The Number Ones

December 16, 2006

The Number Ones: Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”

Stayed at #1:

10 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.

If all of your earthly possessions could theoretically fit into a single box, then you are probably not doing terribly well for yourself. Somewhere, things have taken a rough turn. Maybe you’re a boxcar hobo, or maybe you’re in some sort of communal living situation where private property doesn’t exist. More likely, you’re just permanently subsisting on the goodwill of the other people in your life. If you’re a boxcar hobo or a practicing communist, then there’s not really any advice I can give you. Just keep doing your thing, player. But if you’re living that sponge life, then you should really do everything in your power to avoid finding everything you own packed up in a box to the left. Sadly, nobody told the subject of “Irreplaceable,” the longest-reigning #1 hit of Beyoncé’s entire career.

When Beyoncé released “Irreplaceable,” rumors were flying. Beyoncé and Jay-Z didn’t get married until 2008. Two years earlier, Jay was temporarily retired from rapping, and he was working as president of Def Jam Records. Jay had signed the young Barbadian phenom Rihanna, who has been in this column once and who will be back many, many times. At the time, the rumor was that Jay was cheating on Beyoncé with Rihanna — which, if true, would presumably wipe out any Beatle/Clapton/Fleetwood Mac configurations to become the most star-studded love triangle in the history of popular music. With rumors like that, though, it doesn’t really matter if they’re true. For pop stars, public perception is all that matters. Beyoncé has always been a master of making sure her music and her image are in conversation with one another, and her catalog is full of cheating songs. Whether or not Jay really was cheating, Bey was going to capitalize on that perception.

Beyoncé came out with her second solo album B’Day just before her 25th birthday in 2006, and the first single was “Deja Vu,” the reunion of the “Crazy In Love” team of Bey and Jay-Z. (“Deja Vu” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Beyoncé followed that track up with the harsh, sirens-blaring fuck-you-up anthem “Ring The Alarm.” People heard “Ring The Alarm” as a song about Rihanna; the perception was so strong that Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and then-manager, felt like he had to make a statement indicating that “Ring The Alarm” was not about Rihanna. (“Ring The Alarm” peaked at #11. I really like that song.)

“Irreplaceable,” the third and biggest single from B’Day, is clearly not about Jay-Z or Rihanna. We know this. For one thing, there is absolutely no way that Beyoncé could fit everything that Jay owns in a box to the left. Jay owns too many things. He’d already told the world that he had a condo with nothing but condoms in it. A whole condo! Nothing but condoms! Also, Beyoncé didn’t write “Irreplaceable.” She’s got writing and production credits on the song, but she mostly just made small changes to the track that was presented to her. Ne-Yo, an artist who’s already appeared in this column, wrote all the lyrics for “Irreplaceable,” and he’s never been shy about saying it.

Still, public perception works in funny ways. Beyoncé wasn’t the main writer of “Irreplaceable,” but she still took full ownership of the song. Beyoncé had already made serious hits with wronged-woman tropes, and “Irreplaceable” built on the rumors that were in the air. And then the song became something else. “Irreplaceable” is a track that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, which meant that it could play on tons of different radio formats. The song became bigger than the rumors and bigger than the B’Day album. For a time, “Irreplaceable” may have become even bigger than Beyoncé herself. That’s no longer the case, but “Irreplaceable” still seems to exist outside of its time and its context, as part of the lingua franca of 21st-century popular music.

Beyoncé wasn’t sure about “Irreplaceable.” Even from the beginning of her career, Beyoncé has had big ideas about albums working as cohesive statements. As she’s gained more power over her own career, Bey has put those ideas to work. Bey went into B’Day with a specific sound in mind. She wanted to make a whole album of hard, lively club tracks — songs written specifically for her. “Irreplaceable” didn’t fit the bill. Beyoncé knew that the song was great, but she also worried that it wouldn’t fit the tone of the album. Swizz Beatz, the New York rap producer who played a crucial role in Beyoncé’s previous chart-topper “Check On It,” had to convince her.

Swizz Beatz was one of the key sonic architects behind B’Day. He co-produced “Ring The Alarm” and the almighty “Get Me Bodied,” and many of the album’s non-Swizz tracks seem to be going for Swizz’s brittle, thundering computer-funk aesthetic. But Swizz knew a hit when he heard one. In 2010, Mikkel Eriksen, one half of the Norwegian songwriting and production team Stargate, told Sound On Sound that “Irreplaceable” “didn’t seem to fit” on B’Day, “which was supposed to be a hard-hitting club album.” But Swizz convinced her: “Swizz Beatz said that she’d be crazy not to include the song on the album.” (Swizz Beatz’ highest-charting single as lead artist, 2007’s “It’s Me, Bitches,” peaked at #83.)

“Irreplaceable” didn’t start out with Stargate or Ne-Yo. Instead, “Irreplaceable” began as an acoustic-guitar instrumental from another Norwegian duo. Espionage is the team of Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund. Lind had been a moderately successful Norwegian pop artist in the ’90s, and Bjørklund was one of his collaborators. Espionage were early in their run when Lind and Bjørklund got credit for co-writing “Irreplaceable.” Today, they’re probably best known for co-writing and co-producing the dreaded “Hey Soul Sister,” a song that Train took to #3 in 2009. (“Hey Soul Sister” is a 2 unless you imagine that it might be somehow about Beyoncé, in which case it’s a 1.)

Espionage sent their unfinished instrumental track to Stargate, and then that team, per Mikkel Eriksen, “added bass and drums and strings and melodies and everything else.” It sounds like Stargate added a lot of things! Stargate had been working closely with Ne-Yo ever since they made the #1 hit “So Sick” together. A few months before “Irreplaceable,” Ne-Yo and Stargate wrote Rihanna’s power ballad “Unfaithful,” a #6 hit sung from a different infidelity-related perspective. (“Unfaithful” is a 7.) Ne-Yo and Stargate kept working with Rihanna, and we’ll eventually see another of their collaborations in this column.

Ne-Yo wasn’t thinking about Beyoncé when he wrote the lyrics and the vocal melody for “Irreplaceable.” He wasn’t thinking about any situations in his own life, either. Later on, Ne-Yo claimed that the whole “everything you own in a box to the left” bit was based on something he’d heard his aunt say after her boyfriend cheated on her. In other interviews, Ne-Yo said that the “Irreplaceable” beat reminded him of country and that he was thinking about country stars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill when he was writing the song. People have misinterpreted that line, thinking that Ne-Yo thought that a country artist might record the song. That’s not really now Nashville works. Nashville has its own system, its own songwriters, and outside pop artists don’t often break in. I think Ne-Yo meant more that he was influenced by country-style storytelling.

There’s definitely a whole lot of storytelling at work on “Irreplaceable.” As on “So Sick,” Ne-Yo has a way of capturing a complicated emotional situation in a few lines: “I could have another you in a minute/ Matter fact, he’ll be here in a minute, baby.” “Irreplaceable” fits every mathematical pop-song formula, building up to the triumphant fuck-you on the bridge: “Baby, I won’t shed a tear for you/ I won’t lose a wink of sleep/ ‘Cause the truth of the matter is: Replacing you is so easy.” Ne-Yo reportedly thought about keeping the song for himself or sending it to a male singer, but an A&R guy realized that the sentiment would work a lot better if a woman sang it. In any case, Ne-Yo sang the demo from a woman’s point of view, and the song was already pretty much fully formed when he recorded that demo.

On her version of “Irreplaceable,” Beyoncé messed around with the song’s vocal arrangement and the drum programming. (At least for me, the drums hit harder on the demo.) But Beyoncé takes total control of the song. In this era of her career, when she wasn’t yet in full auteur mode, Beyoncé could sometimes sound just slightly detached from her songs. I don’t hear that on “Irreplaceable.” I think of her vocal as an acting performance, but it’s a really good acting performance — steely and charismatic and royally pissed. She hits huge notes, but she never really oversings. Instead, she sells the song’s economically worded vengeance.

Going back to the Destiny’s Child days, so many of Beyoncé’s breakup songs are built around money and power dynamics. Beyoncé is the one in control because she’s the one who makes all the money. Most of the dudes in these songs are parasites, and she always has to point out that her money is hers. In “Irreplaceable,” that ownership is central to the revenge. Beyoncé’s name is on the title of the Jaguar in the driveway. The gifts that she bought this guy? They’re really hers. She wants everything back.

Some of the anger over the guy’s infidelity comes from that sense of ownership: “You was untrue, rollin’ her around in the car that I bought you.” She can replace this guy, at least in part, because she can afford to replace him. That whole financial-punishment aspect always strikes me as especially cold-blooded, but when someone’s cheated on you, maybe you want to be cold-blooded. Maybe that’s why “Irreplaceable” has so much power-fantasy mixed in with its traditional breakup-song dynamic.

Part of the impeccable construction of “Irreplaceable” is in the way Beyoncé sells the lyrics, and part of it is in the way that the production doesn’t conform to any norms. The acoustic guitars might evoke country, and the string arrangement is pure adult-contempo, but the drums underneath are hard and syncopated. Country and adult-contempo songs don’t have drums like that. Some of the people involved in “Irreplaceable” were worried that Black radio wouldn’t play a song so nakedly pop, but the track went to #1 on the R&B charts, and it also landed high on a bunch of other Billboard charts. A Spanish-language version even went to #4 on the Latin chart.

The “Irreplaceable” video might as well have been a country clip. Director Anthony Mandler went for a full-on literal translation of the song’s lyrics, which was probably the right move. In the video, Beyoncé kicks some chump out of her mansion, and he evidently doesn’t even own enough stuff to fill up a box to the left. (As far as I can tell, all he walks away with is a basketball trophy and two books. Whoof. Rough day for that guy.) Then Beyoncé celebrates her newly single status with the members of Sugar Mama, her all-female touring band; I love the shot of all of them doing the synchronized “to the left” finger-wag. At the end of the clip, the next guy really does show up, but his face never appears on camera, so we don’t get to see if it’s Jay-Z or what.

“Irreplaceable” reached #1 about a week before the film adaptation of the Broadway show Dreamgirls hit theaters. This was the movie that was supposed to truly launch Beyoncé’s Hollywood career, but if she thought of it as her Oscar play, she miscalculated. There’s lots of weird meta stuff at work in Beyoncé’s Dreamgirls performance. The movie basically fictionalizes the story of the Supremes, and Beyoncé plays what amounts to the Diana Ross role. That lines up with the public’s perception of Beyoncé, especially once her father started kicking Destiny’s Child members out of the group.

It would make a lot of sense for Beyoncé to play some version of the Diana Ross role, but Dreamgirls paints the Beyoncé character as the marginally talented backup singer who only becomes the group’s leader because she’s pretty. The film’s sympathies are clearly with Jennifer Hudson’s Florence Ballard-inspired character. The idea of the movie seems to be that Florence Ballard was the good Supreme and that Diana Ross was the one who rode on her coattails. I understand that argument, but it doesn’t really fit the way pop music works. Diana Ross is a great pop singer with an approach that’s not all churchy muscle, and Beyoncé is great in many of the same ways. It’s weird that she starred in this movie that argued, more or less, that she was not an especially worthwhile artist.

In any case, Beyoncé’s Oscar play didn’t work. Jennifer Hudson, who’d lost on American Idol a few years earlier, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Dreamgirls and immediately became a star. (Hudson’s highest-charting single, the 2008 Ne-Yo/Stargate production “Spotlight,” peaked at #24.) Beyoncé sang the soundtrack ballad “Listen,” which was nominated for Best Original Song but which lost to “I Need To Wake Up,” a Melissa Ethridge song from the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. On the pop charts, “Listen” was a nonfactor; it peaked at #61. During basically the entire theatrical run of Dreamgirls, “Irreplaceable” was sitting at #1 on the Hot 100. I like to imagine that “Irreplaceable” worked as a kind of counter-argument, a demonstration of just how meaningful and impactful Beyoncé’s vocal style could be.

Listening to B’Day now, I understand why Beyoncé was hesitant about including “Irreplaceable.” There’s a lot of formally daring music on that album, and “Irreplaceable” really doesn’t fit with the rest of it. If one song from that LP had to become a titanic, world-conquering success, I wish it could’ve been the Swizz Beatz-produced dance anthem “Get Me Bodied,” one of my favorite Beyoncé songs ever. But “Get Me Bodied” peaked at #46, while Billboard eventually named “Irreplaceable” the #1 song of 2007.

“Irreplaceable” is Beyoncé’s biggest chart hit, but it doesn’t have nearly as many streams as some of her other tracks. It’s more musically conservative than most of Beyoncé’s defining hits, and I get the sense that she’s not that attached to the song. “Irreplaceable” was not on the setlist at Beyoncé’s Coachella performances in 2018, and I’d be surprised if she performs it when she goes on tour later this year. And “Irreplaceable” does leave me a little cold when compared to some of Bey’s other hits. Maybe it’s too stodgy. Maybe it goes on for a little too long. But the craft is undeniable. “Irreplaceable” is immaculately written, immaculately produced, immaculately sung. It was a blockbuster for a reason.

Beyoncé followed “Irreplaceable” with “Beautiful Liar,” a duet with former Number Ones artist Shakira that she included on the special-edition reissue of B’Day. (Right now, that reissued edition of B’Day is the only version on streaming services. I think the original album has better sequencing, but if you want to hear that version of the record, you’ll need to build the playlist yourself.) Beyoncé co-produced “Beautiful Liar” with Stargate, and the song peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.) B’Day ultimately went quintuple platinum.

When Beyoncé made her third album, she included a few more stately ballads. At least to some extent, she seemed to be hunting for another “Irreplaceable,” and some of those ballads did very well. But the biggest hit from that next record turned out to be the one where Beyoncé went for weird rhythmic intensity and where she really built on her public image. Down the road, we’ll see that song, and a few more Beyoncé joints, in this column.

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: Plenty of country artists noticed that “Irreplaceable” had a lot in common with country, and a few of them made the song a part of their live repertoire. Here’s a fan-made video of a young Taylor Swift covering “Irreplaceable” at a 2007 show:

(Taylor Swift will appear in this column many times.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Sugarland, another big-deal country act, also covered “Irreplaceable” at their live shows. At the American Music Awards in 2007, Sugarland and Beyoncé came together for a charming “Irreplaceable” duet. Here’s that performance:

(Sugarland’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit is 2010’s “Stuck Like Glue,” which peaked at #17. Sugarland have some bangers. “Stay”? “Already Gone”? Shit. Forget it. You won’t catch me saying anything bad about Sugarland. From a historical perspective, though, it would’ve been cooler if Beyoncé had sung that song with Taylor Swift.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne quoting from “Irreplaceable” on his 2008 Babyface collab “Comfortable”:

(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column. Babyface has already been here a bunch of times as a producer and songwriter. As lead artist, Babyface’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “When Can I See You,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the acoustic “Irreplaceable” cover that the great noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells released in 2012:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Drake quoted the “to the left, to the left” line from “Irreplaceable” on his forgettable but perfectly titled 2018 single “I’m Upset.” Here’s the pretty-great “I’m Upset” video, in which Drake reunited with his old Degrassi castmates:

(“I’m Upset” peaked at #7. It’s a 5. Drake will appear in this column so many times that you might get upset.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Hurry up and buy it here before your taxi leaves.

more from The Number Ones

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

Already a VIP? Sign in.