clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How Beyoncé turned herself into a pop god

From surprise albums to Beychella to “Break My Soul”: Behind the singer’s 10-year journey to cultural dominance.

Dion Lee/Vox; Getty Images

Beyoncé’s latest solo album, Renaissance, released at the end of July, was greeted with the kind of critical rapture that is now the standard for her work.

The new album “succeeds exquisitely,” said Vulture. Beyoncé’s singing, wrote Wesley Morris in the New York Times, comes “in waves of rhapsodically long, Olympic-level emissions” and “seems to emanate from somewhere way beyond a human throat: The ocean?” Renaissance, Rolling Stone argued, proved Beyoncé to be “the only sovereign of pop to have truly evolved artistically while also expanding an enormous commercial empire.”

Beyoncé’s artistic, commercial, and cultural evolution is one of the most important pop culture stories of the past decade. It made Beyoncé one of the most important cultural figures of this decade, catapulting her to rarified air in 10 carefully calculated years.

When Beyoncé dropped her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, in 2003, she did not get the sort of plaudits she receives today. While Rolling Stone allowed that she “oozes charisma and has a fine voice,” it felt that she “isn’t in a class with the likes of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey as a singer.” Slant Magazine, in a largely positive review, described her as a cross between J. Lo and Mariah Carey, pop progeny with Lopez’s attitude and Carey’s pipes. The New York Times offered up a headline that would, nearly two decades later, be endlessly memed: “The Solo Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti.”

At the beginning of her solo career, Beyoncé was one among any number of pop stars, famous and admired the same way a lot of musicians are: her music beloved by some and uncontroversially ignored or disliked by others. A star, certainly, but a star with peers.

But over the past decade, Beyoncé pulled herself out of that group. She became a critical consensus pick for one of the greatest artists of her generation. She redefined the textbook strategy for an album release. She turned her headliner Coachella gig into a legend of a night, and then a Netflix special. It became slightly controversial to say that her music wasn’t to your taste. It would be like not liking the Beatles.

How did she do it? How did Beyoncé go from “no Ashanti” in 2003 to being declared by Rolling Stone “the world’s greatest living entertainer” in 2022? How did her greatness become an apparent fact of the universe, to the point that the Grammys’ refusal to give her an Album of the Year award after nominating her three times is widely discussed as proof of something terribly wrong inside the Grammys?

Beyoncé poses with the Grammy trophies she was awarded for Best Music Video for “Formation,” and Best Urban Contemporary Album for Lemonade, in Los Angeles, California, in February 2017.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

It happened, as everything else in Beyoncé’s life seems to have happened, as the result of incredibly hard work and a highly controlled plan from the woman herself. The transformation of Beyoncé from well-liked pop star to cultural icon came in three phases, punctuated by the self-titled Beyoncé album of 2013, 2016’s Lemonade, and 2018’s Homecoming concert at Coachella.

Here’s how Beyoncé turned herself into Beyoncé.

Phase 1: Change the game

To be clear: Beyoncé was already extremely famous before Beyoncé.

By the time Beyoncé dropped her self-titled album in 2013, she had already released four solo albums. All received moderate critical acclaim, with some caveats.

After Dangerously In Love (“No Ashanti”) in 2003 came 2006’s B’Day (“By resolving the criticisms of her earlier work ... Beyoncé has weakened her perfect pop technique”). B’Day was followed by 2008’s I Am ... Sasha Fierce, by which time the Guardian was acknowledging Beyoncé as “the queen of R&B,” but also coming after her, arguing that “Halo” sounded too much like Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” 2011’s 4 came with an acknowledgment from Rolling Stone that Beyoncé was “the diva of divas,” as well as a warning from the Washington Post that she might have already hit her peak: The album, the critic wrote, smacked “of a once-great blockbuster movie franchise sadly spinning its wheels.”

Beyoncé, meanwhile, was constantly working. She had two major movie roles: a supporting part in 2006’s Dreamgirls, with mixed reviews (New York magazine brutally dismissed her as “not an actress”), and another in 2008’s Cadillac Records, this time to raves. (“As for Beyoncé—oh my goodness,” said Slate.) She went on multiple world tours, on which the reviews were never mixed but still managed to be a little condescending (“A revue spectacular enough in its colossal divadom to put off proclamations of — it’s all right, we’ve all felt it — Beyoncé fatigue.”) She sang as the Obamas danced their first dance as president and first lady in 2009 (“Beyoncé is fast becoming a saint”). With 2008’s “Single Ladies,” she delivered what Kanye West would memorably declare “one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”

By 2013, Beyoncé had cemented herself as a major solo star. But she was not yet the kind of artist to whom critics offer unmitigated praise. She was not the queen of pop culture, but the queen of R&B. She was “the diva of divas,” but maybe on a downward slope. People could conceive of the possibility of “Beyoncé fatigue.”

Looking at 2013 in retrospect, you can see Beyoncé try out one strategy after another to change all that, to begin her ascent from queen of a genre to queen of us all.

Beyoncé performs the national anthem at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2013.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

That year was Beyoncé’s post-pregnancy comeback year. Having given birth to her first child, Blue Ivy, in 2012, she marked her return to the public stage with a buzzy GQ profile in January 2013. “Miss Millennium,” read the headline.

As January went on, Beyoncé’s pop culture offensive continued. She sang the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration. She headlined the Super Bowl halftime show. She financed, directed, produced, narrated, and starred in Life Is But a Dream, an HBO documentary. She also launched a campaign as the face of Pepsi.

Not all of those moves were unalloyed successes. Beyoncé faced a backlash when it came out that she was lip-syncing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the inauguration. While her Super Bowl performance was a hit, Life Is But a Dream was an outright flop. The New York Times called it an “infomercial.” Variety dismissed it as a “wearisome … vanity project.” Most damningly, the Guardian scoffed at the film’s framing of Beyoncé as a feminist, a facet of her star image that was just beginning to come into particular focus. “Delusional,” guffawed the review. The only part of the movie that came off well was the footage of Beyoncé putting together a performance of “Who Run the World” at the Billboard Music Awards, complete with graphic video projections. “Crisp, sparkling and vibrant,” the A.V. Club opined of that section. “I wouldn’t have minded more behind the scenes stuff.”

By that point, however, Beyoncé had begun to hit cultural saturation. She was everywhere — “on Pepsi cans, L’Oreal billboards and the covers of GQ, Vogue and Forbes,” wrote the New York Times. “In terms of exposure, the star’s flame has probably never burned brighter,” admitted Variety.

In the A.V. Club, Claire Zulkey described watching the Super Bowl with two 65-year-old men who found themselves flummoxed by the star: “They do not get,” Zulkey wrote, “what the big deal is with Beyoncé.”

Beyoncé was everywhere, unavoidable and inescapable. But had she justified her omnipresence? What would it take to get two 65-year-old white men to comprehend the fact of her?

Beyoncé performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, on February 3, 2013.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In April, she launched her Mrs. Carter Show world tour. Like all Beyoncé live performances, this one pulled rave reviews. But critics were still treating her as one pop star among many.

“Beside her arena pop rivals, she was not as cool and dirty as Rihanna, not as physical and funny as Pink, and not as weird as Lady Gaga,” wrote the UK’s Standard. “But she had a star wattage that was blinding, an ability to sing and dance and be mesmerising without the light beams and glitter cannons.”

There’s an exact moment at which that line of criticism came to an end and reviews began to acknowledge that Beyoncé had transcended her peers. That’s when she surprise-dropped her fifth album, Beyoncé, at the end of 2013.

Beyoncé appeared quietly on iTunes that December, with no CDs available in record stores. The only announcement its star made was a post to her Instagram. The single, “XO,” would be announced days after the album itself dropped. On release day, every song came with its own video.

Otherwise, there was not a word of pre-promotion, publicity, or advertising for Beyoncé — except in the sense that the entire year had been one long advertisement for Beyoncé herself.

The album was an immediate hit, commercially and critically. From a business angle, the surprise drop was a masterstroke. At the time, leaks of heavily anticipated albums were common, and music sales were on a downswing. With one move, Beyoncé solved both problems — eliminating leaks and drumming up buzz — so effectively that other stars would continue emulating her strategy for the next nine years.

The release strategy wouldn’t have mattered, though, if the album weren’t great. Beyoncé garnered some of the most glowing criticism Beyoncé had received in her career. The same narrative appeared in every single review: Beyoncé had just lapped her competition.

“You get the sense that Lady Gaga or Ciara could no sooner pull off the scale or quality of Beyoncé than you or I could pull off a suitable rendition of any of its songs in a karaoke bar,” marveled Pitchfork.

“Only massive hubris could have made a feat like this album possible,” decreed Rolling Stone. “And Beyoncé’s hubris makes the world a better, more Beyoncé-like place.”

“Not only does ‘Beyoncé’ rank as the year’s most accomplished and engaging mainstream pop album by a rather laughable margin,” said Variety, “but its calculatedly shrugged-off release strategy can’t help but read as an imperious kiss-off toward the singer’s competitors for the 2013 crown — Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and even her husband Jay Z — all of whom worked up gallons of sweat and employed every eyeball-grabbing trick in the book to move their product, only to be upstaged by Beyonce’s abrupt digital data-dump.”

Jay-Z joins wife Beyoncé on stage for “Crazy In Love” at Twickenham Stadium in London, England, on June 1, 2013.
Yosra El-Essawy/Chime For Change/Getty Images for Gucci

Within six months, the New York Times magazine had made the shift explicit. “A few years ago, Beyoncé Knowles was like any other record-breaking pop star in an already crowded field,” wrote Jody Rosen. “Then something changed.” Beyoncé arrived.

“We can only imagine the feelings of Beyoncé’s pop diva competitors, whose carefully plotted monthslong album rollouts were instantly rendered quaint, and moot,” the Times went on. “That whining, whirring sound you heard on Dec. 13, mingling with the strains of ‘Drunk in Love’ — that was Lady Gaga, in her gloomy castle keep, chainsawing a meat dress into sackcloth.”

If 2013 was a series of test runs for Beyoncé, it provided her with some very clear data. Judging from the reception of Life Is But a Dream, while talking in public did nothing to serve her mystique, people did seem to respond well to her visual imagination. Critics loved getting an inside look at how she created her VMA video projections in Life Is But a Dream, and parsing the significance of images in her new visual album became a beloved fan hobby. The reception of Beyoncé showed that the element of surprise could offer a substantial advantage. But nothing else mattered unless the work was great — so Beyoncé, it became clear, would always be great.

Phase 2: Up the game

In the wake of Beyoncé, Queen Bey’s profile had changed for good. She had always had fans, but now the Beyhive was bigger and more vocal than ever.

In May 2014, SNL lampooned the now-widespread Beyoncé worship with a sketch titled The Beygency. When one man dares to say that he’s “not a huge fan” of “Drunk in Love,” he’s forced on the run from Beyoncé’s ferocious fans. “He turned against his country,” intones the narrator, “and its queen.”

Meanwhile, Beyoncé herself — perhaps taking a lesson from the critical response to Life Is But a Dream — had stopped talking in public. She landed the prestigious September 2015 cover of Vogue without granting the magazine an interview. In May 2015, the New York Times learned that she hadn’t answered a direct question in over a year. What’s more, she didn’t have to. She was still on the covers of magazines across newsstands, and her music was still selling.

“If she is avoiding the news media, it is not avoiding her,” the Times concluded. She was still “arguably the biggest star of the moment.”

Then, in 2016, came Lemonade. Like Beyoncé, Lemonade had an unconventional and visuals-heavy album rollout. It first appeared on HBO as a quasi-pop art film, each song rolling into the next over enigmatic and evocative imagery, interspersed with excerpts from poetry by Warsan Shire. The music premiered exclusively on Tidal, the streaming platform partially owned by Beyoncé’s husband, rapper Jay-Z.

Beyoncé performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on August 28, 2016.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

And Lemonade, critics agreed, was at another artistic level entirely. Unique among Beyoncé albums, it has a clear narrative throughline. It’s the tale of how Beyoncé survived Jay-Z’s infidelity, of how she pushed through and rebuilt her marriage after his betrayal. It was also the first explicitly political Beyoncé album. Jay-Z’s personal betrayal of Beyoncé became a metaphor for America’s betrayal of Black women, and the album as a whole became a celebration of the solidarity and sisterhood of Black womanhood. The result was deeply personal, with a ferocious political bite, and it emerged just as Donald Trump’s racist presidential campaign was roiling American politics.

Critics had already begun to agree that Beyoncé was peerless. Now, she was more even than that.

“Beyoncé is less pop star or musician or even icon, at this point, than she is a belief system,” said Vanity Fair.

“Awe has always seemed like the only appropriate response to Beyoncé, a star who makes even the best of the rest look a bit amateur,” said the Guardian. Not only was Beyoncé awe-inspiring, the review went on, she was now, in new and exciting ways, politically relevant. “Beyoncé’s subject emerges as nothing less than the black female body, the police state and black lives past and present. The lemonade that she’s making in her 34th year isn’t just from the bitter juice of her famous husband’s infidelities, it’s the pain of black mothers and grandmothers and their mothers. Suddenly, she is doing something so much bigger than telling us she’s the flyest.”

“There’s nothing else like” the way Beyoncé commands our attention, concluded Jenna Wortham in the New York Times, “period.”

At the 2017 Grammys, when Lemonade lost Album of the Year to Adele’s 25, Kanye West didn’t have to rush the stage to proclaim the loss an outrage. Adele did it for him.

“I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said. “I’m very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyoncé. The Lemonade album was so monumental.”

Phase 3: Don’t ever come back down to earth

Six years passed between Lemonade and Renaissance without a new solo album from Beyoncé, but she stayed in the public eye. And in that time, she kept pushing the public to watch her not just as a star, but as an artist. Every move she made was rich with layers of meaning.

In 2017, she announced first her pregnancy and then the birth of her twins with lavish photo shoots laced with divine goddess imagery. In photographs, she was variously the Virgin Mary, Venus, and the Yoruba Oshun. During her 2017 Grammys performance, she briefly became both Kali and Christ. “I am Osun,” she announced on Black Is King, the visual album she curated in 2020, referring again to the Yoruba goddess of love, sensuality, and femininity.

Beyoncé performs during the 59th Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on February 12, 2017.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

In 2018, Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline Coachella. The concert she delivered, later immortalized as a live album and a concert film, was titled Homecoming. Spanning her whole career, from the Destiny’s Child days to the present, it was built as a celebration of the homecoming traditions of historically Black colleges and universities, complete with a marching band and fraternity rushes. It was hailed by critics uniformly as an inarguable masterpiece.

“Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night,” ran the New York Times review from Jon Caramanica.

For Caramanica, Homecoming was further proof that Beyoncé had become essentially peerless. “She is one of the only working pop stars,” Caramanica wrote, “who need not preoccupy herself with prevailing trends, or the work of her peers. She is an institution now, and that has allowed her freedom.”

Moreover, the night was proof that her Grammys loss was a glitch at best. “That space on the mantel will be filled by a National Medal of the Arts, or a Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Caramanica concluded. “Like no other musician of her generation apart from Kanye West, Beyoncé is performing musicology in real time. It is bigger than any tribute she might receive. History is her stage.”

Beychella, as it came to be called, was a coronation, an ascension, an apotheosis. It was Beyoncé informing the world once again that she was a goddess, and the world at last uniting at her feet in agreement.

The shift was complete. Beyoncé was no longer “no Ashanti,” no longer someone to be compared to Lady Gaga or Rihanna, no longer someone even to be compared to Michael Jackson or the Beatles. She was playing on a different level.

So by the time Renaissance premiered in July 2022, Beyoncé no longer had anything to prove.

Renaissance doesn’t come with the overt political agenda of Lemonade or Homecoming. Its songs are mostly about how dancing and sex are fun things that Beyoncé enjoys doing. In contrast to Beyoncé, Renaissance’s album rollout was, if anything, notable for its conventionality. It was announced six weeks ahead of its release, with an interview in Vogue UK. It came without any of Beyoncé’s now trademark lavish visuals. The album was even leaked the day before its release.

But by now, Beyoncé has earned enough credit that no one is sneering at her for making an album that’s mostly about pleasure, released in a conventional way. We can take for granted that all these things are worthwhile because why else would Beyoncé be singing about it?

Beyoncé performs during the ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars in Los Angeles, California, on March 27.
Mason Poole/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

That status, as Beyoncé has been hinting for the past few years in the occasional highly controlled interviews she’s begun to allow again, is where she’s been aiming for a good long while now.

“I’ve spent so many years trying to better myself and improve whatever I’ve done that I’m at a point where I no longer need to compete with myself,” she said to Harper’s Bazaar in 2020.

“I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on building my legacy and representing my culture the best way I know how,” she told Vogue UK in 2020. “Now, I’ve decided to give myself permission to focus on my joy.”

Joy as in: dance music. Riding a horse in the nightclub. Releasing the wiggle.

Can Beyoncé Go Back to Just Being a Pop Star?” Slate asked when Renaissance dropped. No, of course she can’t.

But in the rarified pop universe where she reigns, Beyoncé has also built herself a celestial place to play.

Correction, August 16, 2:50 pm: An earlier version of this article misidentified the platform Beyoncé’s Homecoming concert film appeared on. It was Netflix. The article also misstated which performance of “Who Run the World” Beyonce prepared for in the documentary Life Is But a Dream. It was for the Billboard Music Awards.

Culture

House of the Dragon passes enmity from parents to children

Culture

Suddenly, every fictional character is a podcaster. Why aren’t they doing it right?

Culture

The Bros and cons of being a huge, gay Hollywood rom-com

View all stories in Culture