Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single: From the Discography of Beyoncé
Hello. (Foreshadowing!) Yes, it’s me again. The Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda guy. Are you ready for this? Are you ready to talk about the very best Beyoncé deep cuts? Are you? I don’t think you’re ready. (Reference!)
Previously, I pored over the discographies of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears in search of singles that should have been. With Gaga, my choices felt natural, obvious. In dealing with Spears’ larger, more divisive oeuvre, I found myself searching less for potential smashes and more for songs that fans would have been thrilled to see as official singles. When I started looking back over Beyoncé’s discography, I realized that my main obstacle would be finding songs, any songs, that fit the “not already a single” criterion. Because Beyoncé puts out a lot of singles. She pushed seven from B’Day, nine (!!!) from I Am… Sasha Fierce, and another seven from 4. Factoring in its “Platinum Edition” re-release, Beyoncé spawned eight singles. (For comparison, neither Gaga nor Spears ever released more than five from one album.) And then there’s the fact that Bey has a habit of putting out videos for album cuts, making the very idea of official singles — the main benefit of which, for fans, is the spectacle of a video — almost irrelevant.
So what is left for us to consider? Surprisingly — or maybe not — there exists a respectable number incredible tunes that were never shown the love they deserved. Don’t bey-lieve me? You will.
Shoulda-Been Singles From Dangerously in Love (2003)
“Hip Hop Star (Feat. Big Boi and Sleepy Brown)”
In the pop music zeitgeist, there is before “Crazy in Love,” and there is after “Crazy in Love.” Beyoncé’s first single as a solo artist is still, 12 years later, her most iconic and (arguably) her best. Several other major hits from Dangerously in Love followed — “Baby Boy,” “Naughty Girl,” and “Me, Myself, and I” — and the album sold 11 million copies worldwide. And that, folks, is how you go solo. But what of the rest of the album? Listening back, I have to say it’s somewhat… not disappointing, necessarily… but underwhelming. The remaining tracks are adequate, somewhat-faceless R&B numbers with that oh-so-2003 sound. Bey sounds great, of course, but her personality, her point-of-view, is lacking. In short: there’s a lot of filler. So, like with Spears’ … Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Did It Again, there is little point in scrambling to find a home run here. There was nothing more that could have been done with the album to help it achieve even greater heights. However! Let’s just, for a moment, entertain the idea of “Hip Hop Star.” I mean, it could have worked as a single, right? Being one of the few remaining uptempos (and featuring a guest appearance from Outkast’s Big Boi), it could have done a little something. Maybe more than little something. Maybe a big something.
Shoulda-Been Singles From B’Day (2006)
Everyone has a favorite Beyoncé song, and mine is “Suga Mama.” This was not a hard choice for me to make. Everything about this song is ***flawless, from the organic funk instrumentation — what I wouldn’t give for an entire Bey album exploring this sound — to the playful exploration of its feminist-leaning theme to the orgasmic “UHYESSSSUH!”‘s she lets loose at the end. How it would have performed on radio is anyone’s guess, but I like to think the song would have resonated enough to become at least a moderate hit.
“Upgrade U (Feat. Jay Z)”
Bey and Jay have collaborated countless times, but their on-track chemistry has never worked better than it does on “Upgrade U.” (“Drunk in Love” comes very, very close. “Crazy in Love” does not.) Eventually, Bey released a video for every song on the album. Though most of them are basic, clearly limited by budget, the “Upgrade U” video stands apart. Because the song stands apart. Because it’s f#&@ing awesome.
Shoulda-Been Singles From I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008)
The Sasha Fierce era spawned one of the most iconic hits of Bey’s career — “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” her most recent No. 1 and a truly unimpeachable classic — and several other massive smashes (“Halo” and “Sweet Dreams” to name but two), but taken as a whole, the double album/alter-ego conceit is kind of a mess. That’s not to say there aren’t many wonderful songs to be found among the 20 total tracks released during the era, but most of the great songs are on the Sasha Fierce half. One of those tracks, “Radio,” is perhaps the poppiest song Bey has ever recorded, and it’s a shame it was not released as a single. Would it have been a safe choice? Sure. But why argue against safeness when it comes to singles? They’re meant to appeal to the largest audience possible. Safe is fine when safe is good, full stop. Put the top down, foot to the floor, stereo on blast, and drive — this song is still the perfect summer jam.
The original idea behind I Am… Sasha Fierce (before its many versions and re-releases muddled the concept) was for Bey to showcase the two sides of her personality. The I Am half features the more introspective, mid- and down-tempo tracks; Sasha Fierce brings together the wild, assertive, and, well, fierce material. No song better bridges those disparate half-selves than “Hello.” That it also features one of Bey’s most impressive vocal takes ever should not be overlooked.
Shoulda-Been Singles From 4
4 is Bey’s only album that does not contain a bonafide, chart-topping hit. (Not one single reached the top 10.) This is despite the fact it is home to some of her best work. Why? Some of the music was, at the time, simply less radio-ready than that of her previous albums. But mostly it is due to the fact that Bey got pregnant and the album’s promotional cycle was condensed. In under a year, she released seven singles (some only internationally), which hardly gave any one song a chance to shine. (4’s best song, “Countdown,” was officially released, but essentially just tossed off and not promoted, leaving it to languish in the lower regions of the Hot 100. #JusticeForCountdown!) At the end of the day, all that is all unimportant; 4 is a great album, and when people talk about its best moments, they often neglect to mention “Start Over.” How strange, because I could see it becoming a hit in the vein of “Halo” — it’s a beautiful belter, an anthem, and a wonderful advertisement for the delectable music found elsewhere on this underrated collection.
“End of Time”
Technically, “End of Time” did see an official single release, but only in the UK. How, how, how was it not released officially worldwide, or at least in the US? The breezy, euphoric vocals of the chorus; the assertive staccato of her voice in the verses and bridges; the frickin’ drums! In her 12 years as a solo artist, Bey has never come as close as she does here to recapturing the same magic that made “Crazy in Love” the song it is. One wonders what would have happened if she’d led the 4 campaign with this instead of “Run the World (Girls)”…
Shoulda-Been Singles From Beyoncé
On December 13, 2013, the world was forever changed by the surprise release of Beyoncé’s fifth solo album. It was quietly uploaded to iTunes with no forewarning, each song accompanied by its own music video. And thus, a thousand thinkpieces on the state of the music industry were launched. The cultural impact of Beyoncé‘s unorthodox release is important, but not as important as the music itself. And the music is good. Really good. The best of Bey’s career, arguably. Because of the way Beyoncé was packaged and released, the idea of singles is almost antithetical to its existence. Still, she did release five, and she made excellent choices. But what about “Jealous”? It’s certainly one of the more accessible moments on the album, and yet it still manages to push Bey’s sound toward into new (for her) territory. And not that this is a good reason to release a single, but given the song’s subject matter and the persistent divorce rumors running rampant in the tabloids at the time, it’s easy to think controversy would have worked as stellar free promotion.
In some ways, “Haunted” is the most representative cut from Beyoncé. Dark and moody? Check. Sexy and sultry? Double check. Futuristic take on R&B? Ch-ch-checkmate! Songs like this paved the way for The Weeknd to finally make waves on the Hot 100. And songs like this — and, in fact, this song specifically — found their way onto the highly successful Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. At the time, “Haunted” could have become a sleeper hit — not necessarily something that topped the chart, but a single with longevity. The video, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, is probably the most memorable of the entire collection, and with a promotional push it would have helped propel the song towards its full potential.
What other Bey songs do you think would have made great singles? Tell us! And while you’re at it, let us know which artist you’d like to see featured in next week’s Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single.