Shortly after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 performance in 2016, Saturday Night Live ran a short titled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” It was an exaggerated version of what really happened that year—when, at the halftime show, she performed “Formation,” a clear departure from her previous catalog, celebrating her “baby hairs and Afros” and “Negro nose” all while dressed in full Black Panther regalia. There was also the unmistakable imagery of the video, calling out the negligence weaponized against the Black people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A group of cops boycotted her tour performance in Miami in response that April. “I don’t understand,” a terrified white man screams in the SNL skit, hell breaking loose around him, as he learns that Kerry Washington, too, is Black. “How can they be Black? They’re women.” The white man next to him suddenly realizes: “I think they might be both.”
I don’t think I was waiting for Beyoncé to “come out” as Black; everything about her seemed rooted in or related to Black culture, from her name to her Dereon jeans to how her particular brand of beauty—light and curvy—was discussed and celebrated and bemoaned for being discussed and celebrated. But ever since the release of “Formation,” and with the steady stream of projects she’s dropped these past few years—Lemonade, the album and accompanying film; the landmark Homecoming performance at Coachella in 2018; the victory lap duet album with Jay-Z, Everything Is Love; the Afrobeat-packed The Lion King: The Gift; and now Black Is King—she has become more emphatic in her pride for her cultural identity and intentional about communicating that message. Maybe it’s an age thing, or maybe it’s because she became a parent, but she’s started to feel a bit like an elder, wisely entreating Black people to love themselves.
Since 2016, she hasn’t just become more forthcoming about her Blackness, but about her womanhood. She was always a beacon for “girl power”—but in a nondescript way that left out any mention of her own experience. By her own admission, the Beyoncé of yesteryear was a young woman “intent on pleasing everyone around her.” Grown Bey is a mother of three who’s “died and [been] reborn” in her marriage. She’s been through some things. And people who have been through some things are generally more interesting than those who haven’t. As such, it’s hard to compare a song like “Déjà Vu” to one like “Bigger”—they were made by totally different people, and yet they’re each quintessentially Beyoncé. One is an expert dance song, musical in every way, funky from the floor up; and the other is a capital-M Message. Twenty-five-year-old Beyoncé probably knew then, as she sings now, that she was “part of something way bigger,” but it’s only the Bey of her late 30s who could convincingly show us that we all are.
To celebrate the release of her new visual album, Black Is King, out Friday on Disney+, we’re celebrating the top 100 songs in her solo catalog. The list includes her early work outside of Destiny’s Child, her duets and feature appearances—including the ones with her husband, Jay-Z—and of course her classic Coachella performance.
100. “Sandcastles,” Lemonade, 2016
99. “Disappear,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
98. “Broken-Hearted Girl,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
97. “Ave Maria,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
96. “Smash Into You,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
95. “Telephone,” The Fame Monster, 2010
Both Lady Gaga and Beyoncé were at the peak of their pop powers when this song and video—a zany 10-minute film set in a very stylish women’s prison—came out 10 years ago. It’s certainly more Gaga than Bey in its sound (and was originally written for Britney Spears, the other “Queen B,” as some call her, to feature), but like many of both women’s songs, it’s about just wanting to have a good time at the club with your girls.
94. “Daddy,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
Knowing what we know now, Beyoncé singing that she wants her unborn son to be like her daddy, and for her husband to be like him too, this song is slightly ironic. Still, it just further underscores how much she and her music have evolved over the years.
93. “I Miss You,” 4, 2011
92. “Hello,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
91. “I Was Here,” 4, 2011
90. “Heaven,” Beyoncé, 2013
89. “Forward” (feat. James Blake), Lemonade, 2016
88. “Gift From Virgo,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
87. “Halo,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
Though it’s one of her biggest songs, and her most popular video on YouTube at over 1 billion views, this song has always felt to me more engineered to pull heartstrings than brimming with genuine emotion. The one exception is this super-stripped down version performed in 2009 at a children’s hospital in Singapore—just her voice, guitar, and a palpable sense of joy and intimacy.
86. “Hip Hop Star” (feat. Big Boi and Sleepy Brown), Dangerously in Love, 2003
85. “Beautiful Liar” (feat. Shakira), B’Day, 2006
84. “XO,” Beyoncé, 2013
83. “Haunted,” Beyoncé, 2013
82. “Signs” (feat. Missy Elliott), Dangerously in Love, 2003
Herein lies Beyoncé’s thoughts about all the zodiac signs. Seems like the ones she likes best are hers (Virgo) and Jay-Z’s (Sagittarius).
81. “That’s How You Like It,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
80. “Suga Mama,” B’Day, 2006
79. “Yes,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
78. “Lay Up Under Me,” 4, 2011
77. “Sweet Dreams,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
76. “Start Over,” 4, 2011
75. “Jealous,” Beyoncé, 2013
74. “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé, 2013
73. “Radio,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
72. “Rocket,” Beyoncé, 2013
71. “Check on It,” #1s, 2005
70. “Kitty Kat,” B’Day, 2006
69. “Scared of Lonely,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
68. “Run the World (Girls),” 4, 2011
Rather than organically inspirational, this song sounds like it was written to be an anthem. But the thing about anthems, hits, and songs that inspire and mobilize people, is that the inspiration is often unintentional, or at the very least not so on-the-nose.
67. “Dance for You,” 4, 2011
66. “At Last,” 2009
No, not the Cadillac Records recording, but the live version from inauguration night, 2009, when she stands there, hand to face, stunned, serenading the Obamas as they dance on the first night of the first Black presidency.
65. “Best Thing I Never Had,” 4, 2011
64. “Work It Out,” Austin Powers in Goldmember: Music From the Motion Picture, 2002
Only the Neptunes, the producers of this track, could make something so recognizably them, but also funky—and make an intentionally tinny fake sax sound cool. Also, remember Austin Powers?
63. “Pray You Catch Me,” Lemonade, 2016
62. “My Power,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
61. “1+1,” 4, 2011
60. “Blue,” Beyoncé, 2013
Blue Ivy has a credit on this song as “Featured Artist.” She’s only 1 year old, but that’s old enough for her to cutely, sweetly try to say her mother’s name toward the end of the song.
59. “Water” (feat. Salatiel and Pharrell), The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
58. “Countdown,” 4, 2011
57. “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse, 2002
Fun fact: This song came out in 2002, when Beyoncé was just 21 years old, and when she and Jay became an item. This song introduced them not just as musical collaborators, but partners in proverbial crime. Just as “Crazy in Love,” released the following year, would clearly signal the beginning of Beyoncé’s solo career, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” is a signature song that lets you know Bey and Jay are here to stay.
56. “Be With You,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
55. “7/11,” Beyoncé, 2013
54. “End of Time,” 4, 2011
53. “Schoolin’ Life,” 4, 2011
52. “Otherside,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
51. “Love Drought,” Lemonade, 2016
50. “Freedom” (feat. Kendrick Lamar), Lemonade, 2016
49. “Video Phone,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
48. “Superpower” (feat. Frank Ocean), Beyoncé, 2013
47. “Ego (Remix)” (feat. Kanye West), I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
This song celebrated big dick energy long before the term was coined, and featured Kanye when his outsized ego was a quirky part of his personality rather than a chaotic, destructive force.
46. “Green Light,” B’Day, 2006
45. “Ring the Alarm,” B’Day, 2006
44. “No Angel,” Beyoncé, 2013
43. “Until the End of Time (Remix)” FutureSex/LoveSounds, 2006
This was a special year for these two 1981 babies—they both reached new heights in their careers—so it only made sense for them to join forces on this song, previously a Justin Timberlake solo number, for a version that’s even better.
42. “Before I Let Go,” Homecoming, 2019
The Frankie Beverly of Maze gave Beyoncé permission to remake this song, and it’s only fitting she included it on Homecoming, where she performs “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”: “Before I Let Go” is the unofficial Black national anthem. If you’ve attended any of the proverbial cookouts, you know.
41. “Brown Skin Girl,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
40. “That’s Why You’re Beautiful,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
Probably the best song on the I Am portion of I Am … Sasha Fierce (other than “If I Were a Boy”), an album that was mostly slow and goopy. The drums and guitar lend a pulsating energy to this song that keep it from getting bogged down by its tempo.
39. “Spirit,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
38. “Already,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
Beyoncé’s version of The Lion King soundtrack features mostly African Afrobeat artists, and it’s mostly (very) danceable. “Spirit” is the beautiful, Oscar-worthy ballad, but “Already,” “Water” (no. 59 on this list), and “My Power” (no. 62) are songs to add to your dance/workout/party playlists.
37. “Freakum Dress,” B’Day, 2006
Another fun fact: The “freakum dress” that many of us wore with glee in 2006 is the PG version of Martin Lawrence’s “fuck ’em dress,” as referenced in You So Crazy. This song became an anthem of harnessing the power of your bawdy to mesmerize men.
36. “Naughty Girl,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
35. “(Part II) On the Run,” Magna Carta Holy Grail, 2013
This is the best Bey and Jay collab, in which they are, once again, on an imaginary run. The story is not important—it’s a beautiful, wistful track that suggests a meaning deeper than fleeing the scene of a crime.
34. “Grown Woman,” Beyoncé, 2013
33. “Family Feud,” 4:44, 2017
This is a Jay-Z song about Beyoncé. She’s on it, but what’s even better is a whole album of Jay-Z admitting how stupid he was. We should all be so lucky to get this well-produced an apology.
32. “Drunk in Love,” Beyoncé, 2013
Lyrically, this has got to be one of the most confounding Beyoncé songs, but like so many of the other songs on her self-titled 2013 album, it’s another entrée into the world of a sexualized, imbibing Bey. She also managed to turn it into a club hit, despite its slow tempo.
31. “Speechless,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
30. “Diva (Live),” Homecoming: The Live Album, 2019
This song generated a fair amount of debate when it first appeared on I Am … Sasha Fierce—is a diva the female version of a hustler? Its reimagining for Coachella became an instant classic with its interpolations of “Irreplaceable” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” as well as a one-minute dance break for the ages to O.T. Genasis’s “Everybody Mad.” Once you’ve heard it, it’s hard to imagine any of these songs without a horn line.
29. “Irreplaceable,” B’Day, 2006
This one is almost like an Amy Winehouse song in the way its lyrics are way more tart than the innocuous music. In a way it’s a precursor to Lemonade’s “Hold Up,” another cheeky song about a trifling lover.
28. “Baby Boy” (feat. Sean Paul), Dangerously in Love, 2003
Another for the Quintessential Bey archives. Unlike many guest rap verses of the day, Sean Paul feels like an integral part of the song rather than an afterthought. It’s another one of Beyoncé’s dance numbers, but its dancehall style makes it distinct from the more pop, R&B, and horn-driven tracks she would become known for.
27. “6 Inch” (feat. The Weeknd), Lemonade, 2016
Her raw gritty voice, the Isaac Hayes “Walk on By” sample, and the fact that it sounds like a casino heist-movie theme are what make this song great. Not even the Weeknd could ruin it.
26. “Listen,” Dreamgirls, 2006
Did people in your theater clap after she sang this song in Dreamgirls? (They did in mine.) I’d like to believe this is the antidote to all the “Beyoncé can’t sing” people. What a performance—and one that, in the story of her character Deena, evokes similar themes: Is the pretty light-skinned girl talented or is she just pretty and light-skinned? She’s both.
25. “Upgrade U,” B’Day, 2006
It’s hard to imagine contemporary Beyoncé uttering a line like “still play my part and let you take the lead role,” but this song is still Quintessential Bey.
24. “Partition,” Beyoncé, 2013
Beyoncé was another kind of coming out moment for Beyoncé—coming out as grown. It’s vaguely reminiscent of what Janet Jackson did with Control—saying, “I’m my own woman, separate from all these people you associate me with, and I like to have sex.” The most explicit song and video on the album, “Partition” is unabashed and undisguised in its intention (unlike “Blow” and “Rocket” which are mostly innuendo): “Now my mascara running, red lipstick smudged / Oh, he so horny, yeah, he want to fuck.” It’s also fun to imagine what it would be like to have a private driver.
23. “Mine” (feat. Drake), Beyoncé, 2013
On this song, Beyoncé is singing a peak Drake melody. After so many years of the rap-sing god’s reign, hearing Beyoncé’s interpretation of such a melody—before her own rap-singing evolution—is refreshing. It’s also one of the only songs on the self-titled album—remember, this is pre-Lemonade—that hints at a real-life Bey problem, when she sings “I haven’t felt like myself since the baby.” Also, the drums. The drums go hard.
22. “Savage (Remix),” 2020
Let me be the first to say that I never saw Bey the Rapper coming, despite her husband’s pedigree. Turns out, it’s one of her best modes—on this Megan Thee Stallion track, she proves herself to be whimsical and a little naughty, with a penchant for delivering memorable one-liners such as “My mama was a savage / Got this shit from Tina.”
21. “Mood 4 Eva (Extended),” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
Ditto the above statement about Rapping Bey—this bop from The Lion King features this memorable line “Why would you try me? Why would you bother? / I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.” That’s right—she turns her government name into a lyric, and it’s one of the best moments of the song.
20. “Blow,” Beyoncé, 2013
Midway through this song, Beyoncé sings, “This is for all the grown women out there.” “Blow” is indeed quite grown, about one kind of sex with no mention of love or guilt or pain. It references sweet, metaphorical Skittles, and has a bright, poppy, candy-colored feel to it, only enhanced by the video, which takes place in a roller rink, a place people used to go. Even if you never enjoy the pleasure of skating in a circle to this song, it’s still fun to be in on its “riddle.”
19. “Hold Up,” Lemonade, 2016
Though Lemonade is wrenching in its detailing of the speaker’s pain, there is one moment of pure, upside-down-smiley fun. With different music—less major-key, more wistful—“Hold Up” could have been another sad “my man is cheating on me” song. Instead, it’s flippant about its pain and rage: “How did it come down to this? / Scrolling through your call list?” and “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” It also presents an interesting thought experiment toward the end, asking Mr. Cheating Lover if he would have been as successful without his partner, and quickly answering no.
18. “Sorry (Demo),” Lemonade, 2016
The recorded version is great (as is the video with a twerking Serena Williams); the live version from Homecoming with extended step routine is even better, and so is the recently released demo version. It’s more raw, more pissed-off than the version that made the album, including the perfect line “Hell no I ain’t gonna call you back.”
17. “Daddy Lessons,” Lemonade, 2016
It shouldn’t be shocking that Beyoncé did a country song, knowing that she’s from Texas, with a commitment to showcasing the breadth of Black music and culture. But it was still a little surprising. “Daddy Lessons” does not come across as a token “genre” song but a more layered story of a girl’s relationship with her father, one that isn’t necessarily about Mathew Knowles, but has just enough intrigue to make you wonder.
16. “If I Were a Boy,” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
Through a list of hypotheticals, Beyoncé accurately describes what male privilege feels like—both unwittingly having it, and, from a woman’s perspective, watching it be carelessly deployed.
15. “I Care,” 4, 2011
This song is simple in its premise—I care, you don’t—which gives Bey the space to stretch out on a growling, impassioned performance. Her throaty singing, along with the drums and electric guitar solo, which she doubles in a Mariah-esque upper register, make this one tops.
14. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” I Am … Sasha Fierce, 2008
“Single Ladies” is, of course, more than a song—it’s a phenomenon, a cultural flashpoint. As Kanye would have you know, it’s “one of the best videos of all time”—at least up until 2009. Simple in its construction, the black and white video is just three women dancing in black leotards and platform Mary Janes. It’s a showcase for the choreography, which at once invites imitation and is far too complex to replicate. Yet this was the first Beyoncé dance routine that was widely studied, copied, and performed socially, with the video itself being extensively parodied. The hook—“If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it” is both catchy and true.
13. “Crazy in Love” (feat. Jay-Z), Dangerously in Love, 2003
This was our first taste of solo Bey, setting the tenor for the rest of her career. At the top of the song, she asks, “You ready?” I can’t help but wonder whether she meant for everything. It’s a song that holds up all these years later—she opened her Coachella performance with it—and is the original kind of Quintessential Bey—fun, danceable, and passionately performed.
12. “The Closer I Get to You” (feat. Luther Vandross), Dangerously in Love, 2003
One of Vandross’s great talents was his ability to interpret other people’s music and make it sound better than they did themselves. Though this rendition of the Roberta Flack–Donny Hathaway tune is more of a Luther song than a Beyoncé song—his signature, and that of his longtime producer/arranger Nat Adderley Jr., are all over it—it wouldn’t work without her. She’s more than the female voice on this song. They’re two powerhouses from two different eras who lean on each other for their particular talents and expertise—she’s young and pop; he’s a soul master—and that admiration and symbiosis come through here, making their version (gasp) better than the original.
11. “Don’t Hurt Yourself (Live),” Homecoming: The Live Album, 2019
The disturbing thing about Lemonade, to a listener who was not Beyoncé, was how relatable her insecurity was as she wondered what she could do to wrangle the man who was supposed to be committed to her. When she says “Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain’t dealing with no average bitch, boy,” she means “Come on, I’m Beyoncé!”; but she’s also speaking for any woman whose worth has been sorely miscalculated. The live version from Coachella has an additional Led Zeppelin sample, “Kashmir,” layered on with strings, as well as a clip of Malcolm X reminding the audience that “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.” Even though Jay and Bey seem to be all better, she does not hold back on her screaming, screeching rage—it (almost) makes you want to get cheated on just so you can sing along.
10. “Déjà Vu” (feat. Jay-Z), B’Day, 2006
I think of this song as an elevated “Crazy in Love”—the horns are more precise, the bassline is distinct, and it’s got a slightly haunting melody that would sound great if remade by one of those hipster cover bands. Like so many of her songs, the reconstructed, reharmonized live version is even better.
9. “All Night,” Lemonade, 2016
This is probably Lemonade’s most vulnerable song. It’s neither purely rageful, like “Don’t Hurt Yourself” nor flatly resigned like “Sandcastles.” It’s incorporated the pain of infidelity into the story of a relationship and the process of healing. “So many people I know are just trying to kiss up and rub up and feel on you / Give you some time to prove that I can trust you again,” she sings; with everyone wanting a piece of her husband, what will be left for her? She ultimately concludes, “Nothing real can be threatened”—not a boast, but a lesson from almost losing something most precious.
8. “Me Myself & I,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
While this song sounds more like a fictional imagining of a scorned lover rather than one sung from experience, it’s a classic for its sultriness and its groove, courtesy of producer Scott Storch.
7. “Formation,” Lemonade, 2016
Like many of her catchy songs, “Formation” has got some mystery (what is an “albino alligator”?), but it’s overpowered by the sheer delight of hearing her tell the truth: Illuminati truthers are corny; our constant discussion of her does prove that she is “that bitch.” The song is of course enhanced by the imagery of the video—a Black child dancing in front of a police battalion who raise their hands up in surrender; Bey on a cop car sinking under the waters of Katrina.
6. “***Flawless,” Beyoncé, 2013
Beyoncé’s self-titled album was her first step toward a more particular musical personality—e.g., the type of person who would tell another group of women to “bow down, bitches”—previously unthinkable for the sweet, neutral persona she had cultivated. “***Flawless” incorporated the full range of Beyoncé’s story—from a sample of her losing on Star Search as one-sixth of Girls Tyme in 1993, to how her family, marriage, and motherhood shaped her. And, as the kids say, it goes.
5. “Bigger,” The Lion King: The Gift, 2019
This song is the musical manifestation of how Beyoncé has recently begun to use her influence for good beyond philanthropy or political endorsements. She is creating meaningful artwork that provokes further exploration, as she did at Coachella, by celebrating HBCUs, Black Greek organizations, and the Black National Anthem. The Lion King: The Gift similarly highlights major figures in Afrobeat from the continent—Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, and Wizkid. But this song is also part of that mission. As she sings, “Not just a speck in the universe / Not just some words in a Bible verse / You are the living word / You’re part of something way bigger.” The lyrics don’t feel like platitudes but real-deal love from a queen.
4. “Get Me Bodied (Extended),” B’Day, 2006
This Swizz Beatz–produced club song is about going to the club, and maybe that’s why it’s Beyoncé’s best dance number—that and the set of instructions at the end (e.g., to “pat your weave,” “do the Naomi Campbell walk,” and “do an old-school dance”). It’s the part of the song that everyone waits for, that brings together a crowd, and that makes even the rhythmically challenged feel like they can take part. It’s for the people!
3. “Party” (feat. André 3000), 4, 2011
This has one of the best grooves of any Beyoncé song. It’s ’80s-inflected but without the chintz, and makes you want to do a side-to-side, back-and-forth dance. It’s reminiscent, I would say, of “Hip Hop Hooray,” though that reference is just old enough to be nearly unintelligible. “Party” was also special for a rare appearance by the always on-point André 3000, who himself mulls over the strange passage of time that’s turned him into other people’s hero. Kanye also makes an appearance, coining the term “swagu” (it was a different time), as does J. Cole in the video version.
2. “Dangerously in Love 2,” Dangerously in Love, 2003
This was the powerhouse ballad that, on this second recording of it (the first was with Destiny’s Child), established Beyoncé as the solo star she was always going to be. She brings passion and emotion that make an otherwise straightforward ballad uniquely hers, and it’s still memorable nearly 20 years later.
1. “Love on Top,” 4, 2011
There’s a reason “top” is in the title. It’s a pure, sweet, almost triumphant love song that thrives because of its straightforward message, rather than being limited by it. It manages a wide appeal without being generic; it’s old school without sounding dated (the video has some New Edition–inspired dance moves to boot). It’s an end-of-the-night “the lights are about to come on” song (Beyoncé ended Homecoming with it); it’s a singalong number, but it’s danceable. It’s also the song she used to reveal to the world that she was pregnant with Blue Ivy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The precipitously rising key changes at the end draw you in wondering just how high she can fly—turns out, all the way to the top.
Kyla Marshell’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Believer, Kinfolk, O Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence graduate, and lives in New York.