In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Yo, Taylor. I… I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!” At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the night was still young, and Taylor Swift had just won the award for Best Female Video. Taylor was aw-shucksing her way though her acceptance speech when a visibly drunk Kanye West suddenly appeared beside her, taking away her microphone so that he could correct the historical record.
Kanye West’s actions that night were obviously rude. They were also ridiculous. The VMAs are pure kayfabe. Other than Kanye West, nobody cares who wins. Later that night, the Beyoncé video that Kanye was so eager to defend won Video Of The Year. If the year’s best video is made by a woman, wouldn’t it follow that it’s also the Best Female Video? It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not supposed to make sense. The awards are merely MTV’s excuse to get a bunch of famous people into the same room. Even by the wildest stretch of the imagination, you can’t say that those awards are any indication of merit or esteem. Still, Taylor Swift’s win offended Kanye West’s sensibilities, and he said what he said. (Taylor Swift, incidentally, won that VMA for “You Belong With Me,” a song that peaked at #2. It’s a 10. We’ll see plenty of Taylor Swift in this column.)
Kanye’s interruption led to an immediate and overwhelming backlash. Barack Obama, the newly elected President of the United States of America, called Kanye a “jackass.” Kanye’s VMA moment would lead to ripple-effect consequences that nobody could’ve possibly predicted — consequences that were musical and cultural and maybe even geopolitical. Somehow, we’re still living in its aftermath. If Kanye hadn’t jumped on that stage, our world would now be profoundly different, and I have to imagine that it would be better. But here’s the thing: Kanye wasn’t wrong.
The video for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” is probably the simplest, most stripped-down clip that Beyoncé ever made, and it’s also the most memorable. Jake Nava, the same director who’d made Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” video, shot Beyoncé and backup dancers Ebony Williams and Ashley Everett against a blank background, wearing leotards that Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles designed. The costumes and the locations never change. Instead, Beyoncé, Williams, and Everett simply dance, cutting dramatic silhouettes and projecting absolute strength, as the camera whirls around them. It’s mesmerizing. More than any actual movie that Beyoncé ever made, the “Single Ladies” clip is cinema.
The video did not emerge from a void. Beyoncé, Jake Nava, and choreographer Frank Gatson Jr. were heavily inspired by “Mexican Breakfast,” a Bob Fosse routine that Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon performed with two backup dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. Bits of Fosse’s choreography make it into the “Single Ladies” video, and Beyoncé’s dance also pulls heavily from J-setting, a style performed by dancers in Atlanta’s gay Black clubs and by the Prancing J-Settes, the Jackson State University dance troupe.
Those influences are important, but they don’t really capture what Beyoncé was able to do with the “Single Ladies” video. In a moment when the music video itself was in a strange state of flux — no longer in MTV rotation, not quite a dominant YouTube force yet — Beyoncé was able to turn the “Single Ladies” clip into a monocultural sensation, seemingly through sheer force of will. In that video, Beyoncé gives a definitional star performance. Her eyes radiate power, and every hand-flip and hip-twitch feels meaningful. In the video’s closing seconds, Beyoncé’s icy facade finally cracks. She raises her metal-gloved hand and slowly reveals her gigantic $5 million wedding ring. Finally, gasping for breath, she flashes a quick megawatt smile.
Earlier in 2008, Beyoncé had secretly married her longtime partner and collaborator Jay-Z. That wedding was the subject of heavy speculation, but Jay and Beyoncé didn’t confirm their relationship status until that one moment in the “Single Ladies” video. That’s the way that Beyoncé has always communicated. Even in a social-media age, she keeps complete control, only nodding to her private life in the most meticulously planned-out gestures. “Single Ladies” is a song about not being married, but Beyoncé used it to make history’s greatest wedding announcement. From that moment, the song and the video would be forever inextricable.
Beyoncé didn’t even wear her wedding ring in the studio when she recorded “Single Ladies.” After the success of her sophomore album B’Day, and especially its ultra-huge kiss-off ballad “Irreplaceable,” Beyoncé had big plans for her next record. Beyoncé had a kind of imaginary alter-ego; when she was required to perform grand-scale exuberance, she referred to that performer, who she saw as being separate from her real self, as Sasha Fierce. The third Beyoncé album was called I Am… Sasha Fierce, and the whole idea was that it would explore the split between Beyoncé’s selves.
Maybe Beyoncé should’ve asked Garth Brooks how those split-personality albums usually work out. I Am… Sasha Fierce is by far Beyoncé’s worst solo LP. The record has some great songs, but as a whole, it’s a muddled and indistinct mess. The I Am half — the sleepy ballads that supposedly come from the real Beyoncé — show off a tremendous voice, but they’re boring, especially when grouped together at the beginning of the record. The Sasha Fierce songs, mostly uptempo dance-pop, are generally a lot better, but even those ones feel undercooked. I really like her song “Diva,” for instance, but it was impossible to ignore that the track was an obvious bite of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” with a beat from the same producer. (“Diva” peaked at #19. “A Milli” peaked at #6. It’s a 10.)
For all its issues, though, I Am… Sasha Fierce still has “Single Ladies,” one of those glorious moments when the machine creates something bigger than the sum of its parts. For “Single Ladies,” Jay-Z enlisted The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, and Kuk Harrell, the same team that had been responsible for Rihanna’s game-changing monster smash “Umbrella” the year before. (The-Dream and Tricky Stewart also co-wrote and co-produced Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” but Kuk Harrell didn’t get a credit on that one.)
The-Dream, who’d parlayed his songwriting success into a solo career, was the opening act on Jay-Z’s co-headlining tour with Mary J. Blige. (I saw that show at Madison Square Garden, and I can report that The-Dream was not ready to share the stage with those two.) When The-Dream and Tricky Stewart headed to the studio, they found themselves surrounded by other superstar producers — Stargate in one room, Timbaland in another — all trying to make hits for Beyoncé. The-Dream hyped himself up to write by talking shit to all his peers, telling them that he’d be the one to come up with Beyoncé’s first single. Having said that, Dream had to deliver. Dream later told Genius that he wrote his “Single Ladies” lyrics in “approximately around 17 minutes” and that the song’s central lyrical hook — “if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” — sounded “like some sassy shit a girl would say to me.”
Have you ever listened to the “Single Ladies” instrumental? It’s so weird. The central part of the beat is almost punishingly simple — a syncopated stomp, some militaristic handclaps. There are a few funky guitar stabs in there, and we get some synthetic horns that evoke the HBCU marking bands that Beyoncé loves so much. But the beat also has tons of otherworldly sounds — beeps, whirs, clicks, bloops, squelches, all made to sound as mechanical as possible. Some of those noises remind me of first-generation video game power-ups. Others are like the humming clanks that Robocop makes when he walks. With a few adjustments, that beat could’ve been Nitzer Ebb or Front 242, but The-Dream and Tricky Stewart weren’t trying to channel early industrial music. Instead, they were hoping to make something like “Get Me Bodied.”
The Swizz Beatz production “Get Me Bodied” — another song with an astonishing Bob Fosse-inspired video — is the toughest and best song from Beyoncé’s B’Day album. Like “Single Ladies,” “Get Me Bodied” has a hammering, handclap-happy beat that gives Beyoncé a chance to go absolutely bugshit. “Get Me Bodied” wasn’t a big hit — it peaked at #46 — but it remains one of the greatest things that Beyoncé’s ever done. The-Dream and Tricky Stewart weren’t shy about the way they went after that sound on “Single Ladies.” Shortly after the song’s release, Tricky told People, “I always believe that every artist has a groove to them. That rhythm is what she responds to.” Can’t argue with the results.
The whole lyrical idea behind “Single Ladies” is about as simple as it gets. Beyoncé’s narrator just broke up, and now she’s up in the club, doing her own lil thang. She’s enjoying the company of a new guy, and her ex, who’s evidently up in the same club, is upset about it. But this guy never committed to her. He never got down on one knee. Beyoncé cried her tears for three good years, and now he can’t be mad at her. The ex’s love might be what Beyoncé prefers, what she deserves. But now she’s found a man who makes her, who takes her and delivers her to a destiny, to infinity and beyond. I don’t quite understand why Beyoncé needs to quote Buzz Lightyear to make her point, but the shit sounds good.
“Single Ladies” is full of little hooks — the “whuh oh oh” chant, the playground-taunt cadence of the verses, the howling-in-a-tornado bridge, the chant of the title itself. All of them imprint themselves on your memory. (My daughter, who was born the year after “Single Ladies” came out, couldn’t remember the name of Beyoncé’s old group in a Trivial Pursuit game last year. Her best guess was All The Single Ladies. This is definitive proof that I don’t try to force my musical tastes on my kids.) Beyoncé delivers all those slick little lines and melodic turns with tight, angry precision. She sounds tough and fiery and ebullient all at once. She knows that her ex has fucked up, and she’s delighted at the chance to rub his nose in it.
As always, Beyoncé’s own life and persona thrums in the background throughout “Single Ladies.” It’s a song that she could’ve only released after getting married — a teasing provocation about what would’ve happened if Jay-Z hadn’t put a ring on it. “Single Ladies,” ostensibly a breakup song, carries its own ecstatic newlywed glow. When “Single Ladies” hit, it became a wedding perennial. For years virtually every Facebook engagement announcement was a line about someone liking it and putting a ring on it. Beyoncé shared writing and production credit on “Single Ladies.” I don’t know how many of the lyrical or musical choices really came from her, but she owns the song completely. I can’t imagine anyone else singing it.
Beyoncé released the first two singles from I Am… Sasha Fierce on the same day — the idea being that she’d show both sides of the record at once. “Single Ladies” was the Sasha Fierce single, and the I Am single was the album’s opener, the anguished pop-feminist ballad “If I Were A Boy.” Both songs were hits; “If I Were A Boy” peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) But “Single Ladies” was the song that hit the zeitgeist like a bomb, that immediately became a crucial part of Beyoncé’s iconography.
The “Single Ladies” single eventually went platinum nine times over, and it drove I Am… Sasha Fierce to sextuple platinum status. For many, many years, it was Beyoncé’s last #1 hit. Beyoncé has remained a hugely consequential figure, but she hasn’t really made all-consuming and dominant monocultural tracks like that since. Other Sasha Fierce songs were hits, but they weren’t hits like that. Beyonce co-wrote and co-produced the ballad “Halo” with “Bleeding Love” auteur Ryan Tedder, and it peaked at #5. (It’s an 8.) Since then, “Halo” has quietly become a Spotify colossus; it’s Beyoncé’s most-streamed song by a comfortable margin. But “Halo” didn’t have anything like the immediate impact of “Single Ladies.”
Another I Am… Sasha Fierce single, the synth-rumbling “Sweet Dreams,” made it to #10. (It’s an 8.) By this time, Beyoncé had ascended to the realm of celebrity that she still occupies today — the one where you don’t really have to do the talk-show rounds anymore. Beyoncé played Etta James in the mostly-forgotten awards-bait movie Cadillac Records, and then she sang Etta James’ “At Last” at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball. (The real Etta James, who was still alive, was pissed that she didn’t get the invitation.) During the inaugural festivities, John Legend, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, caught a video of Obama doing a little bit of the “Single Ladies” dance while joking around presidentially with Beyoncé.
Beyoncé collected plenty of awards in the wake of “Single Ladies”; she really didn’t need Kanye West stumping on her behalf at the VMAs. After Kanye’s interruption, when Beyoncé won Video Of The Year, she made the magnanimous move to welcome Taylor Swift back to the stage, letting her finish. A few months later, Taylor Swift defeated Beyoncé for Album Of The Year at the Grammys. That year, “Single Ladies” won Song Of The Year. Beyoncé has won more Grammys than any other human being in history, but all of her other awards are in genre categories, not in the big ones. The “Single Ladies” Grammy is the sole exception. That’s is one of the reasons that people like me were so infuriated to see Harry Styles, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, beat Beyoncé for Album Of The Year a few months ago.
Beyoncé took a short break after the I Am… Sasha Fierce album cycle finally died down, and she fired her father Mathew Knowles as her manager — a sign, in retrospect, that Beyoncé would no longer chase hits with the same level of laser-eyed focus. Instead, Beyoncé eased into a new role as a different type of artist. Every Beyoncé record after I Am… Sasha Fierce has been some kind of album-length statement. When she returned with 4 in 2011, Beyoncé took a step away from the pop mainstream. First single “Run The World (Girls)” was both a feminist statement and, thanks to its Major Lazer sample, an attempt to engage with the EDM sound that had taken over the pop mainstream. But “Run The World (Girls)” was a bit of a flop by Beyoncé standards; it peaked at #29. When 4 came out, that song was effectively reduced to bonus-track status, stuck onto the end of the album.
Most of the 4 album showed Beyoncé blissfully engaging with older R&B styles, something that she did amazingly well. The album was huge at Black radio, and the sunny, slinky throwback “Love On Top” reigned over the R&B charts for seven weeks. Today, it’s one of Beyoncé’s best-loved songs. On the Hot 100, though, “Love On Top” only made it to #20. None of the singles from 4 went top-10; the album’s biggest pop hit, the stormy ballad “Best Thing I Never Had” peaked at #16. Beyoncé didn’t seem too stressed about that. She’d made a fantastic record, and she knew it.
At the end of that album cycle, Beyoncé sang the National Anthem at Obama’s second inauguration, and she gave one of the greatest Super Bowl halftime shows in history. During that set, she briefly reunited Destiny’s Child, and the stadium lost all power for a few disorienting minutes. Then the Baltimore Ravens won. That was a good night.
After that Super Bowl performance, Beyoncé could’ve transitioned into legacy-artist status, her legend already secure. Instead, she plotted out a whole new move. One night in December 2013, an entire Beyoncé album suddenly appeared on iTunes. Beyoncé had somehow made a top-shelf pop album, full of big-name collaborators, and she’d shot videos for every track on the LP — all in secret, all without any leaks. In the process, she subverted the whole album-rollout model, and the industry scrambled to catch up.
Beyoncé’s self-titled LP is one of my favorite albums of the ’10s, but the actual music seemed to take a backseat to the way she ambushed everyone with its release. Millions of people paid $20 for access to the album and its attendant videos, and Beyoncé dominated the cultural conversation for a while. Since then, every other surprise album from a superstar has been an attempt to recapture the stop-the-world energy of that moment. Nobody has ever pulled it off. Hit singles weren’t the point of that record, and its release strategy almost kneecapped the individual tracks. But one song, the delirious Jay-Z collab “Drunk In Love” still made it to #2. (It’s a 9. It might be a 10 without the Jay verse — specifically the line about “your breasteses my breakfast.”)
Beyoncé wasn’t playing the pop-star game anymore. Instead, she was making important grand-scale art. More than any previous Beyoncé album, that self-titled record felt like an event. That might’ve been even more true of her next album. With 2016’s Lemonade, Beyoncé addressed Jay-Z’s reported infidelity from a galaxy-brain standpoint, digging into the many ways that Black women have been historically mistreated. Again, Beyoncé wasn’t really trying to make hit singles; the album wasn’t even available on most streaming services. But Beyoncé still got to #10 with the big-statement single “Formation.” (It’s a 10.)
Everything that Beyoncé did after Lemonade felt like a victory lap. In 2017, Beyoncé played an absolutely dizzying headlining set at Coachella — a whole new type of artistic triumph. When everyone else in my house is asleep, I still habitually get high and put on Homecoming, the Coachella concert film that Beyoncé made for Netflix. This always proves to be a good decision. Whenever I do that, I have a great time. In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, having apparently reconciled, released Everything Is Love, an extremely mid collaborative album about how great it is to be married and ridiculously rich. Lead single “Apeshit” peaked at #13, and its existence mostly seemed like an excuse to rent out the Louvre.
After Lemonade, I got the feeling that Beyoncé didn’t particularly care about the pop charts anymore, that she was more concerned with making impactful art that only glancingly intersected with the business of getting lots of people to listen to three-minute pop songs. But Beyoncé, it turns out, still cares about making pop songs, and she might even care about whether those songs do well on the Hot 100. It’ll be a while, but Beyoncé will appear in this column again.