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What Beyoncé’s Self-Titled Album Taught Me About Music

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Beyoncé, self-titled.

Beyoncé, self-titled.

In 2022, surprise album drops are nothing unexpected. But, on December 13, 2013, when Beyoncé surprise-dropped a self-titled project with a plain black cover supported by her name in bold, square, light pink lettering, she broke the internet. The album was lauded for the breadth of its sonic styles, collaborations, and elaborate music videos for every song. That’s right, every song had a video! She had always been known for captivating choreography and fashion, but this was unlike anything she’d done previously.

Eight years later, I still think it's Beyoncé’s best work. Growing up, my mom played The Chicks, my dad played John Prine, and I fell head over heels for singer-songwriters like Colbie Calliat and Taylor Swift. I was raised on songs that followed a traditional structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro. Beyoncé was different. This album had range I hadn’t heard before. It played with song structures, samples, and interpolations. It also discussed politics and feminism in way a that cracked open my 16-year-old, white, cis, suburban brain.

The album opens with "Pretty Hurts," where Beyoncé is in a beauty pageant and the host prompts her with the question, “What is your aspiration in life?” After hesitating slightly, she responds, “To be happy.” Like many songs on the album, it serves as a commentary on Beyoncé's career. “***Flawless” ends with an audio clip from Star Search, a television competition show that Beyoncé lost when she was 12 and a member of Girl's Tyme, the dancing/rapping group that eventually became Destiny's Child. Beyoncé has repeatedly noted the impact of this loss at such a young age.

“***Flawless” is also noteworthy because halfway through the track it samples "We Should All Be Feminists," a TEDx talk by Nigerian writer and social critic, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She begins, “We teach girls to shrink themselves,” a line forever ingrained in my memory. Adichie concludes with the definition of a feminist. “A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” I studied Adichie in college and her novel *Americana* legitimately changed the way I think about our country. In one track, then, Beyoncé showed you can disregard traditional song structures and radio-friendly hooks all while presenting commentary on feminism and the legacy of race in the United States.

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“Drunk In Love” was the most successful single from the album. A collaboration with Jay-Z, the song is overtly erotic and descriptive. The simplicity of the music video, the chemistry between the couple, and the moaning opening beat captured me the first time I heard it. If it wasn’t obvious from the reference to my upbringing and parents’ music taste, I was not raised on rap or hip hop. Long verses, interpolations, and collaborations were new to me, so Jay-Z's verse on “Drunk In Love” helped me appreciate the convergence of pop, R&B and rap.

“I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker/ Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor…”

— Beyoncé, "Yoncé"

“Partition” is a two-part endeavor, with the hidden track “Yoncé” tacked onto the beginning. The former oozes sexuality as Beyoncé recounts a night out in the back of a limo. “We ain't even gonna make it to this club/Now my mascara running, red lipstick smudged,” she sings after telling the driver to roll up the partition. The way the camera shutter sound connects the two songs symbolizes how public attention is always on Beyoncé as performer, wife, and mother. On “Yoncé,” the slick delivery of the opening line, “Say heyyy Ms. Carter” dissolves into a loosely delivered, thick beat supported chorus where Beyoncé floats her impact on the industry.

From the heartfelt dedication to her daughter on “Blue,” to the vocal collaboration with Drake on “Mine,” to the resounding beauty and somewhat overlooked lead single, “XO,” *Beyoncé* constantly reinvents itself. She deservedly won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the 2014 MTV VMAs, also performing a sixteen-minute medley of the album's songs. The following year, Beyoncé won three Grammys and in 2020, *Rolling Stone* ranked the album 81 in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Beyoncé medley at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

© 2022 Domenic Strazzabosco

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