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Album: 4 (2011)
Producer: Beyoncé, Shea Taylor
There's an exuberance to "Love on Top" that only continues to escalate with each key change. Just how many key changes are there in this slow-burning, brass-heavy update on a soul classic? Four. There's four key changes. This is Beyoncé at her most Whitney, or more fittingly, her most Etta, as playing jazz legend Etta James in the 2008 biopic Cadillac Records is what inspired the song. Seriously, name another song that's made it to the Billboard charts in recent years that contains even one key change, let alone four?
"Love on Top" won Bey a Grammy for the semi-bullshit category "Best Traditional R&B Performance," yet the historical bones of this song are what separates it from her plethora of radio-friendly gems. After years of perfecting pop, mainstream hits, Beyoncé set out to make a cohesive, classic album that could stand on its own—she self-proclaimed that as her goal for 4 in last year's self-directed documentary, Beyoncé: Life Is but a Dream. And as the first track on the album, this song sets the bar.
While many Beyoncé songs, and popular love songs in general, focus on the terrifying, hurtful past, an electric bedroom encounter, or the hope of a loved-up future, "Love on Top" dwells in the moment, glorying in simple pleasure of finding someone who does the impossible—puts a lady first. Reflections on a cohesive, healthy relationship are not a common narrative in pop music-nor are they common among celebrity marriage—but by this time we know that Bey's muse in her love songs is her longtime musical and marital partner, Jay Z. The reality of their loving, normal relationship is hard for some people to believe in, but there's a reason Beyoncé chose this track for pregnancy-announcing performance at the 2011 VMAs. What better way to celebrate starting a family than a '80s-infused bright throwback that celebrates stability, intimacy, and monogamy? She brought life into the world and she's got at least four octaves covered. If that isn't being on top, what is? —Caitlin White