Any remaining questions over whether Beyoncé could still dominate the pop world in the 2020s were basically answered this week. The Queen reigns over Billboard‘s two marquee charts during this frame, as Renaissance bows atop the Billboard 200 albums chart, while its lead single “Break My Soul” jumps from No. 6 to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Renaissance, the first part of what Beyoncé has called a three-act project, debuts with 332,000 equivalent album units — the second-best first week of 2022, behind Harry Styles’ Harry’s House. “Break My Soul” marks her eighth No. 1 as a solo artist, and first as an unaccompanied lead since late 2008, when “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” reigned for four non-consecutive weeks.
Which of the two No. 1s likely mean more to Beyoncé? And where does her pop legacy currently stand? Billboard writers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Beyoncé tops both the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 this week, with 332,000 first-week units moved by Renaissance. On a scale from 1-10, with 1 being that her days are clearly behind her and 10 being that she’s as big and bad as she ever was at her very peak, how Back is Beyoncé? (Please include an actual number with your answer.)
Stephen Daw: Look, I’m biased as a Beyoncé stan, but the answer is 10. One of the defining factors of Beyoncé as both an artist and a brand is consistency — every time she puts out an album, you know it’s going to be critically-beloved, massive in terms of sales, and likely nominated for multiple awards. Her pop diva blueprint remains fully intact, she has near-complete control over her image, and she knows how to play the industry game. Even now, 25 years after she and the rest of Destiny’s Child debuted with “No, No, No,” Bey is inarguably just a big as she ever was — perhaps even bigger with the kind of legacy she carries with her. And that’s part of what makes her a one-of-a-kind superstar in this day and age — she has yet to lose her luster, even seven albums in.
Kyle Denis: A 9. Beyoncé is in the 25th year of her career and pulling better numbers than artists who quite literally grew up listening to her. To claim that this isn’t a successful showing for her would be ludicrous. Nevertheless, 332,000 units is a significantly smaller number than what her last two solo studio albums debuted with. Despite the mystery boxes and vinyl availability, Renaissance didn’t have the hype of a surprise drop or a bevy of music videos. This is also the first proper example we have of a solo Beyoncé studio album in the streaming era; both Beyoncé and Lemonade suffered varying degrees of delayed wide streaming releases. The music industry is also in a much different place than it was in 2016, let alone 2013. I think Renaissance is proof that Beyoncé is entering a new peak of her career. She’s proved, once again, that she’s not just the most adaptable star of her generation, but also one of the most adaptable artists of the century.
Jason Lipshutz: A 9! Simply put, the Renaissance rollout has been, ahem, flawless – a big No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, tons of critical praise and satisfied fans, Beyoncé’s first solo Hot 100 chart-topper in over a decade, and, perhaps hardest to measure but most importantly, absolute domination of the cultural conversation. It’s increasingly difficult for any artist 25 years into their recording career to release a project that everyone paying attention to pop music is talking about, but Beyoncé has done so with Renaissance – and if this isn’t her peak as a commercial artist, it’s pretty darn close to it.
Taylor Mims: I am going with a 10. In terms of creative output, I thought Lemonade – both the video and album – were peaks for Beyoncé. Then I thought Beychella was another peak. Renaissance has already surpassed those other milestones for me simply because the album deserves zero skips and, especially, because it is outside the box for her. Bey has the star power to make another great pop album, hit the charts, earn some money and move onto the next. But her trajectory for the past five years or so has been to challenge herself and her audience. She has taken a risk with this latest project and I think the second highest album debut of the year shows that risk paid off.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s an 8. The numbers are not the world-stopping figures she posted with her self-titled album nearly a decade ago — nor, I imagine, will its impact be quite as far-reaching — but she’s still clearly in rarefied air, both commercially and critically, and deservedly so.
2. Which performance do you think is more meaningful to Beyoncé — Renaissance debuting at No. 1 with the year’s second-best first-week total, or “Break My Soul” becoming her first No. 1 hit single on her own since 2008?
Stephen Daw: There’s no doubt that both mean a great deal to her, and Renaissance hitting No. 1 with these kinds of massive numbers despite a high-profile leak is a feat worth celebrating. But every single solo album Bey has released has hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — the same cannot be said for every single. Sure, she’s watched her collabs with Ed Sheeran and Megan Thee Stallion reach the chart’s summit in the intervening years since “Single Ladies,” but seeing “Break My Soul” hit that coveted spot and proving that she can still produce culture-dominating solo hits like she could back in the earlier days of her career must be a feeling of deep personal pride for Bey. Plus, it only further cements her status as an all-time great, following in the footsteps of pop divas like Aretha Franklin, Cher, Madonna and so many others before her (which Kyle Denis wrote about in this excellent essay.)
Kyle Denis: Beyoncé has always prioritized complete bodies of work, so I’m inclined to say Renaissance’s No. 1 debut is more meaningful to her. On the other hand, it must feel absolutely amazing to see your (unaccompanied) name atop the Hot 100 for the first time in 14 years. Simultaneously topping the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200 is something she last did with her debut solo album 19 years ago! This whole week must be incredible for her and her team.
Jason Lipshutz: “Break My Soul,” easily. Beyoncé has scored a No. 1 debut with all of her proper solo albums to date and established herself as an essential albums artist, but the Renaissance lead single becoming her first solo No. 1 single since “Single Ladies” redefines her longevity and presence as a modern hitmaker. Although the 2010s brought legitimate hits like “Drunk in Love” and “Formation,” “Break My Soul” now has the opportunity to join Beyonce’s biggest career hits – quite a feat at this point in her commercial run. Both accomplishments add to her legacy, but “Break My Soul” means more as a drought-ending smash.
Taylor Mims: Renaissance debuting at No. 1 is a bigger triumph in my eyes. I’m happy to see “Break My Soul” hit No. 1, but it took some time. As a single, it may not have resonated as quickly with a wide audience, but it ultimately one part of a larger project and it is one hell of a cohesive and impressive project. It is more telling of Beyoncé’s continued success that she hit another No. 1 album like she did seven times before. Not to mention, all 16 tracks from that album entered the Hot 100 charts. With “Break My Soul” though, she still has a lot of be excited about since it is a milestone she hasn’t hit since 2008. Overall, this album cycle is looking good for her.
Andrew Unterberger: I have to imagine it’s “Break My Soul”: A traditional rollout requires a traditional pop smash, and “Soul” is the closest thing Beyoncé has had to a dead-center one of those in over a decade. That said, after seeing three straight projects (The Carters’ Everything Is Love, her Homecoming: The Live Album and her The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack) fall short of the No. 1 spot, I’m sure there’s decent satisfaction in her obliterating the competition on that chart this week too.
3. Now that Beyoncé has returned to pop radio in her biggest way in over a decade, do you think the rest of the album has songs to keep her there? Is there an obvious follow-up single to you?
Stephen Daw: This is where things get tricky. Just based on the Hot 100, then “Cuff It” would be Beyoncé’s best bet for a follow-up single, with its next-highest placement at No. 13. It’s a great choice for a follow-up —it’s a good switch-up from the deep house format of much of the rest of the album to a radio-friendly, disco-adjacent sound, and the song’s excellent vibes would provide an easy path to success. But if I may offer an alternative solution — “Summer Renaissance” should be considered for a single release. Much like “Break My Soul,” it is perfectly formatted for a series of high-profile remixes, and it lends itself to a high-production visual. Imagine if Beyoncé but out a blockbuster music video for “Summer Renaissance” just near the end of August, right as summer is coming to an end — costumes, celebrity cameos, probably a whole ballroom vogue category for the song’s last 90 seconds. It would be the perfect way to bookend this incredible album cycle with another stunning success.
Kyle Denis: I think it all depends on how serious she and her team are about pushing Renaissance. We know that visuals are coming soon, and that there are two other acts waiting in the wings. “Cuff It” is the obvious follow-up radio single. The song feels timeless, can be played on multiple radio formats, and has a more traditional structure than other Renaissance streaming standouts like “Alien Superstar” and “Church Girl.” Notably, it’s also the highest-debuting song from the album.
Jason Lipshutz: “Cuff It” seems like the no-brainer answer here — both immediate in its appeal and different enough from fellow dance floor filler “Break My Soul” to stand side-by-side with the No. 1 hit in playlists and radio blocks. In the same way that the sweaty, ecstatic movement of “Break My Soul” has helped define this summer, the luxurious, funk-laden groove of “Cuff It” seems primed to take us into the fall — listen to it while picturing yourself with a hoodie on and a pumpkin spice latte in hand, and you’ll understand just how far it can go when the weather starts to turn.
Taylor Mims: Beyoncé has 15 other stellar tracks to choose from, but her strongest contender for a second single is likely “Cuff It.” While all 16 of the tracks off Renaissance landed on the Hot 100, “Cuff It” had the highest debut at No. 13 and it is easily the most pop adjacent song on the album. It would be an easy sell to radio with some bleeps. The next highest ranking was No. 19 for “Alien Superstar,” which is a rollercoaster of a song that might be harder to amass wide appeal. But if it made it to No. 19 without any push, I wouldn’t cast it away just yet.
Andrew Unterberger: Yep, it should be “Cuff”ing season on the radio soon enough. That said, the thing from this album I’m really looking forward to hearing on radio is the entire opening six-song suite, which sounds like Beyoncé doing the work of Friday and Saturday night top 40 DJs for them, giving them their own readymade megamix to play during peak club hours. That thing would absolutely slay in the back of the Uber on the way out for the night.
4. Beyoncé and Lemonade — and arguably even 4 before that — firmly established Beyoncé in the 2010s as one of the great album artists of her era. Is Renaissance already on the level of those albums for you, or does it still have some proving/growing to do?
Stephen Daw: It may be too early for me to definitively state that Renaissance is right up there with last two groundbreaking albums — but I’m going to anyways, because in listening to Renaissance almost exclusively for the last week and a half, it has already grown plenty in my personal estimation. Part of what makes me keep going back and listening to Renaissance is that it is so distinct from albums like Beyoncé and Lemonade. It maintains the same kind of cohesion that those albums do and is clearly intended to be listened to from beginning to end — but the way that it does that is so is so vastly different from her other work. Instead of creating this glorious, visual-led narrative like Lemonade, or crafting a series of interludes and flashbacks with her self-titled album to keep you engaged, Renaissance‘s use of ridiculous transitions, tempo-changes and production tricks, specifically in the album’s first half, makes it feel like a continuous DJ set that you can’t stop listening to. It’s a testament to her creative flexibility, and just one reason why Renaissance will likely go down as one of her best albums.
Kyle Denis: For me, Renaissance is already among Beyoncé’s best albums. The album is not even a month old, but I wouldn’t question anyone who ranks it as her best effort yet. Her three most recent solo studio albums are some truly transcendent works. I anticipate that Renaissance will continue to grow on me, especially with visuals still on the way.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s already there for me, a simple concept – Beyoncé makes a dance album! – executed at the highest level in its mix of throwback sounds, forward-looking production, lyrical specificity and universal appeal. Calling Renaissance her “best” album seems premature — considering the still-startling vulnerability of Lemonade, front-to-back elegance of 4 and the experimental, all-encompassing honesty of her self-titled album – but I can guarantee that I’ll be returning to it in the years to come just as much as those albums, if not even more often.
Taylor Mims: Renaissance is doing great numbers and creating fierce discussion without much promotion from Beyoncé. I think it is fair to say it can stand on its own and can definitely stack up to her previous highlights. It is an album with a lot of joy, history and classic sounds that will make it evergreen. In a summer of a lot of very good albums (but maybe not quite great), I think Renaissance will be a standout and more and more people will discover it and fall in love, if they haven’t already.
Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, it’s close — the highs aren’t as high for me as on some of those sets, but as a front-to-back listen goes, it’s as satisfying as she’s made. Of course we’ll need to get a few months removed from the general excitement around this album to be able to judge it on its own merits anywhere near appropriately. But I doubt too many fans are worried about it still holding up at that point, and I’m not particularly concerned either.
5. Simple yes or no question: Is Beyoncé the greatest pop star of the 21st century?
Stephen Daw: Is it rude to say “duh?” I’m not even sure who else would fit that moniker other than Beyoncé — maybe Taylor Swift, but even she would probably pull an Adele at the 2016 Grammys and basically try and give that title back to Beyoncé. She ticks every box in terms of image, sound and impact, she regularly redefines the culture of pop music with her releases and performances, and she is still out here dominating with her seventh album. For my money, there is no one else that can take that title, nor should they try; it belongs to Beyoncé.
Kyle Denis: Yes.
Jason Lipshutz: Yes. No. Maybe? I have no idea! I can’t give a simple answer to this question because I feel like my answer changes every few months… and if that’s a cop-out, then so be it. All I’ll say is that Beyoncé’s greatness is undeniable. Whether or not she’s your favorite pop star of the century or your third-favorite, she’s checked every box of greatness — and then invented new boxes, and checked those, too.
Taylor Mims: Absolutely not a simple question, but yes.
Andrew Unterberger: Yes.