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Is Beyoncé still a pop star?

Is Beyoncé still a pop star? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past week as I walked around Brooklyn, where her latest album has been blasting steadily from cars and portable speakers, providing a soundtrack to late summer barbecues and block parties. I even witnessed one man playing Renaissance loudly through his phone while dining in a restaurant (no one complained). 

The cultural power of Beyoncé is undeniable. With her 28 Grammy awards, she has achieved the most accolades of any singer in history, and sold tens of millions of albums. She is one of a handful of performers who can fill a stadium on tour. I would challenge you to find a music critic who doesn’t count her as one of the most influential American artists of the past few decades.

This is probably why people are sometimes surprised to hear that Beyoncé has not hit the top of the singles charts in nearly 15 years. The last time one of her songs topped the Billboard chart — the traditional benchmark for success — was 2008 with ‘Single Ladies’. Her other number one hits as a solo artist all occurred between 2003 and 2006.

‘Break My Soul’, the lead single from Renaissance, peaked at number seven on the Billboard chart, trailing acts like rapper Jack Harlow and singer Lizzo. At the time of writing this, ‘Break My Soul’ was the eighth most popular song on Spotify in the US, behind Harry Styles and Bad Bunny.

At 40 years old and more than two decades into her career, Beyoncé has shifted towards making albums as conceptual art. It’s been at least a decade since she participated fully in the pop music industrial complex — through which stars will agree to endless interviews, appearances and performances, in exchange for radio plays and spots on influential streaming playlists.

In contrast to some artists that are “always on”, Beyoncé takes six years off in between albums and has distanced herself from the public apart from sporadic Instagram posts. In doing so, she has come to occupy a unique position: her cultural clout looms larger than her commercial power.

Tatiana Cirisano, a music analyst and former Billboard journalist, describes Renaissance as “the best experiment playing out in real time” on how the changing music landscape is affecting what it means to be a superstar, as online streaming has splintered audience attention.

“This album is super culturally impactful in the way that it elevates the roots of dance music. But I don’t know if that translates to commercial success,” she says. “It raises the question of: how do you even define what it means to be a successful artist today?”

Music blog Hits Daily Double forecasts that Renaissance in its first week will sell around 325,000 “album equivalent units” — a measure that includes streams, digital downloads, CDs and vinyl sales. In 2022, this is a solid number. It would almost certainly land her the top-selling album of the week.

But it’s a far cry from the 1mn first week sales that peers like Adele, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga achieved in the 2010s. It’s also significantly smaller than Beyoncé’s US sales for her self-titled 2013 album, which made 617,000 in its first three days, or 2016’s Lemonade with 653,000.

With the rollout of Renaissance, Beyoncé herself seems to acknowledge today’s commercial realities. Her previous two albums were dropped without warning, capturing attention through surprise — a strategy that others would copy for the rest of the decade. And for a full three years, Lemonade was only available to stream on Tidal, her husband’s small streaming platform.

But since 2016’s Lemonade, streaming has overtaken CD sales as the main source of music revenue. This time around, Beyoncé has opted for a decidedly more traditional rollout, replete with a lead single, Vogue magazine cover and social media posts. She made her first appearance on TikTok. She’s even selling “box sets” of merchandise for fans to buy, which includes a Renaissance CD — a strategy pop stars have used to juice sales numbers.

It’s too early to know whether these moves will produce Beyoncé’s first big pop breakout in a long while. But the album has kept her cultural influence intact, luring the masses into her archive samplings of house, afrobeats and disco music from decades past, shining a spotlight on legendary black musicians like Grace Jones and Nile Rodgers. Music site Pitchfork described it as a “challenging, densely-referenced album that runs circles around her similarly minded, Billboard-charting peers”. And maybe that’s enough to call it a success.

anna.nicolaou@ft.com

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