The Number Ones

October 4, 2003

The Number Ones: Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy” (Feat. Sean Paul)

Stayed at #1:

9 Weeks

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.

Crazy In Love” is a horny song, but “Baby Boy,” Beyoncé’s second #1 hit as a solo artist, is a horny song. There’s a difference. “Crazy In Love,” the monster hit that dominated the summer of 2003, is all about infatuation — about the pure, dizzy, brain-erasing exhilaration that can take over your soul when you get really, really into another human being. Sex is part of that, but it’s not the whole thing. “Crazy In Love” is about the whole thing. “Baby Boy,” on the other hand, is about one very particular part of the thing. It’s all about needing to fuck right now, immediately, this minute.

Before “Baby Boy,” Beyoncé had never really gotten horny like that — not on record, anyway. Beyoncé Knowles came up in ’90s R&B, the period when that genre was arguably the most extravagantly horny that it’s ever been. But Destiny’s Child had never been all about world-consuming sexuality. The members of Destiny’s Child were kids when they first got famous, but generational peers like Usher were kids, too, and that didn’t stop them from singing endlessly about being horny. Destiny’s Child, by contrast, were more invested in the intricacies of romantic politics — people cheating on each other, people finding out about cheating, people using each other for financial benefit, people refusing to be used for financial benefit. With Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé first established the take-no-shit persona that remains a crucial part of her music to this day. Destiny’s Child could be flirty, but outright lust rarely came into the equation.

By the time that Beyoncé released her 2003 debut album Dangerously In Love, things had changed. Beyoncé was 21 when the album came out, and she was in her first high-profile relationship — the relationship, as it happens, that she’s still in today. At the time, Beyoncé and Jay-Z weren’t publicly acknowledging that they were together, but they weren’t exactly keeping it a secret, either. Much of Dangerously In Love plays on the public’s knowledge that Beyoncé was seeing someone and that the someone in question was, at that time, arguably the coolest and most unattainable man in the universe.

Things have shifted now, but in the beginning, Jay-Z was the more famous, better-established half of the relationship. He’d always made a point of talking about just how single he was, how single he wanted to remain. Beyoncé devoted much of her first solo album to exulting in the fact that she’d won this guy’s affection. “Baby Boy” is part of that. On “Baby Boy,” Beyoncé goes full Donna Summer — panting, moaning, fogging windows up. The lyrics are barely lyrics: “Ahhh! Ohhhh! My baby’s fly, baby! Ohhh! Yes! Noooo! Hurt me so good, baby! Ohhhh!” She got the point across.

At this point, it’s a cliché for former child stars to go for overstated sexiness when they’re trying to show that they’ve become adults. Maybe it was a cliché in 2003, too. But Beyoncé made it work. Compared to something like Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty,” a song that came out a year earlier and peaked at #48, “Baby Boy” never sounds forced or gratuitous. Beyoncé doesn’t come off like she’s trying on a sexy Halloween costume, like she’s trying to will herself into a pre-established archetype. Instead, Beyoncé simply sounds like someone who’s getting laid and who wants to tell the world about it. Maybe “Baby Boy” works so well just because she’s believable. Or maybe it’s just that “Baby Boy” is a good song.

Beyoncé has been one of the world’s biggest pop stars for decades, and one of her great gifts is timing. Beyoncé’s not an obvious cultural chameleon like David Bowie or Madonna or Janet Jackson, but she’s almost always shown a laser-accurate sense of where things are going, which sounds and approaches and ideas are in the zeitgeist at any particular moment. “Baby Boy” is a small example of that gift, but it’s an important one. When dancehall was having a real moment on the American charts, Beyoncé saw it coming, and she reacted. “Baby Boy” isn’t a straight-up dancehall track, but it internalizes the genre’s stylistic tics and intricacies, and it teams her up with Sean Paul in that “Get Busy” moment where Sean Paul was everywhere.

Sean Paul didn’t become a part of “Baby Boy” until the track was almost done. Instead, Beyoncé’s main collaborator on “Baby Boy” was Scott Storch, a young hitmaker whose career had already taken some unpredictable turns. So let’s talk about Scott Storch. Weird guy. Insane career. Storch will be in this column a bunch of times, but this is his first appearance. Storch, a weird-looking white guy, was born on Long Island. His mother, a singer, had once apparently been signed to Cameo-Parkway Records under the name Joyce Carol, though I can’t find any record of her time on the label. Storch spent most of his childhood in South Florida, and he was a piano prodigy, getting paid to play at friends’ parents’ parties when he was was young as 12. As a teenager, Storch moved with his father to Philadelphia. There, Storch dropped out of high school, fathered a kid, and became the founding keyboard player of the Roots.

Today, the Roots are an anomaly for all sorts of reasons. When they first started, they were an anomaly for one particular reason: They were a live band who made rap music. Scott Storch joined the Roots in 1991, when the group was still struggling to get noticed. In 1993, the Roots briefly relocated to London, where they recorded their indie debut Organix. That album got the Roots signed to DGC, and their major-label debut Do You Want More?!!!??! came out in 1995. By that point, Storch’s warm, hazy Fender Rhodes was a key element of their sound.

The Roots were a critical sensation and a life-changing live act, but they had trouble selling records. Do You Want More?!!!??! eventually went gold, but that didn’t happen until 2015. Still, the Roots were distinctive, and they resonated partly by cutting against prevailing rap trends. The Roots’ classic 1996 sophomore album Illadelph Halflife yielded the band’s first Hot 100 hit. The Raphael Saadiq collab “What They Do” made it to #34 in part because of the way the song’s video mocked its era’s perceived rap excesses. That song is still the Roots’ highest-charting single.

Scott Storch isn’t in the “What They Do” video. He left the Roots around the time Illadelph Halflife came out, and Kamal Gray replaced him. (Gray is still in the band now; you can see him on TV every night.) Storch was more interested in producing than in playing live. He continued to work with the Roots after leaving the band, and he co-wrote and co-produced their second-biggest hit, the gorgeous 1999 Erykah Badu/Eve collab “You Got Me.” (That one peaked at #39.)

Eve liked working with Storch, and when she was thinking about signing to Aftermath, she took him to meet Dr. Dre. When Dre recorded his 1999 comeback album 2001, Storch was a key part of the process. Storch played keyboards all over 2001, and he co-produced “Still D.R.E.,” its first single. The icy piano on the song’s intro is all Scott Storch. (“Still D.R.E.” peaked at #23.) Storch kept working with Dre and his associates, playing on tracks from allies like Eminem and Snoop Dogg. Storch and Dre co-produced Eve’s biggest hit, the 2001 Gwen Stefani collab “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 6.)

It’s one thing to become one of Dr. Dre’s favorite collaborators, but Scott Storch also put in work with Timbaland, another all-time master, in the early ’00s. Storch and Timbaland co-wrote and co-produced Justin Timberlake’s petty masterpiece “Cry Me A River,” a #3 hit early in 2003. (It’s a 10.) Around the same time, Storch made a name for himself as a producer without his more-famous collaborators. In 2002, Storch produced Pink’s #20 hit “Family Portrait.” That same year, Storch worked on seven tracks from Christina Aguilera’s album Stripped, including two of the singles. (“The Fighter” peaked at #20, and the Lil Kim collab “Can’t Hold Us Down” got to #12.) By the time Storch got the call to work with Beyoncé, he’d already put together a very serious resume.

Scott Storch is all over Beyoncé’s Dangerously In Love album. Storch and Beyoncé co-produced three Dangerously In Love tracks, all of which eventually became singles. As a producer, Storch’s style was mostly icy and clinical, pretty close to what Dr. Dre was doing around the same time. That sound brought Storch a lot of success, and we’ll see some examples of it in this column pretty soon. Working with Beyoncé, though, Storch tapped into different modes. On “Baby Boy” in particular, Storch found ways to incorporate the bubbly, winding syncopation of dancehall.

Scott Storch had just moved back to Miami when he and Beyoncé worked together, and that’s where they wrote “Baby Boy.” They had collaborators. Jay-Z got a co-writing credit on “Baby Boy”; Beyoncé later said that she loved his ideas for the track. Jay rapped on two of the tracks from Dangerously In Love, but he has writing credits on three more songs from the album. (Jay and Beyoncé remain a formidable songwriting team. Beyoncé returned to #1 earlier this year, and Jay’s got a writing credit on that song, too.)

Another of the “Baby Boy” co-writers is a whole lot less famous. Robert Waller was known as EST back when he was one of the members Three Times Dope, a Philly rap group that had some minor success in the late ’80s. Storch knew Waller from the Philly rap scene, and he brought Waller in to help on the Beyoncé album even though Waller had never worked with singers. Storch later told Red Bull Sound Academy, “I convinced Beyoncé that he was a very experienced R&B songwriter. I put my name on the line for him, but he showed up, and he wrote all three of these songs with B, and it’s a blessing.”

When Beyoncé was working with Scott Storch, she decided that she wanted to get Sean Paul involved. Beyoncé recorded “Baby Boy” in February of 2003, three months before Paul reached #1 with “Get Busy.” I’d have to imagine that she would’ve heard Paul’s voice a lot in Miami, a city where dancehall is part of the cultural fabric. Earlier this year, Paul told Billboard about when he wrote his “Baby Boy” part: “She sent it to me over the internet, and I’m outside my yard in a car underneath a mango tree. I’m writing the lyrics, and a mango falls straight through the car window into my lap. And I’m like, ‘That’s a hit song right there.'”

If it were easy for pop stars to integrate dancehall into their music, then more pop stars would do it. It’s not easy. Dancehall rhythms are different. They were even more different in the early ’00s, when centrist American pop was really just discovering dancehall. Beyoncé is an R&B singer, but “Baby Boy” isn’t an R&B song. It doesn’t require Beyoncé to sing the showy, churchy runs that she does as well as anyone. Instead, the track is a twinkling rhythmic lurch with lots of Middle Eastern-style harmonic wobbles. It’s impressive that a producer like Scott Storch could make a beat like that, and it’s even more impressive that Beyoncé could sing over it so gracefully.

Lyrically, “Baby Boy” is about as simple as it gets. Beyoncé is extremely into her man, and she wants to get down as soon as possible. The unnamed baby boy stays on her mind and fulfills her fantasies. She thinks about him all the time; she sees him in her dreams. She imagines herself and this boy dancing real close in a dark, dark corner of a basement party. But they’re in their own world. The music is the sun, and the dancefloor becomes the sea. It takes serious commitment to put psychedelic imagery into a sexy club jam, but Beyoncé makes it sound natural.

There are very few pop stars who have the same kind of rhythmic intelligence that Beyoncé has; on that score, she’s in the same realm as Michael and Janet Jackson. Beyoncé put that intelligence to work on most of Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits, and she makes it work in a different way on “Baby Boy.” The track requires her to sound mystically sexy — to chant and pant at the same time. Sometimes, Beyoncé floats over the track like an eagle riding a wind current. At other points, her cadence gets choppy and staccato. She twists her voice around that beat so masterfully that it’s hard to even realize what she’s pulling off.

After “Baby Boy” hit, Beyoncé had to dodge rumors that she’d had an affair with Sean Paul. (Paul later said that Beyoncé confronted him over those rumors, believing that he’d been the source. Maybe that’s why she’s only performed the track with him a couple of times.) I honestly don’t hear any sexual chemistry between Beyoncé and Sean Paul on “Baby Boy,” though. What I hear is rhythmic give-and-take.

Sean Paul plays his part on “Baby Boy.” Beyoncé sings about all-consuming attraction, and Paul responds that she should follow her feelings, baby girl, because they cannot be denied. In her love, he’s got to get well-certified — to give her the tuffest, longest type of ride. Sean Paul’s message is pretty much: You want to what? Uh, sure, OK, let’s go. It’s really the only reasonable response to what Beyoncé talks about on that song. Paul balances out Beyoncé’s ethereal moan with baritone incantations. He gives her some bass, some balance. They never recorded together again, but they sounded right on that one song.

At the end of “Baby Boy,” Beyoncé and Sean Paul slide in an allusion to a classic dancehall track: Former Number Ones artist Ini Kamoze’s 1990 single “Hot Stepper” — not “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” Kamoze’s actual #1 hit, but the straight-up dancehall track that Kamoze recorded years earlier. At the end of the song, when Beyoncé sings that she’s stepping in hotter this year, that’s what she’s referencing.

Ever since “Baby Boy,” dancehall has been part of Beyoncé’s sonic vocabulary. It’s one more tool in her kit — an extra asset that’s enabled her to loom as large in the rest of the world as she does in her homeland. When Beyoncé played her historic Coachella set in 2018, she went straight from “Baby Boy” into a cover of Dawn Penn’s deathless 1994 reggae anthem “You Don’t Love Me (No, No No),” and it was incredible. (“You Don’t Love Me (No, No No)” peaked at #58.)

In “Crazy In Love” director Jake Nava’s “Baby Boy” video, Beyoncé and Sean Paul actually never appear onscreen together. Instead, Paul lies down on a floor that’s carpeted entirely with scantily clad women, and he delivers his lines outside some kind of futuristic Chinese pagoda. Beyoncé dances up against walls, on beaches, and in a basement party that looks nothing like the more-realistic basement party from Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” video. Beyoncé romances some relatively anonymous handsome guy in the clip, but he’s never the central figure. Instead, Beyoncé herself is the main character, and her general sense of desire takes center stage. She’s greased-up the entire time she’s onscreen. Parts of the video almost feel like cheesecake, but not in a bad way. The clip ends with a sort of bellydance break that’s not on the record, and it shows Beyoncé having a foxy-ass seizure in a jingly metal bikini. It could be a scene from a James Bond movie, but, like, a really good James Bond movie.

“Baby Boy” actually topped the Hot 100 for longer than “Crazy In Love.” That’s partly a reflection of how “Crazy In Love” made Beyoncé into an even bigger pop star. But radio also embraced “Baby Boy” more than it had embraced “Crazy In Love.” Beyoncé anticipated the early-’00s dancehall boom, riding it at just the right moment and helping it spread. She understood where things were going.

The next two Dangerously In Love single were both Scott Storch collabs. Beyoncé followed “Baby Boy” with a relatively traditional R&B jam. “Me, Myself And I” is a loping mid-tempo jam about dumping a cheating man and learning to be stronger on your own. These were already familiar Beyoncé subjects, and she’s come back to them again and again ever since. (“Me, Myself And I” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.)

After “Me, Myself And I,” Beyoncé came out with “Naughty Girl,” a song that, if anything, is even hornier than “Baby Boy.” If Beyoncé went full Donna Summer with the moaning on “Baby Boy,” she went further on “Baby Boy,” building the track around an interpolation of Summer’s 1975 sex-drunk disco classic “Love To Love You Baby.” (“Naughty Girl” peaked at #3. It’s another 9. “Love To Love You Baby” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

Dangerously In Love eventually went platinum six times over. While the album cycle was still going, Beyoncé starred alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. in The Fighting Temptations, a church-choir romantic comedy that didn’t really hit. Beyoncé’s two soundtrack contributions — one with Diddy and another with Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, and Free — didn’t hit, either. It didn’t matter. Beyoncé’s actual singles probably overwhelmed her soundtrack songs. By then, she was a colossus.

While “Baby Boy” was sitting at #1, Jay-Z released The Black Album, which he sold to the world as his retirement record. Around the same time, Jay also played a star-studded farewell show at Madison Square Garden; it’s captured in the great concert movie Fade To Black. The show and movie opened with Michael Buffer introducing Jay while Jay’s jersey goes into the Garden rafters. In the middle of his set, Jay ceded the stage to a Beyoncé mini-set. She sang “Crazy In Love,” “Baby Boy,” and a version of “Summertime” with an extravagantly bejeweled Ghostface Killah. It was electric. A few months later, Beyoncé opened the Grammys by singing a medley of Prince songs with Prince. That was electric, too. The solo Beyoncé had fully arrived.

After Dangerously In Love, Beyoncé rejoined Destiny’s Child for one more album, and then she continued to dominate on her own. We’ll see Beyoncé in this column again. We’ll see Sean Paul, too.

GRADE: 8/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: When Beyoncé headlined the Glastonbury Festival in 2011, she performed “Baby Boy” — not with Sean Paul but with trip-hop originator Tricky. Tricky didn’t really do much, but it was still cool. Here’s that performance:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Nicolas Jaar sampling “Baby Boy” on his 2015 single “Fight”:

And here’s Nicolas Jaar once again sampling “Baby Boy” on “Fantasy,” the 2020 single that he released under his Against All Logic alter-ego:

THE NUMBER TWOS: “Get Low,” the rumbling, hornily deranged strip-club headbanger party-chant that Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz made with the Ying Yang Twins, peaked at #2 behind “Baby Boy” and kicked off crunk’s golden era on the pop charts. From the window to the wall, till the sweat drop down my balls, it’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. That’s tomorrow! You can pre-order it here! Also, I’m doing a Reddit AMA at 4PM today, if you feel like stopping by.

more from The Number Ones

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already a VIP? Sign in.