Still, even pop royalty must start somewhere, and dynamic reigns don’t often develop suddenly. Beyoncé’s “Dangerously in Love,” now 15 years old, offers a rare, authentic glimpse of the queen pre-coronation, a less polished persona now long erased.
Though hindsight generally helps in evaluating art, it’s a strange lens through which to examine Beyoncé’s first solo album. Using her current titanic career as a vantage point, it is hard to see the collection of songs as anything but transitional. The work deals primarily with love, featuring sultry tracks such as “Be With You” and “The Closer I Get to You,” meant to signal a more adult chanteuse tired of being associated solely with Destiny’s Child, the group that made Beyoncé famous. And yet, the lyrical and emotional content of the music lacks the depth that distinguishes a more seasoned songwriter. The use of horoscopes as a metaphor—mentioned not only once in “Signs” to characterize past lovers, but then again in “Gift from Virgo” to describe familial love—is startling, the sort of weakly veiled secret-sharing that you expect any maturing individual to quickly grow out of.
That’s not to say, however, that this early era Beyoncé is unrecognizable. The performative elements that earned Beyoncé her contemporary preeminence are all there if you look hard enough. “Crazy in Love” is a bombastic opening number, showy in the same way she carries herself both at shows and public appearances. The airy vocals of tunes such as “Naughty Girl” are carefully navigated with her deft choral control. The production is tight, combining R&B;, soul, Arabian, and Caribbean influences. And the artists she chooses to feature, including Missy Elliott and Luther Vandross are meaningfully selected. The bedrock upon which Beyoncé has constructed her career has always existed in plain sight.
And yet, there is a certain sense that this past self is a mere prototype, one that no longer fits within the imperial phase of Beyoncé’s career. Perhaps that is why “Dangerously in Love” is so interesting. Listening to this album from the future is like peering into a clear chrysalis (formed by a very talented caterpillar, to be sure, but one undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis nonetheless). The aplomb of “Me Myself and I” and “Yes” hint at the feminist bend of her later career. The rambling interlude—“I believe that harmonies are colors”—is her first foray into what becomes a carefully cultivated use of spoken word. The sugar-laced praise she heaps onto her father in “Daddy” eventually transitions into her later, more bitter “Daddy Lessons” where she explores infidelity and family dynamics. Pulling back this curtain of time, then, allows one to indulge in artistic surveillance particularly valuable for an artist who keeps her narrative on such a tight leash.
If the Beyoncé of today is the finished product, this album is the work in progress, and it’s exciting to see what exactly didn’t make the final cut. Instead of the femme fatale in six inch heels, you have a young woman pining after a white t-shirt and Timberland boots in “That’s How You Like It.” Instead of splashing around in a martini glass in the carefree music video of “Naughty Girl,” you have a fully-actualized visual album in “Lemonade.” “Dangerously in Love”-era Beyoncé offers a glimpse of the crude and compelling, the singer who was still willing to admit her affinity for whales on camera rather than close herself off to interviews. It’s telling that the star has been able to transition away from her earlier style without losing any of the fundamental spirit to her character.
The kind of quiet admiration attached to any mention of Beyoncé nowadays has been cultivated gradually over time. Fans of musicians often talk of separating the art and artist, but this is doubly true for artists as performers themselves—for Beyoncé to be able to master her art, she has had to pare away anything that might distract and ultimately detract from it. The reason we raise Beyoncé up on a pedestal today is because she has achieved that so-coveted schism, cleaving any link between art and artist while perfecting the former and sequestering away the latter. For better or for worse, “Dangerously in Love” offers up a picture of times when things weren’t so manufactured.—Staff writer Rick Li can be reached at email@example.com.