Beyoncé, The Rapper | Pitchfork

Whenever Beyoncé raps, she’s flexing. It isn’t just that verses are pure braggadocio, which they often are. The act itself is a display—a reminder that she can, that she’s great at another thing. When Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he tweeted a list of all the rappers who inspired him and emphatically added, “B a rapper too!” B has been for some time now, too. But her recent remix of J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente,” surging this week to No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart, is the glorious culmination of all the rapping she’s ever done.

Spiritually, Beyoncé has been rap royalty—before she duet-dated Jay, eventually married him, and spawned at least one kid who seems to carry the gene. Her hip-hop fluency gave her an advantage in the pop-star arms race, helping her to become the presiding voice in an increasingly rap-dominated musical landscape. Her evolution, from rap-adjacent R&B star (appearing as early as 1998 in a Geto Boys video) to reluctant hip-hop shareholder to full-blown rapper, played a role in slowly shifting the sound of pop radio.

Technically, Beyoncé was introduced to America as a member of a rap group. In 1992, early Destiny’s Child iteration Girls Tyme competed in the rap category on “Star Search.” A clip of host Ed McMahon introducing them as “the hip-hop rappin’ Girls Tyme” can be heard on Bey’s 2014 self-titled album; indeed the girls did perform a rap, as well as sing.

It wasn’t until 2001, when Beyoncé made her acting debut as the lead in MTV’s rap take on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen, that her flow potential came into focus. For much of the part, Bey exchanged semi-forced rapped dialogue with Mekhi Phifer, who led a cast including Yasiin Bey (then Mos Def), Wyclef Jean, Jermaine Dupri, and Da Brat. Her big moment came on the Mos Def duet “If Looks Could Kill (You Would Be Dead),” where she offered up tongue-twisting lines like, “Sweetness flowing like a faucet, body banging, no corset/Brothers wanna toss it but they lost cause my game made ‘em forfeit/Slicker than a porpoise and thicker than a horse is.” The flows were a bit rusty and contrived, but you can hear the talent working.

Beyoncé’s earliest and most successful flirtations with hip-hop would come as only modest departures from her R&B safehaven: mostly melody-driven verses toying with rap cadences. After the success of 50 Cent’s breakout single “In Da Club” in 2003, Beyoncé released a cover of the song called “Sexy Lil Thug,” which closely followed the song’s structure and 50’s stresses, employing sung raps.

Over time, she would develop a style all her own: big gestures, freewheeling rhyme schemes, all swagger, slow-flowing her way through line readings of her impressive resumé. And suddenly her raps had a clear use: to give her pristine persona a much needed edge. In public, Beyoncé is humble and guarded. As a pop singer, her image is carefully curated, to the point of projecting perfection. For Beyoncé, rap provides a venue to be a little petty, or to show that she knows what she’s got. This is sport for her.

Beyoncé’s albums (whether with Destiny’s Child or solo) didn’t really start to reflect her rap savvy until 2006’s B’Day, the sophomore LP crafted with help from rap producers like the Neptunes and Swizz Beatz. “Upgrade U” moves and punches like a rap song, and she even stunts in her half-rapped verses (“Come harder, this won’t be easy/Don’t doubt yourself, trust me you need me”). On “Kitty Kat,” which she co-wrote with Jay and Pharrell, she whisper-raps the hook, and the song’s outro oozes with Houston rap flavor.

With 2008’s I Am… Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé had her first true rap song—a world-conquering flex anthem in “Diva.” The 808-heavy Bangladesh boomer instantly drew comparisons to Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” released earlier in 2008, but while “A Milli” was an all-out assault, “Diva” was methodical, with careful emphasis punching up compact phrases. Even so, “Diva” didn’t catch listeners off-guard. Bey’s early rap songs seemed like a distinct costume change she could try on, as part of the endless reinvention cycle expected of pop stars.

The big revamp came in early 2013, when she inauspiciously released the weird, screwed “Bow Down/I Been On” on her SoundCloud page, and into an unsuspecting world. After about a minute of strutting and two minutes of pitched-down raps, Beyoncé shouts out UGK legend Pimp C, reps the H-town, and boasts about standing side by side with rapper Willie D in the Geto Boys video, all but flashing her G Pass. The song was a dramatic change of pace from even her hardest rap-leaning songs, playing up her Houston hip-hop lineage. And the remix featured a Who’s Who of H-town rap greats: Willie, Bun B, Scarface, Z-Ro, Slim Thug, and Lil’ Keke.

As it turned out, the demo was a sign of things to come. Though “I Been On” didn’t make the final cut, “Bow Down” became the opening half of Beyoncé’s “***Flawless.” On “Yonce,” the prelude to “Partition,” she showed off the same efficiency indicative of those in the Houston rap scene. The deluxe version of the album contained even more rap treasures. The OG Bobby Johnson–produced “7/11” seemed to be a byproduct of the melodic trap wave, a boozy club rap record. On the Nicki Minaj–assisted “***Flawless Remix,” Bey fleshed out her delivery and casually brushed off her biggest controversy: “Of course sometimes shit go down when it’s a billion dollars on an elevator.” With each performance, she seemed to grow more and more confident—and versatile.

This effective turn laid the groundwork for Lemonade closer “Formation,” one of the best rap songs of 2016. The flossy diva summoner was the first Beyoncé rap with real purpose, a statement of Southern heritage, black power, and pride. The song highlights a trend across her rap verses: They’re all extremely quotable. The Black Bill Gates and Red Lobster lines stick in the mind for the immediate imagery they conjure (and because they’re the most fun to shout), but there’s even more striking phonetic stuff happening elsewhere that makes many of the lyrics satisfying to recite. It’s all hard-cracking consonant sounds and precisely-measured alliteration. She purposefully enunciates each syllable, which seem to snap out of her lips: “Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess/Paparazzi catch my fly and my cocky fresh/I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress/I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces.”

Post-“Formation,” Beyoncé has been far more casual and fluid with her raps. There was DJ Khaled’s Grammy after-party surprise “Shining,” where she again shares space with Jay, returning to the half-rapped inflections that were hallmarks of early showings. Her verse brims with slick talk, adding in a Hov-sponsored D’ussé name-drop. She tends to see rap the same way he does: Each verse is a myth-building exercise, using past victories to forge new ones.

On “Mi Gente,” she ups the ante. Beyoncé has never flowed this effortlessly before, rapping as fiercely in Spanish as she does English (with a bit of French thrown in). She leans into the hashtag flow, and once again draws from her public life for source material: “I been giving birth on these haters ‘cause I‘m fertile/See these double Cs on this bag, murda/Want my double Ds in his bed, Serta/If you really love me make an album about me, word up.” The verses are the result of everything Beyoncé has tested out in her rapping to date, the perfecting of her formula.

If tracing back Beyoncé’s rap catalog has highlighted anything, it’s that the transition has been relatively easy for her. Few would be shocked to learn of the existence of a Beyoncé rap mixtape, where she would shit-talk a little, sing her own hooks, and show off her ear’s usual tuning to what’s hot. In fact, Beyoncé almost makes rapping look as effortless as Hov does. The main difference is that for her, it’s strictly recreational. And maybe that’s half the fun for us: When Beyoncé raps, it feels like a party favor.

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