What does the average Beyoncé song sound like? Are they in the vein of the bombastic pop bonanzas of “Crazy in Love” and “Love On Top”? Or the soulful power ballads of “If I Was a Boy” and “Halo”? What about the sultry R&B anthems like “Partition” and “Video Phone”? Not forgetting her recent rap influenced bangers such as “Formation” and “Flawless”. It’s impossible to pinpoint a single sound that she can be defined to because Queen B is a musical chameleon.
Yet Beyoncé has never been at the forefront of contemporary music innovation. Sure she rocks the charts with every subsequent release, dwarfing any of her potential competition and standing firmly at the commercial pinnacle of modern day pop music (not anymore it seems). But she is still yet to create a sound that is undoubtably ‘Beyoncé’. I’m not saying she has a lack of iconic songs in her discography though, far from it. Since her days in Destiny’s Child, the top spots of both the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts have been nothing more than holiday houses that she returns to every couple of years, just so she can remind the world of who actually owns the place.
On her latest release – EVERYTHING IS LOVE (a joint album with husband, Jay-Z), Beyoncé puts her own spin on the current cultural phenomenon that is trap music. Tapping on a bevy of legendary producers such as Pharell, Cool & Dre and Mike Dean, while enlisting the help of trap music heavyweights like Migos and Ty Dolla $ign, no one could fault the Carters for having a lack of ambition.
The album’s lead single “APESHIT” is a tight, lean rap track that doesn’t shy away from its modern-day contemporary influences. The moment the track starts off we are greeted with Quavo’s iconic voice as he says ‘yeah’ over and over and over, alongside some nasty synth leads that are eerily reminiscent of Mike-Will Made It’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”. Then Beyoncé comes in swinging with a monstrous triplet flow as she flexes her wealth and status on us peasants. With its rapid-fire punchlines, numerous quotables and not to forget the catchy ad-libs from Quavo and Offset, “APESHIT” possessed the DNA of an excellent Migos song.
Because it is.
Now there’s no ghostwriting going on here. Quavo and Offset are listed as co-writers on the track (poor Takeoff) and though their names weren’t featured on the tracklist, their presence is still heavily felt throughout. Still, the differences between Migos’ skeletal reference track and the one we got are substantial, mostly due to one single factor – Beyoncé.
With artists like Adele or P!nk, you know what you’re getting from them and they guarantee your money’s worth. Whereas with Beyoncé, she is both unpredictable and predictable at the same time. On her last full-length record Lemonade, she dips her hand into every genre possible; Contemporary R&B (“Sorry”), Pop (“Hold Up”), Rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself), Ballads (“Sandcastles”), Rap (“Formation”) and even Country (“Daddy Lessons”). She nails all of these genres as well, as she tapped on an extensive list of producers and writers to not only painstakingly craft the sounds of the genres she’s adapting, but to also bring out the essence and emotions that form the crux of these genres themselves.
I’m not saying that Beyoncé is disingenuous or that she’s just trying to hop the waves of current trends and ride it to commercial success. She takes these genres along with the context and implications that they bring and applies them to the concept of her albums. Instead of appropriating her musical influences, she wears them on her sleeve. Still, she doesn’t come off just as any random imitator, and its due to the sheer force of her swagger and charisma that created the larger-than-life figure that is Queen B.
It may be difficult to pin down what the average Beyoncé song sounds like but the one thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that every great Beyoncé song lies in the delivery of her iconic vocals.
I remember the first time I heard “Love on Top” and I was absolutely floored at the way she raised her pitch at every subsequent chorus. The strength of her voice was apparent from the get-go as she effortlessly glides across the breezy production, her casual bravado shining through with the weight of every lyric piling on top of each other in a crescendo of bombastic passion.
Even on tracks that are the polar opposite of this one like the rap-centric “Freedom”, she upsells every single one of her songs with incredible gusto and fervor that you can’t help but perk yourself in attention whenever she comes on. Her vocals command a kind of respect that most singers (male and female alike) cannot compare to. Her natural gruff effectively applied to the soft ballads or braggadocious gloating, but always with grounded through heartfelt execution.
It becomes clear that the archetypal Beyoncé song isn’t defined by its production nor its genres, but rather her voice. A Beyoncé song becomes a Beyoncé song because of Beyoncé. She may take references from her many, many contemporaries in past few years of her career, but she makes sure to provide her own flair and twist on everything.
The half-rap half-singing style that she has been doubling down ever since her self-titled album in 2014 would probably be the most “innovative” or at least most unique work that she’s done in her recent career. Though she’s not the first to do it, but again her impassioned delivery is what makes her’s stand out from the crowd and stick in the minds of listeners.
This piece isn’t me discounting Beyoncé’s talent nor is it me downplaying the influence she’s had on modern R&B. Rather it’s me looking at what makes Beyoncé songs great. My thoughts on how Beyoncé has become as much of an icon that she is.
Again, it’s impossible to predict what Beyoncé will bring next to the table, though I’m not expecting anything revolutionary, I know that when she does, it’ll be passionate and it’ll be powerful.