The Beyoncé Albums Ranked

The music of Beyoncé, Bey, Queen B, Sasha Fierce, etc., looms large. From her days in Destiny’s Child (who I’ve written about before) to early solo success to Jay-Z marriage to childbirth and many, many more iconic and extensively covered career and life changes, Beyoncé has reigned as one of the celebrities supreme of pop music and superstardom. It’s hard to find someone without some form of opinion on the musician, ranging from polar extremes of hatred to standom. Somewhere in the middle is welcome criticism of her leveraging of other cultures (not to mention sweatshops for clothing lines) and healthy enjoyment of most all of her music. I’ll say I’m in that latter camp, someone who has enjoyed Beyoncé’s hits throughout most of her eras and had revisited her discography in full a few years ago. That discography, made up of seven albums released across the 19 years since 2003, is without a bad record, so it was a joy to re-listen and research for this piece. Not included in this list, among various remix things, EPs, and live albums, is also EVERYTHING IS LOVE (2018), Beyoncé’s collaboration with husband Jay-Z credited to “the Carters,” and THE LION KING: THE GIFT (2019), a soundtrack supplement to the “photorealistic” remake that she produced, contributed songs to, and oversaw but doesn’t quite count as a full-fledged “Beyoncé album” as I see it. Both are worth listening to, however, and the concert films and visual components of some of Beyoncé’s most recent albums that she directed are also fun to watch. But now, on to the megastar’s seven records.

Favorite track: “Break My Soul”

RENAISSANCE is Beyoncé’s latest album at the time of this writing, the impetus for this piece and her seventh record overall and comes after the biggest gap between her releases at just over six years. Unfortunately, as far as I see (or hear) it, the wait wasn’t totally satisfied. Now, I’ve already said Beyoncé has never made a bad record, and indeed, RENAISSANCE (stylized with an “Act I,” so we can expect more soon hopefully) is a fun and pretty powerful listen. It does indeed feel like a revival of a less aggressive vibe that could be found on predecessors BEYONCÉ and LEMONADE, playing with more straightforward club beats and lighter tones. Of course, Beyoncé works within an “elevated” sphere of pop music, so it’s not all braindead lyrics and song construction. The whole of RENAISSANCE actually blends together into a pounding, sinuous listen, but I’ve just got to go with my gut on this one: it doesn’t have any standout hooks or catchy choruses. Coming from Beyoncé, that means RENAISSANCE just doesn’t hit quite right.

Favorite track: “If I Was a Boy”

Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce era is the earliest I was hyperaware of her stardom and omnipresence. With her alter-ego-fueled third album and its surrounding media blitz, which came into being while I was in middle school, I bopped along to hits like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and “Halo…” on the DL, of course, as a tweenaged boy. And the fact remains that I AM…SASHA FIERCE is still a fun and powerful listen. Formatted as a double album, although it isn’t really double album length at 41 minutes, the first I AM part weaves through belting ballads, such as my favorite track “If I Was a Boy.” Then SASHA FIERCE starts out the upbeat hits with “Single Ladies.” Both are great listens in their own way, but the back half is definitely more consistent and ultimately satisfying. I have to wonder, though, if that track order and approach lessens the impact of both kinds of songs, as the energy kind of blends together. So ironically or perhaps fittingly, I AM…SASHA FIERCE ends up feeling more disjointed than it really could have if it was a bit more mixed up.

Favorite track: “Check on It”

The conventional wisdom about Beyoncé’s discography (which is definitely not dispensed by me) is that it just keeps getting better. But after revisiting all of it at once, I’m kind of surprised by how taken I am with her earliest solo releases. Sure, they’re more simple and straightforward bits of pop, both musically and lyrically. But man, a song like “Check on It,” for all its performative sex-sells approach, is so groovy and catchy. That track defines much of B’DAY, but the album also explores some funk and older R&B trends in its integration of mid-2000s hip hop and pop production. It’s not always the most successful blend, but Beyoncé is indeed one of those artists I often evaluate by just how many singular tracks she presents. B’DAY has a greater number of them than the above albums, but it is admittedly also undermined by the proficiency and artistry to come.

Favorite track: “Dangerously in Love”

That future reputation somehow doesn’t sabotage Beyoncé’s debut solo release, however. It’s undeniable that DANGEROUSLY IN LOVE is the “simplest” of her records, but really, when it comes to pop, I often appreciate that. By virtue of a literal proximity but also in its approach to R&B-tinged mass appeal, DANGEROUSLY IN LOVE is the most Destiny’s Child-esque record in Beyoncé’s body of work. And that’s actually a major selling point for me, especially since that sound is translated through some all-time great songs and hits from the musician. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia speaking or a growing unease I have with the focus on making pop music more “important” than it is fun to listen to (although until RENAISSANCE, Beyoncé has been one of the most successful practitioners of that trend), but dipping into DANGEROUSLY IN LOVE feels like a reassuring bit of stewardship, guiding the vibes with a sure hand.

Favorite track: “Hold Up”

Now this is where I may get into trouble, as it seems to me that LEMONADE is the favorite for favorite Beyoncé album. But in spite of my statements to the contrary, I do think its approach to an incredible narrative and its themes that touch both on Beyoncé’s personal life and institutionalized racism are powerful. There are a lot of great, catchy, uplifting, fun, and compellingly aggressive tracks on the record, “Hold Up” being the best of them. But in so boldly refining the visual album concept, Beyoncé did end up making a better film than she did album. LEMONADE “the movie” (2016) encompasses every sense and emotionally contextualizes the music so effectively that the songs of the album, which are indeed not among Beyoncé’s best, just don’t stand up as well on their own. That being said, the album-length experience of listening to LEMONADE is to move and be moved with top-tier pop music, enriched by an artistry not often matched in that sphere.

Favorite track: “Pretty Hurts”

But what LEMONADE did, BEYONCÉ did before and better (mostly). The singer pioneered the stealth release mode with the sudden drop of her self-titled album, while also reviving or re-contextualizing the potency of the visual album concept. While BEYONCÉ’s cinematic element is more disparate and less visually or emotionally powerful than LEMONADE, it is still an incredible evolution from the pop star who entered celebrity with Destiny’s Child fifteen years earlier. And the visuals of the self-titled support, rather than subsume, the great music at the base of the whole project. Beyoncé captures powerful sentiments, such as her view of her near-lifelong sexualization and commentary on her relationships, and distills them into anthemic and grooving pop tracks, such as “Pretty Hurts.” But she also brings an experimental streak to songs like “Partition” and “Flawless” that has never been done quite as well since, in spite of the focus of RENAISSANCE and LEMONADE. BEYONCÉ is satisfying on multiple levels, from pop confection to emotional treatise.

Favorite track: “Run the World (Girls)”

But it’s BEYONCÉ’s predecessor, the appropriately titled fourth studio album from the musician, that still stands as her best to me. 4 represents a transitional period for Beyoncé, moving from the “shallower” pop music of her earlier solo career and stepping a bit into the game-changing artsy-ness of later works. For example, “Run the World (Girls)” not only challenges typical pop song lyrics in its commentary on feminism, but it also works with a droning and aggressive bit of beat production that isn’t always the most sonorous but is certainly always movement-inducing. Although it’s my favorite track on 4, “Girls” is also a bit of an outlier, as much of the rest of the record plays with a funkier and more soulful sound inspired by ’70s and ’80s icons. It’s pretty much the perfect escalation of the perhaps cheesier MO of Destiny’s Child and the early solo albums into a crafty pop parlay for artistic credibility. 4 is also the smoothest of Beyoncé’s records, moving from track to track with almost no friction and constantly delighting with its sheen and uplifting pop music flow.

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