The Brutal Empire of Queen B: On ‘Bow Down/I Been On’

“Bow Down/I Been On,” the probable first single(s) from Beyoncé’s next album, has been as divisive and controversial as Spring Breakers, as audiences seem unsure how seriously to take it. After all, this is Beyoncé, queen of mixed messages. One thing comes across loud and clear: Beyoncé is not here for your expectations of her. Even if her most seemingly impromptu moves are incredibly calculated (ripping the earpiece out during the national anthem!), practiced to seem extemporary, we will never be able to prove it because she is just that good at faking being real.

I was very uncomfortable watching her Super Bowl halftime show precisely because it wasn’t perfect by Beyoncé standards. Bey had raised the bar so high for her own performances that when she merely blew the house down but failed to set it on fire, it felt disappointing, like she’d been boxed in by her own perfectionism and professionalism. At the same time, watching Beyoncé struggle to find her mark onstage was humanizing and the most exciting part of her halftime show. She seemed genuinely nervous, overcompensating with extra-aggressive thrusts and stank faces. When her reps asked BuzzFeed to take down some “unflattering” photos of Bey, it was thoroughly surprising, but also strangely out of touch. Who thinks they can keep photos off the Internet once they’re posted?

While watching Beyoncé smile through performance anxiety made her seem more earthly, Life Is But a Dream, the self-directed HBO documentary dedicated to making her seem more earthly, totally missed the mark. It offered up little in the way of new information, and came across as a fluff piece intended to sell bottles of Heat and Pulse. The tagline for Beyoncé’s perfume line is “I want women to feel sexy, strong, empowered and I want them to feel like they can conquer anything.” What about conquering other women?

Just like other female artists who can sell out stadiums (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift), Bey preaches female empowerment but also wants you to know that she will take a bitch down if she has to. She talks about female togetherness a lot, but we all know what happened to LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson. You are in Beyoncé’s sisterhood unless you betray her, and then you are worse than dead. Having built herself a gigantic empire, she now sets out to protect it. She addresses listeners under the assumption that they are younger than her and need to learn to respect her authoritah. She assures you that she is not “his little wife” but calls her tour “The Mrs. Carter Tour.” She’s trolling us.

While “Bow Down” is strictly a Hit-Boy production, “I Been On” is stitched together out of beats from Polow da Don, Timbaland, Sonny Digital (“Birthday Song”), and Planet VI (Drake’s “Forever”), and includes operatic singing and Bey rapping in a screw tape voice about how she was in a Willie D video when she was 14. The forthcoming remix is supposedly enlisting Houston all-stars Scarface, Slim Thug, Lil’ KeKe, Willie D, Kirko Bangz, and Bun B, although now might be a good time not to big up sizzurp too hard. Maybe now is the perfect time for the mainstreaming of the now 20-year-old Texas trend that saw a hipster revival via witch house, which is the genre I’d like Rush Limbaugh to explain next, now that he has spoken on the air about chopped and screwed music.

It might be the weirdest Beyoncé single ever, which is saying a lot, considering how strange and dissonant for mainstream pop many of her singles have been. She quotes UGK’s “Something Good” (the remix, no less), because Beyoncé has to establish that she listened to UGK before any of us. Just like a record store clerk/comic book guy/music blogger, it’s a little suspicious that she chose to suddenly assert it so loudly. Did I mention that at my elementary school we used to listen to a cassette of Eazy-E’s It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa during recess on a boom box in the playhouse? “Gimmie That Nutt” is now an OLDIE! Know your history of filthy local rap.

I don’t doubt that Bey listened to UGK. I think I assumed that after 4, Beyonce was not coming back from adult-contemporary land. Which was my mistake, because I would not have predicted that she’d put out a song that quotes “Slap Dat Trick” by David Banner and the Ying Yang Twins, which is actually about slapping people of both genders, according to the lyrics. (Side note: I love David Banner sooooo much.) If this is trap music, then somebody’s been dipping into the stash. The duo of songs is hypnotic and complex. In classic contradictory fashion, Beyoncé’s sonic reminder of how trill she is comes packaged with a picture of Bey as a tiny pageant queen. People like to root for awkward kids, underdogs, the ones who got picked last in gym and never had dates to the dance. You know who it’s harder to like? PRETTY PAGEANT QUEENS WITH A MILLION TROPHIES. That pink princess dress, the smug smile. Beyoncé is close personal friends with Gwyneth Paltrow for a reason.

One person not buying Beyoncé’s new “bow down bitches” attitude is R&B singer Keyshia Cole, who has blasted Bey for only preaching sisterhood when it’s convenient. It’s not Bey’s fault that the culture only seems to make room for one or two female R&B stars at a time, and Bey has already aligned herself with Alicia Keys. Cole is incredibly talented as well, and Beyoncé is kind of a Marcia Brady. “Bow Down/I Been On” is Bey’s attempt to prove that motherhood has not dulled her hard edge. It’s a subliminal tweet aimed at Beyoncé’s haters, disguised as innocent by being addressed to no one in particular, in true Southern belle shit-talking style.

Filed Under: Beyonce, HBO, Jay Z, Lady Gaga, Madonna, R&B, Taylor Swift

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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