Beyoncé always knew she would become Beyoncé. By the time Survivor came out 15 years ago on May 1, she had already practiced being Beyoncé for a decade. But the third Destiny’s Child album marked a transition for the woman still known by her full name, Beyoncé Knowles.
The group had just gone through a now infamous shake-up, losing two members and gaining a third, and Beyoncé came out the other end as the trio’s creative core. She's credited with co-writing all of the original songs on Survivor; she holds production credits on every track. Just 19 years old when the album was released, the Houston native was starting to realize exactly what it was "Beyoncé" could be.
Fifteen years later, Beyoncé is the only artist who can simultaneously land 12 singles from one album on the Billboard Hot 100. She’s the only pop star capable of striking fear into the hearts of police departments nationwide. Her power as an entertainer is unprecedented; across our fragmented media landscape, there are many pop stars but there's only one Beyoncé. Monoculture gathers around her at a time when monoculture was thought to be dead.
Though novel in its distribution and presentation, Lemonade shares genes with Survivor. They didn’t announce their relationship until later, but Beyoncé and Jay Z were possibly newly in love in 2001; it’s not hard to imagine that “Brown Eyes” and “Dangerously In Love” are for him. 2016's “All Night” could be a sequel to both songs, a portrait of a romance that navigates its hurdles and rekindles the spark that first ignited it. Beyoncé and Jay Z have both changed since 2001, but her ability to write tenderly about their love hasn’t.
You can see Beyoncé growing in the space between Survivor and Lemonade, too. In 2016, “Nasty Girl” could easily be read as slut-shaming: “Put some clothes on, I told ya / Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on, I told ya.” But “6 Inch” empathizes with the kind of woman that 2001 Destiny’s Child might have scoffed at. Beyoncé moves aside as Lemonade’s protagonist, identifying instead with a sex worker who murders the club and goes home with her money. Be as nasty as you want, as long as you get the stacks to show for it.
"I discovered my power after the first Destiny's Child album,” Beyoncé said in a recent Elle cover story. "The label didn't really believe we were pop stars. They underestimated us, and because of that, they allowed us to write our own songs and write our own video treatments. It ended up being the best thing, because that's when I became an artist and took control."
In the late ‘90s, record labels saw girl groups as disposable. They were prone to aging; they became irrelevant past their teens. Label executives didn’t think Beyoncé could be a pop star, so just to prove them wrong, she became the pop star. She fought year after year to be taken seriously in her own right, and she predicted the whole battle in Survivor.
“Independent Woman Part 1” and the album’s title track introduced themes that would permeate Beyoncé’s songwriting from there on out: stacking paper and taking names. "I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings,” Beyoncé sang, at 19, in a song that swarmed across pop radio and dominated the charts. You couldn’t get away from it. Your best revenge is your paper, especially when the average black woman makes 60 cents to a white man’s dollar, especially when no one thought you’d be around for more than a couple albums and a reunion tour.
Survivor didn’t just bring in money; it broke records. It debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 (the group’s first no. 1) and sold more copies in its first week than any other album in Columbia Records’ history. By investing lightly in Destiny’s Child, Columbia inadvertently gave Beyoncé the freedom to write the rules of 21st century pop. She’s still writing them, only now she has the same power her label had back then.
Beyoncé surrounded herself with black women on Lemonade because the power she’s accrued isn’t just for her. She didn’t luck into it, she didn’t get there on her own, and now that she has it she’s not about to hoard it all for herself. By the time you heard of her, she’d already been working for years with the support of her parents, her sister, and her best friend. She learned how to turn that work into power with Survivor, how to earn a place in the world that used to be reserved for people who look like Bill Gates. She hasn’t stopped since.