In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Yesssss! So crazy right now! Most incredibly! It’s your girl! B! It’s your boy! Young! Cheah! History in the making, part two!”
Scratch the “part two” part. Everything else that Jay-Z ad-libs on the “Crazy In Love” intro is both accurate and perfect. Even before Beyoncé starts singing, “Crazy In Love” sounds like suns exploding. Jay is not an easy man to impress, but when he hears the sheer adrenaline-burst of those sampled horns, Jay sounds almost cowed. All he can do is marvel. Something amazing is about to happen. And then something amazing does happen: Beyoncé shows up, and she delivers.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z had recorded together before “Crazy In Love”; that’s the “part two” part. But “Crazy In Love” is not a sequel. It’s a modern standard, an instant game-changer. It was one of those rare and beautiful instances where you hear a song for the first time and instantly know that it’s about to be the biggest thing in the world. “Crazy In Love” didn’t suddenly surge into existence; it came out of the same pop-industry process that’s produced virtually every other song that’s appeared in this column. But “Crazy In Love” is the kind of dizzy alchemy that can only happen when everyone involved in that process is operating at peak capacity, when they work together to make something that positively levitates. If anything, when he made all those grand pronouncements on the intro, Jay was underselling it.
By the time Beyoncé went solo, she was already hugely famous and successful, and she’d already made a whole lot of bangers. Beyoncé was the undisputed focal point of Destiny’s Child, even if the group had worked hard to establish itself as a trio of distinct personalities. But the world-dominating success of Beyoncé’s solo career was not assured. When Destiny’s Child took a hiatus after their Survivor album, the plan was always for all three of them to release solo albums. Beyoncé also took strides into other media, playing Foxxy Cleopatra in the third Austin Powers movie. 2002’s Austin Powers In Goldmember was a huge summer hit, but it didn’t really pan out as the soft launch of Beyoncé’s solo career. I really like “Work It Out,” Beyoncé’s Neptunes-produced funk vamp from the Goldmember soundtrack, but the song didn’t make the Hot 100 at all.
Initially, the plan was for Beyoncé to release her solo debut Dangerously In Love in October 2002. Beyoncé had been working on the album for a while. Beyoncé picked out a whole roster of producers, and she produced and co-wrote virtually every song. But the rollout hit a speed bump when “Work It Out” fizzled while Beyoncé’s Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland scored the summer’s biggest hit. Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” dominated the Hot 100 for months, so Kelly’s solo debut Simply Deep took precedence. Beyoncé had some more time to work on her LP, and she recorded some more tracks. One of those tracks was “Crazy In Love.”
One of the producers that Beyoncé picked out for Dangerously In Love was Rich Harrison, a Washington, DC native who’d grown up with go-go and studied at Howard University. Harrison broke into the business in 1999, when he co-wrote and co-produced the stunning Mary J. Blige deep cut “Beautiful Ones.” Harrison also discovered Amerie Nicholson, a singer who was studying English at Georgetown, and he produced Amerie’s entire 2002 debut album All I Have. That year, Amerie’s swirling debut single “Why Don’t We Fall In Love” reached #23. (Harrison later produced Amerie’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “1 Thing,” which peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)
Rich Harrison worked with Kelly Rowland before he worked with Beyoncé. Harrison built the track “Can’t Nobody” on a sample from DC go-go greats Trouble Funk, and Kelly included the song on her Simply Deep album. “Can’t Nobody” is a cool song, and Kelly released it as a single, but it wasn’t a hit. (It peaked at #97.) Still, maybe that was enough to bring Rich Harrison to Beyoncé’s attention. Or maybe Beyoncé was into that Amerie album. She strikes me as someone who might’ve really liked that Amerie album.
Harrison had the “Crazy In Love” beat before he met Beyoncé. In 1970, Chicago soul greats and former Number Ones artists the Chi-Lites recorded a giddy, funky blast of psychedelic doo-wop called “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So).” The Chi-Lites hadn’t really broken through to the mainstream yet, and “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)” was only a minor hit, peaking at #72 on the Hot 100. Rich Harrison made the “Crazy In Love” beat by taking that song’s percussive groove and its dizzy horn-trill, then building on those samples. When Harrison played the beat for his friends, they weren’t impressed. But Harrison knew he had something special, so he saved that track for the moment when he could use it to really make an impact. When Harrison got the call to work with Beyoncé, he knew that the moment had arrived.
In fact, Rich Harrison was probably too confident in the power of that Chi-Lites sample. In 2004, Harrison told MTV that he figured all he’d have to do was play Beyoncé that beat. The night before he met with her, Harrison went out and celebrated prematurely. The next day, a hungover Harrison was late to the meeting, and he found himself having to sell an unconvinced Beyoncé that his beat was an instant hit. Beyoncé liked the beat, but the beat wasn’t enough. She told him, “I love the idea. Now write the song. I’ll be back in two hours.”
Fortunately, Beyoncé had planted a phrase in the hungover Rich Harrison’s head. Beyoncé left the studio that day to buy Kelly Rowland a birthday present, but she was feeling insecure about her appearance. Beyoncé’s clothes didn’t match, her hair wasn’t combed, and she was hoping that nobody would take her picture. Later in 2003, Beyoncé told The Guardian, “I kept saying, ‘I’m looking crazy right now.’… He said, ‘That’s the hook!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, right.'” Beyoncé left the studio, and when she came back two hours later, Harrison had written the song’s chorus and its verses. Beyoncé came up with the bridge and the dizzily catchy “uh oh uh oh” post-chorus chant. (Chi-Lites frontman Eugene Record, the writer of “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So),” also got a songwriting credit on “Crazy In Love.” He died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 64.)
But “Crazy In Love” still wasn’t done. When Beyoncé was working on Dangerously In Love, she was still publicly vague on the question of whether or not she was dating Jay-Z. At the time, Jay and Beyoncé were regularly seen out together, but they weren’t an official couple yet. The two stars had met a few years earlier, when they sat together on a plane to film performances for MTV’s Spring Break in Cancun. That was 2000. Beyoncé was 18, and Jay was 30. They were friends for a while before things got romantic, but they were definitely an item by the time they recorded Jay-Z’s 2002 single “03 Bonnie And Clyde.”
I already wrote about Jay-Z’s long come-up in my column about Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker.” (Jay has rapped on four #1 hits, and they’re all collaborations with different female singers.) Jay was already a rap titan by the time he appeared on “Heartbreaker,” but he hadn’t become a true crossover pop star yet. As lead artist, Jay didn’t score his first top-10 hit on the Hot 100 until 2001, when the in-house Roc-A-Fella producer Kanye West, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, looped up a Jackson 5 sample for “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” the lead single from Jay’s 2001 classic The Blueprint. (“Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)
The Blueprint was a game-changing album. It captured Jay in reflective grown-man mode. Where Jay had once sneered mercilessly over spacious drum-machine thunder, The Blueprint found Jay expounding toughtfully on past triumphs and misdeeds. The production, dominated by up-and-comers Just Blaze and Kanye West, popularized a lush, regal take on the classic rap art of the soul sample. Rich Harrison’s “Crazy In Love” beat is very much a post-Blueprint track.
A year after The Blueprint, Jay released the double album The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse. There’s a lot of great stuff on that record, but it’s relatively rushed and unfocused. It still gave Jay his biggest hit yet. For the single “’03 Bonnie And Clyde,” Jay turned once again to Kanye West, who hit upon the idea of sampling “Me And My Girlfriend,” the posthumous 1996 track from Jay’s old adversary 2Pac. Jay told Kanye that the track had to be the best beat he’d ever made, and Kanye put together the lush, slow-rolling track that became the first of many Jay-Z/Beyoncé duets.
With “’03 Bonnie And Clyde,” Jay-Z and Beyoncé played on the perception that they were a couple without quite confirming it. (Dame Dash, Jay’s onetime Roc-A-Fella partner, later said that he realized Jay was in love when he first heard the song.) “’03 Bonnie And Clyde” sounded a bit like Beyoncé’s answer to “Dilemma,” but it also slyly commented on the couple’s public image, a trick that pop stars have been pulling since time immemorial. Up until then, Jay had been a master of imperious bachelorhood. On some of his biggest hits, including “Heartbreaker,” Jay would clown the idea that any one woman could ever be enough for him. “’03 Bonnie And Clyde” was a tonal shift. It gave Jay a new dimension, and it granted solo Beyoncé the pop-chart foothold that had eluded her. “’03 Bonnie And Clyde” peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.)
In 2011, Beyoncé told Billboard, “I asked Jay to get on [‘Crazy In Love’] the night before I had to turn my album in.” Jay came into the studio late at night and figured out his verse in 10 minutes. This was business as usual for Jay-Z, who famously never writes down his lyrics. Instead, he hears a beat he likes, goes into a trance, and then hits the booth to deliver a fully formed verse in a single take. “Crazy In Love” is a love song, but Jay doesn’t really talk about being in love. Instead, Jay’s verse is full imperial-mode shit-talk.
In his verse, Jay-Z drops names and references: Tony Soprano, Nick Van Exel, Ginuwine, Ringo Starr. He plays word games, rhyming “yes, sir” with “tex-turrre.” He reels off effortlessly cool lines: “Jay-Z in the Range, crazy and deranged, they can’t figure him out; they like, ‘Hey, is he insane?'” He signs off with a truly iconic boast: “I been iller than chainsmokers. How you think I got the name Hov? I been real, the game’s over. Fall back, Young. Ever since I made the change over to platinum, the game’s been a wrap. One.” It’s the classic Jay-Z trick: You say you’re the biggest and the best with absolute confidence, and it becomes the truth.
You could argue that Jay’s verse veers off-topic. This is a love song, and all that Jay can do is talk about how great he is. In his New York Times review of Dangerously In Love, the great Kelefa Sanneh levied that criticism, writing that Jay barely even references Beyoncé and that his “mischievous wit disappears” when he’s on a track with her. (The headline of that review — “The Solo Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” — remains truly hilarious 19 years later. In Major Labels, the great book that he published last year, Sanneh sort of apologizes: “Perhaps I was guided too much, as well, by the desire to say something interesting. Music critics who hew too closely to conventional wisdom can seem boring, or superfluous. But those who veer too sharply away from conventional wisdom can seem batshit crazy.” I feel you, buddy.) My take on Jay’s “Crazy In Love” verse is that it’s masterful in part because it cuts hard away from the song’s subject matter. Jay presents himself as an object of love — as the guy who’s so cool that he makes Beyoncé look so crazy.
Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” lyrics are all about the early state of losing yourself over someone else, the stage where it feels like your body is being taken over by some invasive virus and you can’t control your thoughts or actions anymore: “Got me looking so crazy, my baby! I’m not myself lately! I’m foolish! I don’t do this! I’ve been playing myself, baby! But I don’t care!” Beyoncé belts those lines out with wild-eyed abandon. Her masterfully controlled voice, the one that she twisted into so many strange melodies and cadences on so many Destiny’s Child tracks, becomes an emotional bazooka. Her delivery rises and falls, from the rhythmic cool of the “uh oh uh oh” chant to the volcanic yowls of the bridge, but her vocal performance is not nuanced. Instead, Beyoncé floors the gas pedal and vrooms all over the highway. She’s out of control and loving it. It’s exactly the performance that the song demands.
The whole thing is just overwhelming. Rich Harrison’s beat cranks up all the elements of that already insanely funky and energetic Chi-Lites track. The horns, in particular, kick you in the gut hard enough to knock your spinal column out through your mouth. The drums tumble all over each other with the precise chaos that Harrison must’ve learned from go-go. The track never sounds disorganized, but it’s total pop maximalism. Beyoncé’s frothing desire and Jay-Z’s detached cool make a ridiculously powerful yin-yang combination, and it always knocks me sideways. Over that beat, they couldn’t possibly sound more perfect together. Jay and Beyoncé didn’t confirm their couple status until long after “Crazy In Love,” but by the time I heard that song, I knew they were a thing. Everybody knew.
The “Crazy In Love” video made it even more overwhelming. Director Jake Nava opens the clip with a camera flying down a road in downtown Los Angeles, and when paired with those horns, the image couldn’t be more exhilarating. That camera zooms right up to Beyoncé, who is wearing red heels and tiny jean shorts and who looks hotter than anyone has ever looked in history. It still seems impossible that anyone has ever looked like that, walked like that, moved like that. Everything in the video looks amazing, but the moment of Jay’s verse is just beautiful music-video bullshit. Jay drops a lit Zippo onto a trail of gasoline so that a car will explode. He delivers his verse with the fiery wreck behind him. Beyoncé, moving in perfect time with the beat, kicks the top off a fire hydrant so that she can dance in the sudden downpour. It makes zero narrative sense, and I love it so much.
As it happens, I was in my own crazy-in-love phase when “Crazy In Love” came out, and it felt absolutely wild to hear my feelings reflected back at me on the radio. (I’m still in my crazy-in-love phase, but it’s different when it’s new, when you’ve never really felt that way before.) My girlfriend and I had moved in together only a few months after meeting each other. We both had unsustainable roommate situations. Somehow, both of us were living with people who thought they could outsmart the power company. The people who think that way can be amazing friends, but you don’t want them to be responsible for the lights in your house, especially after you’ve already given them the money for the bill. That made the decision to move in together easier, but in that moment, the decision also made total sense. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to cohabitate with someone else after three months of dating, but we’ve been married for 15 years now, and we’ve got two kids. It worked out for us. In that utterly exciting and destabilizing point of my life, “Crazy In Love” felt like a delivery from some benevolent deity.
Maybe a whole lot of other people were crazy in love that summer, or maybe “Crazy In Love” just made people feel that way for four minutes. Either way, “Crazy In Love” came out in May, a month before the Dangerously In Love album, and it reached #1 shortly after the LP’s release. By the time the song fell out of the #1 spot, the album was quadruple platinum. If Beyoncé never did anything after “Crazy In Love,” she’d still be legendary.
“Crazy In Love” remains a cultural fixture, a perfect freeze-frame that can still be contorted in all sorts of unexpected different ways. At her 2018 Coachella performance, for instance, Beyoncé slowed “Crazy In Love” down, using her gigantic band to add in funky cross-rhythms and horn riffs reappropriated from Juvenile and Kendrick Lamar bangers. (Juvenile and Kendrick will both appear in this column eventually.) Jay-Z joined Beyoncé onstage at Coachella, but not for “Crazy In Love.” His own voice, cut up and sampled, did more than he could in that moment.
Beyoncé did not rest on her instant-legend status. She did a whole lot more after “Crazy In Love.” We will see her many more times in this column. I love writing about her, and I can’t wait.
BONUS BEATS: In the 2004 cinematic opus White Chicks, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, both in white-chick drag, enter a white-chick dance battle that’s set to “Crazy In Love.” Here it is:
(The other song in that scene, Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky,” peaked at #57 in 1987.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s ANOHNI’s video for her lush, gorgeous 2009 cover of “Crazy In Love”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the dramatic, slowed-down version of “Crazy In Love” that Beyoncé recorded for the soundtrack of the 2015 movie Fifty Shades Of Grey:
Miguel recorded a similarly moody “Crazy In Love” cover for the trailer of the 2016 sequel 50 Shades Darker, and his take on the “uh oh uh oh” part is very funny. Here’s his version:
(Miguel’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2012 classic “Adorn,” peaked at #17. Miguel also got to #15 when he guested on Mariah Carey’s “#Beautiful” in 2013.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Saweetie’s video for “Emotional,” a 2019 Quavo collab built on a “Crazy In Love” sample:
(Saweetie’s highest-charting single, the extremely fun 2021 Doja Cat collab “Best Friend,” peaked at #14. As a guest-rapper and as a member of the Migos, Quavo will eventually appear in this column. I hope he’s doing OK.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2022 Latto collab “Booty,” Saucy Santana raps over the same Chi-Lites sample that Beyoncé used on “Crazy In Love.” Here’s the video, where Saucy dresses like Beyoncé:
(Latto’s highest-charting single, 2021’s “Big Energy,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.