“Pretty Hurts” [produced by Ammo and Beyoncé Knowles]
The song title alone is enough to evoke eye-rolls. The midtempo pop song is a classic cautionary tale that the grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s in the same vein as TLC’s “Unpretty” from 1999. It also points out the societal pressures for females (and sometimes males as well) to conform to disingenuous standards of beauty. The closing lines, in a different way, echoes Kelcey Ayer’s cries on Local Native’s “Colombia” where he sings “Every night I ask myself/Am I giving enough?/Am I loving enough?/Am I?” Ayer’s plea was to his dying mother. Beyoncé’s call for self-reflection is an affirmation of one’s worth and self-acceptance in a superficial society; she sings “When you’re alone all by yourself/And you’re lying in your bed/Reflection stares right into you/Are you happy with yourself?/It’s just a way to masquerade/The illusion has been shed/Are you happy with yourself?” It shouldn’t be a major surprise that the song was co-written with indie singer-songwriter Sia Furler.
The track opens with an excerpt from a Houston-based talent show in 1989 when Beyoncé accepts an award. It then dives into dreamy alternative electronic territory with B speech-rapping about issues that pop stars at Michael Jackson’s stature usually don’t acknowledge publicly. She states “All the shit I do is boring/All these record labels boring/
I don’t trust these record labels/I’m touring.” Her sentiments about corporate America sound similar to her friend Kanye’s denouncements during his Yeezus campaign. Like Kanye West, statements challenging the capitalist infrastructure are met with criticism. In several noteworthy interviews this year, Kanye revealed that his frustration with corporate America was a personal one. He was upset about being shut out by elite fashion designers and companies and subsequently ran with a “New Slaves” mantra for most of the year. The problem with Kanye’s stance was how contrived it eventually came off to real activists (such as myself) and others who are anticapitalist.
It is absolutely refreshing to hear a major pop artist acknowledge the people who work “the 9 to 5 just to stay alive,” (which by the way personally reminds me so much of a line pulled straight from my poetry book in college). But people will not easily forget that Mrs. Carter and her husband are on Forbes’s top earners list every year and that neither of them have been shy about their wealth throughout their careers. At least with Beyoncé, even if it’s still the beginning of a transitional period of consciousness or soul-searching, the empathy seems sincere. The track transitions into its second segment, with production that would be just as fitting for The Weeknd or Azealia Banks. The first segment of this song is titled “Ghost.”
“Drunk In Love (feat. Jay Z)” [produced by Detail, Knowles, Timbaland, Boots, J-Roc, & Brian Soko]
One of the first promotional singles from the album is also its most controversial one. It explores the candid sexual exploits of a happy married couple. The song isn’t garnering controversy because of its eroticism., but because of lines dropped during Jay Z’s verse saying “I’m Ike Turner, turn up/Baby know I don’t play/Now eat the cake, Annie Mae/Said, ‘Eat the cake, Anna Mae!’” referencing domestic violence Tina Turner endured while married to Ike Turner (as depicted in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It). The song received backlash from the feminist community online, but also a bit of defending from feminists and other women who point out Beyonce’s other empowering tracks on the album (I’ll dive more into this a little later).
Some of the more lighthearted moments heard in the track is B’s playful rap singing, reminiscent of Drake. Production is primarily handled by Detail and Beyoncé with contributions from Timbaland, Boots, and others.
“Blow” [produced by Pharrell Williams, Knowles, Timbaland and J-Roc]
“Blow” is a disco throwback with hip-hop elements that’s possibly more sexually suggestive than “Drunk In Love.” Beyoncé has never been afraid to be sexy, but her image was always polished to a certain extent. Sex references on this album are presented in metaphors that use eating candy and surfing to illustrate something more sensual. Though, it doesn’t exactly take a rocket science to know what “Can you lick my Skittles?/That’s the sweetest in the middle/Pink that’s the flavor/Solve the riddle” really means. Justin Timberlake and James Fauntleroy are also credited for contributing writing to this song. Production is primarily handled by Pharrell Williams and Timbaland.
“No Angel” [produced by Caroline Polacheck and Knowles]
“No Angel” is a ‘90s pop-R&B throwback in contemporary clothing. Like other songs on the album, Beyoncé’s creative control in the delivery of her music is noticeable. James Fauntleroy is also credited with contributing writing to this track, as well as indie duo Chairlift’s Caroline Polacheck.
“Partition” [produced by Timbaland, J-Roc, Key Wane, Justin Timberlake, Mike Dean, Boots, and Knowles]
This song is comprised of two segments “Yoncé” and “Partition.” Both pieces are club-bangers in their own right with lyrics that continue to embrace female sexuality in an explicit yet still suggestive manner. Justin Timberlake and The Dream also contributed writing to this song. The production is primarily handled by Timbaland, J-Roc, Key Wane, Justin Timberlake, and Knowles.
“Jealous” [produced by Detail, Knowles, Boots, Hit-Boy, and Andre Eric Proctor]
This pop-R&B track was produced by Details and Beyoncé with contributions from the other noted producers. The subject matter is flexible enough to be applicable to B’s own marriage or any fan who understands the complications of relationships.
“Rocket” [produced by Timbaland, J-Roc, and Knowles]
This track has been compared to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” a 2000 slow jam inspired by Prince. As soon as B sings “Let me sit this ASS on you,” you know that it’s about to go down. Prince advised her 10 years ago that she should have a more hands-on approach with her music, suggesting that she learn piano as an artist in addition to her vocal talent (e.g. Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles). B still works with a thick team of songwriters, but has been credited as a producer since Dangerously In Love. There are different degrees to producing. Some artists arrange melodies and others compose the songs more hands-on, playing instruments and building beats. Beyoncé never claimed to have the same musicianship as Prince, but she’s adamant in letting people know that she’s involved in the creative process of her music.
Technicalities aside, “Rocket” is the sexiest song she’s recorded since “Speechless.” She continues to grow as a woman and artist, moving further away from the monotony of pop culture stating that “we’re so much more than… Instagram pictures, cynical trends and trying to fit in.” It’s been about 20 years since major pop stars made these kind of declarations while continuing to grow their fan-base.
“Mine (feat. Drake)” [produced by 40, Majid Jordan, Omen, Knowles]
“Mine” opens with a beautiful ‘piano and voice’ introduction that then transitions into an alternative R&B collaboration with Canadian singer/rapper Drake. The two performers compliment each other well, but the song isn’t exactly a standout either. It sounds more like a track from Drake’s catalogue instead of Beyoncé’s, perhaps an indication of the direction she may continue to move towards in the future with her music. Production was primarily handled by 40.
“XO” [produced by The Dream, Ryan Tedder, Knowles, and Hit-Boy]
More than any other song on the album, “XO” has the most noticeable ‘indie appeal.’ It was co-written by The Dream and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. Tedder’s band is known for its pop-rock hits. While the song is catchy and sung well, it also welcomes criticism for its attempt to reach out to the ‘alternative music’ audience (OneRepublic belongs to the pop world according to many indie music fans. Remember “Apologize”… yeah… you probably don’t want to). Despite those concerns, B still exemplifies why she’s one of the most flexible pop artists working today. Primary production is by The Dream, Tedder, and Knowles.
“***Flawless (ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)” [produced by Hit-Boy, Rey Reel, Knowles, and Boots]
“Flawless” is the other song receiving a lot of attention from this album. It opens with an excerpt from Star Search featuring Girl’s Tyme (an early incarnation of Destiny’s Child). This track originally leaked online earlier this year under the title “Bow Down/I Been On.” In March, it received criticism from feminists and other women who felt that the lyrics were contradictory to the empowerment of women Beyoncé advocated throughout her career. “I Been On” was a mostly adlibbed hip-hop song boasting in the same way rappers do. It revisited memories of sneaking and listening to the hip-hop group the Geto Boys while young and making an appearance in a Willie D. music video. In “Flawless” the aforementioned segment is replaced by an excerpt from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speech titled “We Should All Be Feminists.” In the new music that follows the sound-bite, Beyoncé flips the original message of the leaked song into an anthem for females around the world. Because she embraces her sexuality and uses language that most feminists consider “oppressive“ in her music, this song has been strongly criticized (more about this topic later). Production was primarily handled by Hit-Boy, Rey Reel, and Knowles.
Watch the entire “We Should All Be Feminist” speech:
“Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean)” [produced by Pharrell Williams, Boots, and Knowles]
The ironic thing about the beautifully produced “Superpower” is that it sounds more like a song handled by Frank Ocean instead of Pharrell. This is another standout track on the album, soulful while still somewhat otherworldly. B’s vocals on this LP sound more natural and unforced.
“Heaven” [produced by Boots and Knowles]
“Heaven” serves as the quintessential ballad on the album. Beyoncé sings “Heaven couldn’t wait for you,” lines that can universally apply to almost any lost, but to her may have a very personal meaning. In the Life Is But A Dream documentary that aired earlier this year, Knowles admits that she miscarried during her first pregnancy. While it isn’t explicitly stated that the song is about that subject matter, it’s still applicable. Knowles found her happiness again after giving birth to her daughter Blue Ivy. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that a song about mortality comes right before a song about a new life.
“Blue (feat. Blue Ivy)” [produced by Boots and Knowles]
The album closes with a lovely dedication to Beyoncé’s infant daughter Blue Ivy Carter. The track includes a sound-bite from the baby reciting the song’s lyrics “Hold on to me,” and calling out for her “mommy.” Musically, it’s good territory for Knowles to be in, offering a smooth blend of pop and alt-R&B. Besides Boots, B is the only other songwriter and producer for the track.
Her self-titled album is Beyoncé’s strongest and most cohesive effort to date. She’s much more focused and in full control of her image, messages, and terms of releasing her music (she released this album at midnight on December 13 with no promotion or press releases). On “Haunted” she states “Soul not for sale/Probably won’t make no money off this/Oh well.” She was wrong; Beyoncé has sold over 800,000 copies, going Gold in almost a day and Platinum in under a week. The album was also simultaneously released with 17 music videos (for every track/song segment on the album including the promo song “Grown Woman”), exclusively through iTunes.
Beyoncé and Feminism
Much hell has been raised over Jay Z’s line in “Drunk In Love” and the seemingly contradictory feature from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “Flawless.” Feminist blogs all over the internet are torn over the issue whether Beyoncé should be considered a feminist or not. While supporters point out all of the accomplishments she’s made as a young black woman and her ‘women empowerment anthems,’ critics claim that she upholds problematic patriarchal standards.
Feminists are fair in some of their criticisms of the pop icon. Beyoncé proudly refers to herself as Mrs. Carter, a symbol of male ownership that feminists have historically challenged. The language that appears in her and Jay Z’s music is still oppressive to many women who identify as feminists. Beyoncé’s scantily clad appearance in the music videos for her new album may also send out mixed messages to young women interested in becoming feminists. The content of her music is developing depth, but the images in the videos perpetuate pop stereotypes that cheapen the quality of the product. The debate has turned white feminists against black feminists and black feminists against other black feminists. It seems as if everyone have their own opinion when it comes to what Miss Knowles mean to them.
From my personal perspective…
As an artist, I’ve always put the freedom of expression over people’s ’feelings.’ Someone will always be offended; there’s no such thing as satisfying everyone. I also so happen to be a male who has identified as a feminist for almost the last 10 years of my life. I’ve been around many different types of feminists with different temperaments. I always felt most comfortable around the ones who allowed me to be myself, but corrected me when I needed to be corrected. A mistake some militant feminists make is being condescending and demeaning to men who sincerely want to support and become allies. People need to have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes to become better people. I learned that the most important thing a man can do in supporting the feminist cause, besides halting all oppressive behavior, is to educate other men about sexism and patriarchy and to convert them into allies. Feminism conversion isn’t the same as a religious one. It’s simply acknowledging gender inequality and changing the patriarchal mindset that implies that women are inferior. The principles of feminism should be common sense, but women and men fall victims to sexism in mass numbers.
While writing my own music, I’m very mindful of the words that I use. Occupy Wall St. was like feminist boot camp for me, among many other things. After coming out of that experience, I felt even more connected to my feminist identity. The problem for me is that I’m not a very politically correct person. Throughout college I went back and forth with what words I considered ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable.’ I eventually realized that I live my life for myself and I have control over my own thoughts, words, and expressions. I also identify as an anarchist; we’re not the easiest people to tell what to do. Certain words that some feminists are sensitive to have a very different meaning to me. For example, the word “Bitch” is gender neutral to me. In my mind, never is it exclusive to females. I’ve been around plenty of men who referred to other men as bitches. I’ve stubbed my toe before and have referred to inanimate objects as “bitch.” I studied words and language in college. I understand that words can be fluid and take on different meanings over time. I’ve also been thoroughly educated on oppressive language, though words always have a context attached to them.
So the question is ‘Can a person call him/herself a feminist and not subscribe to all of the customs of radical feminism or the mainstream feminist community?’ I would say absolutely. Feminism by definition is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Who are the gatekeepers to feminism? What qualifies one woman as a feminist and doesn’t qualify another woman as one? If a woman is told by other feminists that she can’t embrace her sexuality, is she then being oppressed by them and their own strict standards of womanhood? Being a male ally in the feminist community isn’t always welcoming; many feminists still approach male allies with great suspicion and distrust. Sometimes male feminists will overcompensate for this by being more militant about feminist issues than most women are. It should also be acknowledged that often the first male recruits in feminist circles are queer men; the feminist movement has always been strongly tied to the LGBT/gay rights movement. Though of course, males of all sexual orientations have identified or do identify as feminists. Accomplishing the goals of feminism will require participation from all genders. What if a woman strongly declares herself a feminist, educates herself thoroughly on women’s history, and still wants to reclaim a word like “cunt” (I’ve known many feminists like this)?
My motto for 2013 is ’live and let live.’ Feminism is about deconstructing the oppressive power structures that hold women back politically, socially, educationally, and economically. I feel that the standards and opinions of others become a problem when they become oppressive as well. Progressive politics is no stranger to the concept of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. While one person’s radical standards are best suited for them; it doesn’t mean that they should be imposed on everyone who falls under the umbrella of support for a cause (such as feminism). Generation Y seems to be more politically incorrect than ever, so this issue will continue to be a challenge to people more sensitive to certain language ad expressions. I can never say that I know exactly what it feels like to be a woman. But what I can do, as an ally, is continue incorporating feminism into my beliefs while understanding that words and expressions have a specific context. Every feminist have the right to autonomy and self-expression, but with it comes responsibility.