The best female artist of the 2000's

About a month ago, a YouTube video of a mid-November performance by Beyonce at the O2 Arena in London was brought to my attention. Performing in the round, and hitting the climax of a rousing rendition of her international smash hit “Halo,” the 28 year-old R&B phenom inexplicably makes a b-line for the edge of the platform and stagedives into the crowd. Wearing only what I can basically gather to be a diamond-studded, black leotard, stilettos (Beyonce’s trademark shoe ware), large earrings, and her hair out and wild, Beyonce completely submits to the will of her audience, a move that could have resulted in her hair and jewelry being snagged and pulled, her private parts being groped, or her body simply being dropped. Instead, the crowd catches her, and lifts her into an epic, Christ-like pose, screaming and applauding in total adoration and awe as she continues to sing the song, hitting almost every note perfectly.
It’s a beautiful, exhilarating, and decidedly surreal sight. You see, I have neither seen nor heard of a mainstream pop performer, ala Britney Spears or Rihanna, stagediving into an audience; it’s risky and dangerous, and requires the performer to not only trust their fans unequivocally, but to be moved and invested in the emotionality of performing to such a degree that one would basically throw caution to the wind and thrust oneself into the hands of their spectators. 

Of course, Beyonce is clearly not your average mainstream pop performer.

Since embarking on a solo career in 2003, Beyonce has completely mastered an intoxicating mixture of R&B and Hip Hop that redefined Pop music in the 2000s, her live performances continue to stun audiences around the world, and her fierce protection of her private life from media scrutiny has allowed her to cultivate a largely blemish-less superstar status. All things considered, Beyonce is clearly the greatest and most influential female pop artist of the 2000s.

The genius of Beyonce, as with any great artist, begins with the aspects of her music that have stylistically set her apart, and thus influenced her peers. Like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill before her, Beyonce mixes Soul and R&B with elements of Hip Hop in a way that is neither forced nor haphazard. She can move seamlessly and assuredly between both aesthetically, attaining a certain level of believability that someone like Amerie never seems to reach in that arena. The core of what makes Beyonce’s take on Hip Hop/Soul so unique is her hiccupping, rapid-fire vocal style. Rather than going the Mary J. route, and basically utilizing a classically Soulful vocal style over Hip Hop-inflected beats, or the L-Boogie route, and both singing and rapping masterfully (but separately), Beyonce combines the two, delivering her soulful, R&B vocals in a stuttering, rhythmic fashion that almost sounds like rapping. Though Mariah Carey flirted with this style on her 1997 album Butterfly (particularly with “Breakdown,” her collaboration with Bone Thugs n’ Harmony), Beyonce clearly perfected it; she rides beats the way a rapper does, but never gets lost, staying focused and firmly on pitch. This was the key to the success of Destiny’s Child; heavily influenced by TLC (in which it was Left Eye’s job to convey the trio’s connection to Hip Hop vocally), the group improved upon their model by blurring the line between R&B and Rap vocals. The group’s debut single, the Wyclef Jean-remixed “No, No, No,” is a prime example of this, where Beyonce sings almost impossibly fast, while retaining a soulful delivery, melisma and all. Platinum-selling superstars like Usher (“Confessions [Part 2]”), Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together”), Chris Brown (“Kiss Kiss”), Rihanna (“Hard”), and basically every male or female artist that incorporates elements of Hip Hop into Pop music in the 2000s owe some debt to Beyonce in regards to this alone.

Musically, Beyonce’s best work takes the Hip Hop-meets-60’s soul sound pioneered by Lauryn Hill, and makes it danceable, club-ready, and pop-oriented. Listen to “Crazy in Love,” Beyonce’s crowning achievement musically, and you hear many of the same retro-influenced elements present in Hill’s “Do Wop (That Thing);” particularly the raw, live instrumentation, and those insistent, Motown-inspired horns that anchor the song. And while Dangerously in Love may be Beyonce’s most impactful album, B-Day is unquestionably her best, as she explores this interesting balancing act over the course of the entire record. Live instrumentation was employed for most of the songs on B-Day, as well as some sampling from 60’s and 70’s soul artists like Curtis Mayfield and Betty Wright, and they blend perfectly with a contemporary, fiery hip hop production style that gives the album a rich and musical, yet radio-ready personality; Ike and Tina-meets-Swizz Beats, if you will. Recorded in only two weeks, and comprised of just ten songs, the album’s brevity and clear vision give it a cohesiveness rarely found in most mainstream, pop albums. B’s latest album, I Am…Sasha Fierce, is sort of like her Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Though by design it sacrifices the cohesiveness of B-Day, it perfectly conveys the duality of her musical personality, as the “I Am” disc consists of mellower cuts reminiscent of the classic Soul, Pop and R&B that anchors her sound, while the “Sasha Fierce” side conveys her rapid-fire vocals and Hip Hop, club-ready style at its most uninhibited. And of course, I Am…Sasha Fierce also gave us Beyonce’s other ubiquitous and indisputably classic hit, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).”

As a live performer meanwhile, Beyonce is clearly on another level in relation to her peers. There are plenty of artists who can work a crowd and put on an exciting, quality show, but only the best have the kind of skill and charisma necessary to make the seemingly impossible look easy, and impress upon the viewer such a level of confidence that they seem completely at ease on stage. Whereas other pop starlets either utilize elaborate set designs and choreography while openly lip-synching entire concerts (i.e. Britney Spears), or perhaps eschew theatricality and taxing choreography in order to retain vocal clarity and power during their performances (i.e. Rihanna, Mariah, etc.), Beyonce is one of the few pop stars that can adroitly handle both.  B is a force of nature in a live setting; she kicks and swings, struts and stalks, remembers to sell the songs with her eyes, effortlessly nails difficult choreography (in stilettos!), but hits every single note, conveying a sense of chaos and uncertainty, and polish and control at the same time.

Now to be a pop megastar, you clearly need a unique musical personality and a spectacular live show, but longevity requires something more, and Beyonce understands this as well. It is her music that sells her records, and her performances that sell her tickets, but it’s her mystique that sells her. Beyonce astutely keeps her private life 100% private. Even in our current age of tabloid and celebrity/fame obsession, Beyonce is rarely photographed leaving a club, there is practically no information pertaining to anything at all juicy or specific about her marriage with Jay-Z, and she’s not giving interviews or blogging about her personal life and opinions every ten seconds either. Beyonce has made sure that the focus is almost entirely on her artistry. She refuses to let herself get in the way of her job (which is to entertain, and nothing more), and this has not only helped fuel her musical success, but it explains how she can secure such a ridiculously vast array of endorsement deals. Companies understand that when people see Beyonce selling clothing or cosmetics, they think of her performance at the Grammys, or her latest hit single, rather than recalling some scandal she’s involved in, or a divisive statement she foolishly made via her twitter account.

Yeah…she’s no dummy. And these crucial elements have collectively been the key to an unprecedented level of consistency and success; combined with sales from Destiny’s Child, Beyonce has sold over 100 million albums worldwide, she has the most top ten singles of any female artist of the 2000s (as well the most cumulative weeks at number one on the Hot 100 singles chart), her tours consistently rank amongst the top grossing during the years they’re launched, she has starred in a slew of successful films, and she has received countless awards and accolades, including 6 Grammy Awards a few weeks ago, thus setting the record for the most wins by a female artist in a single night (she’s won 16, overall). This past year, Forbes magazine listed her as the highest paid celebrity under 30, making a reported $87 million between 2008 and 2009 alone. And let’s not forget that Beyonce is actively involved and consistently credited in the writing and production of her music, the themes and ideas for her music videos, and the conceptualizing of her clothing and concert performances.

Not your average performer, indeed.