Will Beyoncé ever hit number one on the pop singles chart again?
I’m not talking albums – every one of her six albums have not only reached number one, but débuted there.
No, I’m talking singles…particularly those songs that she and her label, Columbia Records, promote to radio and that are available to consumers on the many digital, steaming and video services out there.
To wit, her last number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Single Ladies” in January 2009.
That was seven-and-a-half years ago.
Since then, she’s topped the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop singles list several times with songs like “Love On Top,” “Drunk In Love” and “7/11.” However, none of those songs topped the Hot 100 – a more pop-oriented chart that includes music from pretty much all genres, and a chart that Beyoncé used to rule with regularity.
Each time a new Beyoncé album is released, her fans and music watchers in general expect big things – especially for an artist whose first three albums generated five #1 pop singles: “Crazy In Love,” “Baby Boy,” “Check On It,” “Irreplaceable” and “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Those songs followed four #1 Hot 100 singles (“Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name,” “Bootylicious” and “Independent Women, Pt. 1”) that the singer had with her former group Destiny’s Child, giving her nine total between 1999 and 2008.
Her last three albums (4, Beyoncé and Lemonade), however, have yielded no number one pop hits. The closest she’s come since 2009 was when “Drunk In Love” peaked at #2 in 2014. “Formation,” the first single release from her latest album, topped out at #10 in May.
In the seven years since “Single Ladies” topped the chart, other artists – and women in particular – have reached number one with regularity. Katy Perry and Rihanna each have had nine #1 singles since January 2009 (tied for the most of any act during that span), while Taylor Swift and Adele each have had four chart toppers on the Hot 100…all since 2009. Bruno Mars leads all male artists with six #1 singles in that span.
So what gives for Beyoncé – who is still an incredible artist many consider to be the Queen of the 21st Century when it comes to pop music and arguably pop culture in general? Why hasn’t she been able to match the Hot 100 success of the songs from her first three releases with those from her last three?
Could it be that, with these last three albums, Queen Bey has alienated some of her earlier fans or those people who were on the fence about her but liked her earlier music enough to buy it?
As a case-in-point, when her fourth album, 4, was released in June 2011, it was met with mixed critical reviews as some thought it was too R&B-oriented for pop music’s then-reigning queen.
At the time, Beyoncé noted that she wanted to bring R&B music – particularly its soul and funk derivatives – back to popular music with 4‘s release. Hence, she intentionally went into the studio and recorded songs for that album that were heavily R&B focused, even some with real instrumentation including live horns and other instruments not found in today’s heavily electronic-driven pop music world.
As a result, songs like “Run The World (Girls),” “Best Thing I Never Had,” Party,” “Countdown” and “Love On Top” did particularly well on Billboard’s R&B list, with “Love On Top” peaking at #1 for seven weeks…and ranking as the biggest hit of 2012 on that chart.
However, none of the songs from that album climbed higher than #16 (“Best Thing I Never Had”) on the Hot 100.
With the followup self-titled album, Beyoncé, the singer maintained an urban focus but pushed the envelope further by surprise-releasing the album in December 2013 with little to no advance singles promotion. The album’s biggest hit, “Drunk In Love,” had been serviced to urban contemporary radio just days before the album’s release. And every song on the album had an accompanying music video (also available on the album), leaving fans to decide which one or more they felt should be the hit.
They chose “Drunk In Love,” which was easily the catchiest of the album’s 14 or 17 tracks, depending upon how you count them. After the singer performed “Drunk” at the Grammy Awards in January 2014, the single shot to #2 on the Hot 100 – a strong showing, but not enough to topple Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (which, ironically, was that artist’s last #1 hit).
“Drunk in Love” was followed by “Partition,” itself a top-five R&B single that climbed no higher than #23 on the Hot 100. Both songs – the two biggest from the album – explored deeply sexual themes, something for which Yoncé has been both chided and applauded by fans and music critics. Those themes, while embraced by R&B, urban contemporary and rhythmic radio, might have made the songs less accessible to pop radio outlets, hence their stunted climbs on the pop radio and Hot 100 charts.
As for the latest release, Lemonade, Beyoncé again went the video album route, releasing an accompanying clip for every song on the album. This time, though, the videoclips were all melded together into one long-form version named for the album, seemingly taking away each song’s individuality and focusing consumers more on the collective set and its conceptual theme.
This worked for the album, with consumers scanning more than 460,000 copies of it during the first week of release and nearly a billion streams of all its songs, allowing the album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 with ease this past May.
Additionally, all twelve of the songs debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, with “Formation” – a song that had been released to radio nearly three months before – leading the way at #10.
The advance marketing of “Formation,” including a performance of it at Super Bowl 50 in early February, might have made it the strongest contender in years for a Beyoncé single to top the Hot 100. But mixed reaction to – and criticism of – the song’s strong pro-black message content likely took away any chance of that happening.
By the time of the song’s widespread commercial availability the week of the album’s release, many people had either moved on from “Formation” in anticipation of the album’s newer songs or simply didn’t like it in the first place.
The song “Sorry” was billed as the album’s second official single and it peaked right behind “Formation” at #11 – again, a decent showing by most artists’ standards, but not for someone of Queen Bey’s stature.
As for the rest of Lemonade’s tracks, which one does the label attempt to market to pop radio next, and how does Columbia Records do it when the songs already have mass consumption by way of their video clips contained on the digital album?
Record labels have a way of making the unexpected happen, so I wouldn’t necessarily count Beyoncé and her latest group of songs out. But there’s no evidence that another hit single is in the making from Lemonade.
Heck, I’m not even sure if it matters to Beyoncé or her record label that she secures another Hot 100 #1 single – especially off of this latest release, which is clearly a statement record for Knowles.
And so it seems that yet another great Beyoncé album will yield no #1 Hot 100 singles. We will likely have to wait until album number seven to see when or if Beyoncé can return to the Hot 100 perch, where any pop music queen should be.
Will seven be a lucky number for her? Or will Bey go the entire decade of the 2010s without a Hot 100 #1? With likely one more release left between now and 2020, we will soon see.
Tune in later in the decade to find out.