Beyonce’s stealth-released album Beyonce, which dropped on iTunes with 14 songs, 17 videos, and no prior warning on Friday, is set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. It sold more than 800,000 copies in its first three days, breaking iTunes records and topping the singer’s own pretty decent previous sales. It did this with nothing to announce its arrival but a social media blast at midnight on Friday that went viral and had Beyonce fans and pop music critics’ phones buzzing with texts at unseemly hours of the night.
All that, alone, is badass.
Add to it the fact that the album is next-level shit for Beyonce, as well as for all of pop music, and it’s pretty stunning. While Lady Gaga and Britney Spears brought us possibly overhyped albums with eh reviews this holiday season, Beyonce re-imagined both how to release an album and how she could sound. Sonically, Beyonce finishes what Beyonce started on her excellent last album, 4, keeping the multi-layered rhythms that are her signature but also bringing in more old-school soul and funk with splashes of grit and dirt. She ditches the empowering anthems that we all love but are, let’s face it, not exactly soul-baring. (All we get here is a video for the wonderful “Grown Woman.”) Instead she gives us songs about her own insecurity (“I cooked this meal for you naked, so where the hell you at?”), wobblier moments in married life, and the imprisonment of the beauty standard; brags at least as great as her rap god husband’s (“I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker”); multiple shout-outs to her own awesome ass (“Let me sit this ass on you, show you how I feel”); and tons of graphic sex (oops, someone “Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown”). She gets wonderfully weird. (Repeated, nearly indecipherable rap: “Yonce all on his mouth like liquor.”) Oh, right, and she also takes a break in the middle of a song that seems to be about the pressure to be perfect to first instruct us to “Bow down, bitches,” and then to hand the mic to author Chimananda Ngozi Adiche and her TED talk defining feminism:
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
Feminist: a person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes
Then Beyonce’s back for as close to a “Single Ladies” anthem as we’ll get here:
We flawless, ladies tell ’em
Say “I look so good tonight”
God damn, God damn
Say “I look so good tonight”
God damn, God damn, God damn!
It’s serious business to declare yourself a “feminist.” We’ve seen a rash of discussions this year about which pop stars are feminists, which are not, which call themselves that, which do not. (For the record, I think we’re at something like: Declared Feminist—Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce; Undeclared Feminist—Taylor Swift; Non-Feminist—Katy Perry. But this changes all the time; we need a constant stock ticker.) As someone who wrote a book about feminism and ran a website about feminism, I can tell you that just saying the word, particularly labeling a specific work “feminist,” puts a target on it. If you don’t declare yourself or your work feminist, you can get away with what you please. The minute you call it that, everything is up for dissection. In the case of Beyonce, that means: Is this lyric “feminist”? What about this one? This comes at least as much from feminist camps as non-feminist ones. And maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s part of what we do to further the discussion. How else to define modern feminism? But it’s complicated: No feminist is a perfect feminist. And just defining what makes a good feminist could spark major debate among people who call themselves feminist. There’s also the more specific matter of Beyonce’s husband showing up for a typically problematic cameo on “Drunk in Love,” referencing Ike Turner while bragging about a particularly intense sexual encounter. (Though he also says he was like the violent Turner “in ’97,” so I must admit I can’t totally parse this.) Jay-Z is always going to mess with B’s feminist record; let’s just say she’s not the first feminist to experience this.
I sort-of agree with this piece from The Root that I’d rather talk about the zillion other interesting things on the album (now I know about “surfboarding,” for one), than debating for the zillionth time whether Beyonce is “really” feminist or not. How about we just acknowledge that she’s allowed to be a feminist if she declares herself one (god knows we need them), and that said declaration is among the many ballsy moves this record represents?