time when Beyonce was considered just another pop star. Tracing her connection with the soft drink is informative of her career journey: Her first Pepsi commercial in 2002 dips into her character from ‘Carmen: A Hip Hopera,’ a made-for-MTV movie. Several more collaborations with the brand would follow, including 2004’s gladiator take featuring Pink and Britney Spears, and 2013’s retrospective starring Beyonce as different versions of herself to the tune of her song ‘Grown Woman.’ The previous year, the singer had signed a reportedly $50 million deal with Pepsi that would include not just commercial spots but support of her creative projects.
It’s safe to say Beyonce isn’t known for her acting skills, but her performance in 2006’s ‘Dreamgirls’ almost contradicts that narrative. (Key word: almost.) Beyonce 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 Beyonce’s “Dreamgirls” character, Deena Jones, belts to declare independence from her husband, may be her most convincing performance yet. With it, she declares loudly that she knows exactly who she is, and we mere consumers have the honor of being her audience.
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 coloring, Bob Fosse-esque choreography and flashing of an empty ring finger. Sasha Fierce, Beyonce’s brilliant yet devious alter ego, came out to play with this one.
Serenading the first couple:
The Obamas have a deep affinity for the Carters (that’s Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Shawn Carter to you). Former president Barack Obama is an unabashed Jay-Z fan and Michelle Obama once said that if she could have any job other than first lady she ‘would be Beyonce.’ The couples have crossed one another’s paths several times over the years but the seminal moment was at the Neighborhood Ball the night of Obama’s 2009 inauguration. There, Beyonce, who was also starring on-screen as Etta James in ‘Cadillac Records’ at the time, serenaded the newly minted first couple for their first dance as the first Black president and first lady of the United States with James’s 1960 ballad “At Last.” It was a moment.
Beyonce has a tendency to introduce her children to the world in superstar fashion - usually before they’re born. At the 2011 VMAs, Beyonce 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. Beyonce? Glowing. The world? Never the same. Six years later, Beyonce 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 blue 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.
The surprise album
On December 13, 2013, Beyonce offered the world an early Christmas present by releasing what Washington Post music critic Chris Richards called “the splashiest cannonball of her career.” There was no warning, no marketing, no promotion to speak of. Just boom. ‘Beyonce,’ 14 songs with accompanying music videos, was released on iTunes at midnight. The “Flawless” singer’s self-titled fifth studio album marked a departure from the perfectly crafted studio pop princess her fans had grown accustomed to. On “Beyonce,” she is brazen, depressed, cocky and cloying. The album “wasn’t just another chart-topping addition to Queen Bey’s discography,” read an MTV feature. “It was a cultural event, and one that took place at the zenith of her career.”
Did you know that Coldplay headlined the Super Bowl 50 halftime show? Yeah, we forgot too. Because in 2016, Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter stole the show performing a song her fans knew by heart: “Formation” - which she released just the day before. Stomping onto 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 halftime show’s top 10, a list that included her own solo halftime 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 police brutality.
What can be said about an album like “Lemonade”? Released in 2016, Beyonce’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 “Formation” 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 Beyonce. The ‘Lemonade’ album was so monumental.”