Beyonce’s ‘Work It Out’: A Look Back at the Debut Solo Smash That Wasn’t

This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here with a look back at the solo debut single of an eventual pop legend — which missed the Billboard Hot 100 at the time, but remains a fascinating early mini-chapter of her storied career today. 



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Two decades into Beyoncé’s solo career — one that’s seen her write herself into history as a culture-shifting musician, multi-industry disruptor, and even filmmaking powerhouse — you’d be forgiven for assuming that her icon status was set in stone from the beginning. And perhaps it was to some extent.  


But while the now-40-year-old’s debut album, 2003’s Dangerously in Love, is rightly remembered as a triumph — each of its four official singles were top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and the star took home five Grammys at the 2004 ceremony — the year leading up to her first big release sans Destiny’s Child wasn’t without its hitches.

Among those was the mixed reception and lackluster commercial response to the album’s originally planned lead single, 2002’s “Work It Out.” The Neptunes-produced funk track was doubling as the credits song for that year’s Austin Powers in Goldmember — in which Beyoncé was starring as Foxxy Cleopatra alongside Mike Myers — and tripling as her first big solo showcase. And though the 20-year-old would ultimately navigate the curveball fine, eventually getting to a place in her career where she could get on top of the narrative, it was an early and very real test of whether she was as hardwearing, strategically flexible, and even patient as she was talented.  

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While Destiny’s Child was still together at the time — and wouldn’t officially disband until 2005, following another album and a farewell tour — 2002 saw each of the group’s three members launch their solo careers in earnest. Their debut albums were being staggered strategically over about a year by Mathew Knowles, the singers’ then-manager and Beyoncé’s father, who’d told MTV back in 2001, “I wouldn’t want any of my artists to directly compete with each other.” Michelle Williams became the first member to strike out on her own with the gospel album Heart to Yours, released in April of 2002. Beyoncé was initially scheduled to follow with her own debut in the fall, with Kelly Rowland’s set for sometime early 2003.

Of the trio of albums, it was arguably Beyoncé’s that faced the most scrutiny at the time — because she was the group’s frontwoman, but also in light of Destiny’s Child having suffered some brand-related messiness in recent years.

“There was a bit of baggage coming into it,” explains Tshepo Mokoena, author of last year’s biography of the star, Beyoncé. “People were looking at her as a solo artist and thinking, Okay then, well prove yourself because we don’t actually know what you can do on your own. She was having to deal with the narrative that she was the daddy’s girl, the whole group had been set up just to further her career, she was given preferential treatment.” Said narrative hadn’t exactly been quashed by the infamous 2000 lawsuit from former Destiny’s Child members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, wherein they more or less alleged it in court documents, fresh off their dismissal from the group. (Mathew and Destiny’s Child’s remaining members wouldn’t legally settle things with the former ones until the summer of 2002.)

Beyoncé’s role in Goldmember, the third film in the Austin Powers blockbuster trilogy, was a chance to excise some of that baggage while also introducing a little playfulness into her star persona. (Her only other acting role had been as the tragic title character in 2001’s MTV TV movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera.) Foxxy Cleopatra was a spoof of 1970s Blaxploitation heroines like Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown and Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones. Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, and Chad Hugo — the latter two artists collectively known as production team the Neptunes — pulled sonically from the same era for the film’s soundtrack, throwing in some 1960s funk for good measure. The three co-wrote and recorded “Work It Out” in early 2002.

“I’ve always wanted to do soul music,” Beyoncé would say that spring, explaining that her Goldmember role gave her an opening to embrace a 1970s nostalgia concept full-on. “I’ve always loved the fashion, I’ve always loved the songs and the emotions and the passion and the music. I’ve always loved the live instruments.” Lyrically, “Work It Out” revolves around a partnered dance-floor session that might not actually be a dance-floor session at all. Sheila E. handled percussion on the song, while Williams and Hugo provided additional instrumentation (the latter Neptune getting the recurring James Brown-esque shout-out from Beyoncé, “Chad, blow your horn now!”).        

Mokoena argues that, despite the Neptunes being turn-of-the-millennium hitmakers, it was an inherently risky sound for the star’s solo debut. “It was a time when R&B sounded like R&B — it didn’t have the kind of retro pastiche that Beyoncé was bringing in,” the author says. “This was also the era when you were hearing a lot of South-Asian samples on rap songs and some R&B tracks as well — that was kind of having its wave and its movement. So if you weren’t in the Ashanti/Ja Rule kind of camp, you were going for the songs that were bringing ‘East’ and ‘West’ — in quotes — together in a way that felt new for an urban market. And then, over in the corner, there’s Beyoncé doing ‘Work It Out.’” The single was also arguably a departure for Williams and Hugo, who, while certainly known to recall the past in their work, tended to make it sound brand new — even futuristic — by merging it with their standard percussion and otherworldly synths.

Compounding the existing risk, the Matthew Rolston-directed clip for “Work It Out” would then turn Beyoncé’s pastiche visual: throughout, she performs the song in a handful of set-ups inspired by 1970s variety programs like The Midnight Special and The Sonny & Cher Show. Though Rolston had directed Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” video the year beforehand, he came aboard “Work It Out” through a magazine cover shoot that he’d done with Beyoncé earlier in 2002. “We were talking about this project, and I had a few ideas just ‘cause of the conversation we had,” he explains in the MTV Making the Video episode chronicling the shoot. “And lo and behold, a couple months later here I am doing the video.” 

“Work It Out” was filmed over two days in New York City in early June. Hair and makeup artist Jason Rail, who’d joined Beyoncé’s project through fellow glam squad member Mathu Andersen (best known these days for his work with RuPaul), recalls a driven but funny young star who made a lot of eye contact. “She was the most down-to-earth, genuine woman,” Rail says. “I can’t believe that I got to work with her. I’m so happy that it was at that time, too, because she was on her way up.” (The in-betweenness of the moment is perhaps best summarized by how she introduces herself in the MTV segment as “Beyoncé from Destiny’s Child.”)

Also on the team was hair stylist Kim Kimble, now a go-to collaborator of Beyoncé’s, who’d only just started working with her at the time. (Kimble has explained that the two originally met on the set of Carmen, and that “Work It Out” was their first video together, though she’d also done Beyoncé’s hair on Goldmember.) “That Afro was all tiny extensions, like there were a million of them,” Rail says of the hair, which became one of the video’s more talked-about elements – a theme for Beyoncé in 2002 more generally, and not always for the right reasons.

The star had been flown in from Switzerland just for the shoot — Destiny’s Child was still finishing up a world tour — and would immediately have to fly back overseas once it was over. “She said she hadn’t had a day off in a couple of years,” Rail remembers. “And she didn’t seem bitter about it; she just seemed like this is what she had to do.” He also says that Beyoncé’s future husband, Jay-Z, visited the set at one point, though the rapper wouldn’t (couldn’t?) appear in the Making the Video episode, since the couple wasn’t yet officially dating. “He was definitely giving me side eye when I was rubbing baby oil on her thighs,” Rail laughs.

As tended to be the case around this time, both of Beyoncé’s parents were involved in the shoot, with Tina Knowles-Lawson serving as the video’s stylist. As the latter explains in the MTV episode, legendary designer Bob Mackie had a bunch of dresses from his archive sent over for the occasion — especially apt given his iconic 1970s collaborations with Cher and Tina Turner, both named as references for the video. (While it wouldn’t end up in “Work It Out,” one such look was Mackie’s celebrated flame dress, which Beyoncé would eventually get to wear during her Tina Turner tribute performance at the Kennedy Center in 2005.) 

Turner would be mentioned often in write-ups of the “Work It Out” video as well as Beyoncé’s live performances of the song. “Tossing her head around, jerking her body, twirling the microphone stand, she’s a new-millennium version of Tina Turner,” wrote Vibe’s Mimi Valdés in a 2002 cover story of Beyoncé, while Slant’s Sal Cinquemani would herald the young performer as “an MTV generation Tina Turner.” “Beyoncé studied Tina Turner as a little girl,” Mokoena says. “So the reason that the comparison is made is that Beyoncé worked really hard to have it made. When it comes to that performance spark, that natural charisma, and that ability to move the music through one’s body — which not every singer can do — it is exactly right.”

References and forerunners aside, however, the video is arguably most interesting 20 years later for how it seems to prophesy future Beyoncé. There’s the fact that her new-ish mononym — not quite being used colloquially yet, since “Knowles” still tended to be left intact in discussions about her — is embellished in jewels around her microphone. There’s the word “Virgo” (also in jewels) on the seat of her jeans, foreshadowing the astrology-heavy Dangerously in Love in particular. Other connections are perhaps coincidental but no less striking, like when Beyoncé sings during the bridge, “You’ve given me a taste of your honey / I want the whole beehive.” 

“The main thing that would stand out from the video itself is her physicality, and how she was able to enact the kind of growls and adlibs while obviously lip-syncing in a studio,” says Mokoena of the lines that one might draw between Beyoncé’s 20-year-old and 40-year-old selves. “It’s the way that she brings that little rawness, which she would then go on to do much more in her career.” Beyoncé’s athletic display in the video is especially impressive given that she was exhausted while shooting it; at one point in the MTV segment, she nearly rolls her ankle before telling the camera with a laugh, “I’m real tired.”

In fact, the 48 hours weren’t exactly a breeze. The star chipped her tooth while rehearsing tricks with her mic stand, necessitating an emergency dentist visit, and Rail remembers her being scratched by her hula hoop because of the “chunks of I-don’t-know-what” that had been added to make the prop shinier. Additionally, though Myers had appeared in Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” tie-in for 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and would later be part of the video for Goldmember’s second single — the Neptunes-produced “Boys,” a collaboration between Britney Spears and Williams — Myers was unavailable for “Work It Out.” (Clips of his different characters from Goldmember were instead edited into the video, sometimes a little awkwardly, or even projected onto Beyoncé herself.)

In spite of everyone’s best efforts on both the musical and visual fronts, the single didn’t crack the Hot 100 upon its release in mid-June — “a relatively tepid beginning for a highly anticipated solo career,” as Valdés wrote. (It’s worth noting that “Boys” wouldn’t either, but audiences had already heard a version of the song the year prior on Spears’s Britney, and it didn’t have the added burden of seeming like some kind of referendum on her solo potential.)  

Meanwhile, Nelly’s “Dilemma” featuring Rowland — also released in June of 2002 — started to climb multiple charts, eventually reaching the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. As a result, the ordering of Beyoncé and Rowland’s albums would be switched: the latter’s Simply Deep was released in October, with Dangerously in Love pushed back to the summer of 2003. No longer serving as the lead single from Beyoncé’s album — that honor would ultimately go to 2003’s “Crazy in Love” — “Work It Out” would now be tacked onto international versions.

 So what happened? Mokoena guesses that, aside from the aforementioned riskiness of its sound, the issue with the single may have been its overall aesthetics. “If you take it all the way to Homecoming at Coachella,” she says, “that way of referencing different parts of Black culture, that way of using horns and that particular set-up — it’s not the same as the ‘60s funk stuff, but I think Beyoncé has learned to evolve how she brings the audience members with her who know that stuff, and how she also introduces it to the ones who don’t.” This might at least partly explain why the video itself didn’t seem to save the single; even after all this time and with the ease of the YouTube era, it remains one of Beyoncé’s least-viewed music videos on the platform.   

That said, Mokoena also points out that the single’s American performance is technically only part of the story; it did quite well in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, for instance, where the narrative wasn’t one of a flop. Though “Work It Out” gets to exist nowadays as a sonic precursor to projects like 2006’s B’Day and 2011’s 4 — the song has also had staunch defenders since day one, it should be noted — “something about the American market just wasn’t ready for that sound from Beyoncé at that moment,” the author says.

Also playing a role was the circa-2000s pre-streaming landscape. “It really was the time where songs lived and died on how they performed on the radio in the United States,” Mokoena says. “The power was held in other people’s hands, and that’s what’s different for younger artists today. Beyoncé had to bring her A game and then hope that everybody else involved could make it happen, from the marketers to the promoters on the radio, the people who would decide what gets shown on MTV.” (In Valdés’s Vibe cover story, radio executive Erik Bradley admits that Beyoncé’s song “took [him] a minute to get used to; it was very different.”)

In some ways, “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” — Beyoncé’s first Jay-Z collaboration and top-ten hit as a solo artist, recorded just a couple months after “Work It Out” was released — turned into a sort of a liferaft for her that year, commercially and narratively. (Like “Work It Out,” it would be included on certain versions of Dangerously in Love.) “That use of acoustic guitar was very much of the time,” Mokoena says, “and it made it work for pop with that rap feel to it.” Of course, there was also the collaboration’s PR potential, since, while the stars would remain tight-lipped on the subject of their relationship, the song and its Chris Robinson-directed video were the closest they’d come to making any kind of public debut. The video — a spin on 1993’s True Romance — also marked the beginning of a compelling lovers-on-the-lam theme that Beyoncé and Jay-Z have continued to build upon for two decades, often pulling from film history in the process. 

The fact that Beyoncé so emphatically survived the commercial disappointment of “Work It Out” — it helped that Goldmember itself broke multiple box-office records — meant that the single and video can be read as a soft launch rather than a cautionary tale. (She’d still perform the song all through 2002 and 2003, helping to steer the narrative in a more favorable direction — and, perhaps, conveying the message that she wasn’t operating with a sales-first mindset, however true that actually was at the time.) 

Mokoena argues that the months leading up to Dangerously in Love “ended up being an opportunity for Beyoncé to test different things. A little bit of retro on ‘Work It Out,’ something a little bit more updated and sexy on ‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,’ — and then obviously when ‘Crazy in Love’ came out, it still had those retro leanings with the horns and everything else, but it pushes into a bit more of a contemporary space. So it almost straddles ‘Work It Out’ and ‘‘03 Bonnie & Clyde’ sonically in that way.’” In the end, Beyoncé’s album would turn out to be the biggest Destiny’s Child side project — if you could still call it that — by a long shot.

The star — ever the astute storyteller — has only nodded to “Work It Out” sparingly since those fledgling years, acknowledging it as a chapter on her ascent but always on her own terms. During a short Las Vegas residency in 2009, she launched into a performance of the song while recounting her career up until that point — omitting its underperformance from the tale, and thus brilliantly recasting any early label trepidation about her debut album as unnecessary negativity from the C-suite. 

“After playing the songs for my record label, they told me I didn’t have one hit on my album,” she recalled. “‘Dangerously in Love,’ ‘Me, Myself and I,’ ‘Baby Boy,’ ‘Naughty Girl,’ and my favorite song, ‘Crazy in Love.’ And they told me I didn’t have one hit on my album! I guess they were kind of right… I had five.”

Several years later, when a Pepsi ad saw her come face-to-face with her past selves in a mirrored room, there she was in “Bootylicious,” and then “Crazy in Love.” And then, suddenly, standing next to those essential pieces of her iconography was “Work It Out” — at least, for the fraction of a second before she shatters all the mirrors in one fell swoop. Smirking, her voice comes in: “Embrace your past, but live for now.”

More recently, during Beyoncé’s history-making 2018 Coachella set that doubled as a flex of her career longevity, the song appeared as yet another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment — this time, in an interlude while she was switching costumes. Maybe it was a wink from her that we long ago fumbled our chance to hear those horns given the proper Homecoming treatment. In any case, the show itself — with its two hours straight of full-throated belting and live brass — stood as evidence that her ear was probably fine from the start; she just needed everyone else to catch up.