Classifying Beyonce as an artist is one of the most impossible tasks any music fan could ever undertake. As one of the biggest stars on the planet, Beyonce could easily be considered a pop star, but she’s also one of music’s most distinctive artists, with a singular sound easily identifiable as her own despite its massive diversity. Queen Bey could deliver a throwback R&B jam as easily as she could fire off a proto-country ballad or a New Orleans bounce bop, yet you’ll always know it’s her — and could only ever be her.
Each body of Beyonce’s work is an eclectic artistic statement that traverses such a broad range of styles that each individual track could easily fall into two or three genres on its own. Whether she is snapping off intense assertive bars as on “Flawless” or kicking and screaming on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyonce has shown throughout her catalog that she’s a stylistic chameleon who can execute both pitch-perfect riffs on any genre she tries on for size, or craft hits that defy attempts at categorizing them at just one thing.
But that’s what we’re going to try to do here: Figure out just which songs belong under which umbrella. The point isn’t to make square pegs fit into round holes, though — it’s to highlight Beyonce’s gift as blowing up the very concept that music should fit into neat little boxes in the first place. She doesn’t belong in a box as an artist, but here are the songs that best highlight her ability to both fit in and stand out — sticking to her solo output, naturally, or we’d be here all week.
By far, the majority of Beyonce’s music falls into the hazily defined category of pop music. She’s a big fan of stadium-filling anthems, triumphant brass, and heavy synth punctuated by booming percussion. While “pop” music as it stands today sounds much like an offshoot of R&B with hip-hop elements, many of Beyonce’s pop songs combine multiple elements of varied genres, with big, catchy choruses and sweeping, David Foster-esque flourishes. This is where much of Beyonce’s most well-known material lands, by virtue of being both popular and harder to fit into other categories. It’s also the broadest class of Beyonce music, from booming empowerment anthems to operatic ballads and of course, the dance floor-filling smashes.
Songs: “Crazy In Love,” “Naughty Girl,” “Deja Vu,” “Get Me Bodied,” “Upgrade U,” “Ring The Alarm,” “Freakum Dress,” “Check Up On It,” “Halo,” “Broken-Hearted Girl,” “Ave Maria,” “Satellites,” “Single Ladies,” “Radio,” “Diva,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Video Phone,” “Hello,” “Scared Of Lonely,” “Schoolin’ Life,” “Countdown,” “I Miss You,” “I Care,” “1+1,” “End Of Time,” “Run The World (Girls),” “Best Thing I Never Had,” “Start Over,” “I Was Here,” “Pretty Hurts,” “Haunted,” “Jealous,” “Mine,” “XO,” “Heaven,” “Blue,” “Pray You Catch Me,” “Love Drought,” “Sandcastles,” “Forward”
Beyonce’s R&B output runs a close second to her pop material — in many ways, it often overlaps it. But her R&B numbers tend to be more understated than her pop songs and crop up a lot more in the earlier part of her solo career. Due to the near-spoken delivery of many of her R&B songs, there’s also a lot of crossover with her more straightforward hip-hop efforts. The defining characteristic of her R&B songs, though, is content: The blues are as evident a through-line as any in Beyonce’s long and storied career.
Songs: “Hip-Hop Star,” “Be With You,” “Me, Myself And I,” “Yes,” “Signs,” “Speechless,” “That’s How You Like It,” “The Closer I Get To You,” “Dangerously In Love,” “Suga Mama,” “Kitty Kat,” “Green Light,” “Resentment,” “If I Were A Boy,” “Ego,” “Love On Top,” “Party,” “Dance For You,” “Rather Die Young,” “Blow,” “No Angel,” “Rocket,” “Superpower,” “All Night”
I have said before and I maintain that Beyonce has not only always been a rapper, but that she is also the primary pioneer of the singsong style that dominates the landscape today. Go all the way back to some of her verses on Destiny’s Child’s breakout albums Writing On The Wall and Survivor, and those deliveries sound an awful lot like the chatterbox styles employed by many of today’s most prominent rap names. That said, Beyonce rarely tapped into a full rap persona until her 2014 self-titled album, where “Flawless” and “7/11” sound a lot more like New Orleans bounce than straight-up hip-hop. Even so, she’s so confident with her chanting bar work, these ones probably live up to the standard well enough to warrant inclusion.
Songs: “Drunk In Love,” “Partition,” “Flawless,” “7/11,” “Sorry,” “6 Inch,” “Freedom,” “Formation”
A later entry to her oeuvre, Beyonce dabbled in harder-edged guitar stuff on Lemonade alongside Jack White. While it’s a small-ish part of her overall catalog, it’s also important because it highlights how 13 years into her solo career, Beyonce is still growing as an artist, incorporating new sounds to suit her new moods. Clearly, even the mostly stoic artist, activist, mother, and wife likes to thrash every now and then. While this probably won’t ever become the most expansive part of her discography, it’s fun to imagine a latter-day Bey going full Ozzy Osbourne for a side project and really cutting loose, Aggretsuko style. There’s some soft-rock stuff earlier in her career, too.
Songs: “Smash Into You,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
Another part of Beyonce’s output that has recently expanded is Beyonce’s country work, thanks to the recently-renamed The Chicks and “Daddy Lessons.” But, the roots of her interest in the genre can be seen as far back as her album B’Day, where “Irreplaceable” found Stargate strumming an acoustic guitar in a very Western-ish way as Beyonce delivered lyrics that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Carrie Underwood concert. While “everything you own in the box to the left” is hardly a “Louisville Slugger to both headlights,” Beyonce did eventually graduate to letting the ol’ hot sauce out of her bag to do some damage in the video for “Hold Up.”
Songs: “Irreplaceable,” “Disappear,” “That’s Why You’re Beautiful,” “Daddy Lessons”
Speaking of “Hold Up,” that Lemonade standout was the second time Beyonce slipped Caribbean-influenced songs onto her albums. Starting from her earliest collaboration with Sean Paul, Bey later dipped into that well for the aforementioned “Hold Up,” evolving her relationship with dancehall riddims to eventually incorporate more roots reggae and thread some elements of dub throughout. It’s a lane she would do well to return to on future projects.
Songs: “Baby Boy,” “Hold Up”
So what genre is Beyonce anyway? If anything, this exercise shows that distinguishing most of these songs into individual genres falls short of capturing the entire picture. At this point, Beyonce is a genre. And no matter what style of music she tackles next, she will find a way to make it her own.