First off, Happy 35th Birthday to Beyoncé. Secondly, Happy 10th Birthday to album artist Beyoncé.
Many who agree that Beyoncé is a great artist will conclude that Destiny’s Child was the beginning of that artistry. “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name” and “Bootylicious” (among others) are excellent examples of radio pop. When she moved on to recording her first solo album, the spotty Dangerously in Love came from it, featuring the major commercial and critical hit “Crazy in Love.” Considering that articles still refer to Beyoncé—goddamn Beyoncé—as “the ‘Crazy in Love’ singer,” the album has obviously become defined by the one song.
Where Beyoncé went from being a great pop singles artist to making great albums is open to interpretation, though. Her 2013 self-titled LP was her first to receive universal acclaim, and the acclaim for this year’s Lemonade has been even more immense, so most will likely name those as the beginning of her time as an album artist. But if any of her albums should be revisited, 2006’s B’Day is the one.
Unlike the self-titled and Lemonade, which were designed as complete experiences, B’Day is more of a collection of songs. This may be why it doesn’t have as strong a reputation as the other two. As far as collections of songs go, however, B’Day is particularly special. Half of its 10 tracks were released as singles (six if you count the promotional single “Upgrade U”), and the others could easily have been. Similar to Thriller, it’s a pop album so carefully constructed that even the weakest tracks are radio-worthy. In fact, listening to the album, you’d probably guess that “Suga Mama” and “Freakum Dress” were hits.
Fans of Lemonade who either haven’t heard or dismissed B’Day should give it a shot, because it’s something of a predecessor to the later album in a couple of ways. A conceptual break-up album, Lemonade is an idolized pop culture icon refusing to stay silent following a romantic dilemma. It’s aided by Beyoncé’s personal life, but Beyoncé the icon is central to its success. B’Day doesn’t have a concept, beyond enhancing the myth of Queen Bey, but it does have a few breakup songs, most notably the No. 1 hit “Irreplaceable.” One of the best songs Beyoncé has ever released, “Irreplaceable” predicts Lemonade in specific lyrics—“You must not know ‘bout me” must have inspired “Who the fuck you think I is?/You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy” in some way—but it also shares that album’s use of Beyoncé’s iconicity to enhance the heartbreak of her personal life. Plus, the fact that Lemonade is most likely more autobiographical than “Irreplaceable” is solid grounds for avoiding discussing authenticity in the first place. A strong enough singer can make anything sound real.
Beyond the closing track “Resentment,” the other breakup songs are looser. “Kitty Kat” features Beyoncé referring to her own vagina (“Let’s go little kitty cat/He don’t want no mo’”), the marvelous “Freakum Dress” shows her taking out the titular dress (“Every woman got one”) to remind a cheating partner that he’s dating Beyoncé and the terrific “Ring the Alarm” shows her at her most manic.
But because B’Day lacks a major concept, it’s able to do more both conceptually and musically, and it’s in the other half of the album that she sets up the dramatic tension of Lemonade. Tracks like “Déjà Vu,” “Upgrade U” and “Green Light” put her and Jay-Z’s relationship on display and give the album a sexual energy that would later gain her praise on the self-titled album. But while she’s never been shy about throwing in a great punchline—“Can you lick my Skittles/It’s the sweetest in the middle,” “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster,” etc.—there is an intoxicating level of joy in B’Day’s display of sexuality. In her mid-20s, Beyoncé was comfortable covering sexual themes in a way that was light, fun and youthful. Maturity is good, especially when it leads to songs like “Rocket” and “Blow.” But it is somewhat disappointing that “Partition” is so much more respected than “Suga Mama,” which shows Beyoncé reversing the sugar daddy gender roles and loving it: “It’s so good to the point that I’d do anything to keep you home.”
B’Day’s title refers to the fact that it was released on Beyoncé’s 25th birthday, but it could just as easily stand for Beyoncé Day, and as far as her albums go, none are as celebratory of all of her strengths, setting up the sexual bliss of the self-titled and the telling-off of Lemonade while also being her best album on a purely song-for-song basis. I love her last three albums, but this one needs more love.