The stakes were always high when it came to working with Beyoncé. Already a superstar and a three-time Grammy winner as a member of Destiny’s Child, with four Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s under her belt, when she went solo in 2003 with the release of “Dangerously in Love,” she set a dizzying pace right out the gate, boasting two No. 1 hits and selling over five million copies of the album.
With her sophomore release “B’Day,” she knew she had to raise the bar, as both a singer and a visual artist — a given now, as Queen Bey turns 40 today, but not yet cemented 15 years ago.
Although her self-titled fifth album is the first which Beyoncé directly deemed a visual album, many devotees of the singer consider “B’Day,” released to accompany her Sept. 4 2006 birthday, to be the first true visual representation of her music. That’s largely because, seven months after its release, Beyoncé released the “B’Day Anthology Video Album” DVD, containing 13 music videos.
Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, who produced “World Wide Woman” and the album’s lead single, “Deja Vu,” recalls Beyoncé telling him her initial plans to make a music video for every song on the album. “She was actually watching different people she was thinking about hiring as directors,” Jerkins tells Variety. “When we weren’t recording, she was thinking about all that type of stuff, and I got a chance to see that side of her.”
Jerkins and fellow producer Jon Jon Traxx first came up with the concept for “Deja Vu” while driving to a 7-Eleven before a recording session. Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” had come on the radio, and having previously worked with Jackson, Jerkins wanted to give Beyoncé something of that caliber.
In the span of an hour, Jerkins and Traxx cut the demo and presented it to Beyoncé, who fell in love with the record and cut it immediately. As “Deja Vu” was her big comeback single at the time, Beyoncé wanted it to be monumental. Jerkins and Traxx incorporated live instruments in the track, including horns, with Beyoncé insisting they add an 808 at the last minute.
For the video, Beyoncé recruited Sophie Muller, who describes the artist as “easy company.” Muller recalls Beyoncé having a vision for the video, insisting they shoot on location.
Says Muller: “I remember we had various discussions about things like, ‘Should we try and recreate the idea of New Orleans in a studio?’ And she was, like, ‘No, we’re definitely going to New Orleans, and that’s going to be the backdrop of the video.’ I really respected the idea that she wanted, and I took her lead on that.”
The video was shot in several locations across New Orleans, including the Maple Leaf Bar. Muller recalls seeing “heartbreaking” damages around the city and land, due to the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated the area just weeks earlier.
While “Deja Vu” remains a fan favorite, its video was received rather tepidly upon release, with some fans creating an online petition demanding a reshoot. There were critics who even criticized the sexual nature of Beyoncé’s dance moves, particularly during Jay-Z’s second guest verse on the song.
“It was a sexy scene,” Muller says, noting that Beyoncé freestyled many of her dance moves. “I always thought [Beyonce and Jay] had natural sexual chemistry. To me, things are offensive if you’ve got a director saying to ‘do that,’ and the other person doesn’t want to do it, but this wasn’t the case.” (Bey and Jay were married in April 2008.)
Muller had an easier time coming up with the concept for “Ring the Alarm,” which sees Beyoncé channelling Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” Although Beyoncé wouldn’t introduce her alter ego Sasha Fierce to the world until her third album, “I Am… Sasha Fierce,” Muller remembers conversations about Sasha Fierce during the filming of “Ring the Alarm.”
In “Ring the Alarm,” Beyoncé is seen dancing in an interrogation room, being carried down a corridor by police officers, and hounded by the press and paparazzi.
“I think what was great about that video is there is a story there, but it’s very softly told,” Muller says. “It’s not like ‘this happened, and then that happened,’ it’s very symbolic.You don’t really know what happened. Like, did she kill somebody?’”
Some of the more celebratory videos include the Anthony Mandler-directed “Get Me Bodied,” which depicts Beyoncé partying at a club with her Destiny’s Child bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, and sister Solange — dancing elaborately and rocking a series of iconic outfits.
According to Mandler, “Get Me Bodied” was shot over the course of “one very long excruciating day.” During a two-week period, Beyoncé filmed nine videos for the Anthology DVD, “Get Me Bodied” being the last of the shoots. Over the course of the 20-hour day, dancers changed into “Rooms and rooms and rooms and racks and racks and racks of clothes” designed by Beyonce’s mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, prior to tearing up the dance floor adhering to Beyonce’s instruction (“drop down low, let’s hit the floor with it,” “pat your weave, ladies.”)
The video, which was co-directed by Beyoncé, marks the only time Mandler, who’s worked with such superstar artists as The Weeknd, Drake, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera, has shared a directing credit. For “Get Me Bodied” specifically, Beyoncé wanted the combination of choreography (by Frank Gaston Jr.), movement and fashion to give the visual a “cinematic, editorial” feel.
“Bey likes to look at the footage and is very specific about shots,” Mandler says. “And I loved getting her notes because they were so meticulous.”
Equally, if not more complex was the Ray Kay-directed video for “Freakum Dress,” which sees Beyoncé embracing her sexy side in a variety of fashion favorites. Knowles-Lawson designed more than 30 dresses for the video — eight are worn by Beyoncé in different flash sequences, and the rest outfit the dancers.
Like “Get Me Bodied,” the video was shot in a day, over the course of “16 to 18 hours,” according to Kay, who adds, “I don’t remember how many wardrobe changes we did, but I remember I wanted to do even more than we had time for.”
Also appearing on “B’Day” was “Irreplaceable,” which spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and has since become one of her most iconic hits. As it turns out, the track almost didn’t go to Beyoncé. Ne-Yo had originally penned the melody during sessions for his sophomore album, “Because of You.” But once he realized that the lyrics would sound “chauvinistic” if sung by a male, he reworked the demo and shopped it around to female artists.
While it has been reported Chrisette Michelle planned to cut the track, and that Ne-Yo had Faith Hill and Shania Twain in mind when he wrote it, he’s unsure how many artists received the demo before Beyoncé locked it down. Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith, co-founder of Roc Nation, heard the track and immediately felt it would suit Beyoncé.
“Ty Ty would duck his head into sessions, in and out, because he was also an A&R for [“Because of You”],” Ne-Yo recalls. “When he heard something, he’d be like, ‘Hey, let me get that.’ So we’d give him a copy of it, and he’d go. Two weeks later, he’d come back and be, like, ‘so that’s gonna be on Beyoncé’s album.’”
Ne-Yo says “Irreplaceable” is “the biggest song” he’s written throughout his career, noting that hearing Beyoncé record it helped him learn about the power of perspective. He says Beyoncé gave the song a new level of “power,” which ultimately changed the meaning of the songs.
While the song has gone through various arrangements, including the live instrumentation version we see by her all-female band in its Mandler-directed video, the collaborators who spoke to Variety ahead of the “B’Day” birthday, all agree: Beyoncé is a visionary and those who surround her are there to help bring that vision to life.
“I’ve never felt more useless than in Beyoncé’s studio,” Ne-Yo cracks. “Because I was not needed at all. She didn’t need me to hold her hand in the studio. She didn’t need me to tell her which note to hit, or what the next harmony was. None of that.”
“B’Day” would sell more than 530,000 albums its first week out and eventually tally over 3 million units in the U.S. and 8 million worldwide. The video collection would also be certified double-platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA.