This is a guest post by Malaika Jabali. Malaika is a J.D. candidate at Columbia Law School and beauty writer for xovain.com. She also writes about race, pop culture, and other musings on her site dodreamaisha.wordpress.com
As one blogger asked, where were you when Beyoncé’s self-titled album was dropped on December 13, 2013? The world was shell-shocked when the Beytomic bomb exploded on the musical landscape. After this initial shock and awe, fans of her music have been able to digest her masterpiece in all its glory. We can surely talk for days about her more explicit sensuality. Or her refined ratchetness. Or how this coincides with her shift in musical expression. I’d like to explore the latter of these two. And what it means for her as black woman who grew up middle class in the south. They are these intersections of race and class—not to mention gender, which has already been talked about a good bit in feminist spaces—that make Beyoncé so fascinating and, as one of my homegirls and Melissa Harris Perry (my homegirl in my head) put it, will doubtless be the album that launches a thousand woman’s studies papers.
It is this complexity that was bubbling under the surface of Beyoncé’s shell of respectability that people are so excited to see emerge. It is the reason Rihanna is so captivating. Both ladies have been successful in their own right, creating and navigating that success from two completely different trajectories.
But before we assume Bey is taking cues from Rih (the denim thong showing up in Bey’s “Flawless” video will have you thinking she’s indeed taking notes though) let’s remember Beyoncé’s origins. The truth of the matter is, while Beyonce kind of created a Drake album here and is letting her ratchet flag fly high, her new modes of expression have been hinted at before. With Beyoncé, she’s showing Drake, Houston’s adopted son, how you really get down in H-town. She’s taking everything you love from the pop artists who have been wearing ratchetness like a coat in the past year, who put it on and off at their leisure, and doing it better. Because that’s a part of who she has always been. When she grew up enjoying her “boudin in the parking lot,” but only now does she feel free to tell us that.
Beyoncé is largely an expression of the artist breaking free from the image of respectability that has limited our connection with her. The album starts and ends aptly with this in mind. We’re introduced to her predicament with the track “Pretty Hurts.” It’s the Beyoncé we’re familiar with. She’s got the long hair. She’s at a pageant. It’s the image she’s been criticized for as being too safe. By the end of the track her hair is cut short and make up blemished, and the album gracefully moves into “Ghost,” one of the best visuals I have seen from her and also with lyrics that are more revealing than probably anything she has ever released. After fighting with a cloak that is engulfing her, in spoken word rhythms Beyoncé lets us know straight up that she is bored. She’s bored with herself. She’s bored with her image. She’s bored with the way she’s been doing music. She’s bored with being the calculated pageant girl that we’ve all been seeing for over a decade. And this is where she shifts the tune, literally into sounds she has yet to explore.
The visual album concludes with “Grown Woman,” exactly as it should. It’s her essentially saying, now all this grown folks’ shit you heard just now? That’s all me, all me for real. Free from the music marketplace politics that inhibited her and what started as her critique of the idealized vision of womanhood—delicate, pleasant, rehearsed, prim—Beyoncé ends the narrative by dancing freely to African rhythms and an ownership of her brand of feminism. In between all of this is some of the sexiest music you have ever heard from her. Explicit. Risqué. Ratchet. And she owns all of it.
Ratchet is a word that undoubtedly induces rolled eyes at its very utterance. But the mainstream’s discovery of the term and attempt to squeeze out all of its life doesn’t preclude us from embracing our cultural expressions. We can still appreciate what it means for Beyoncé to be openly embracing it as well. In essence, it’s the opposite of respectable. These two terms are seeped in southern politics and cultural norms. On one hand are the debutante balls. The Jack and Jills. The yes ma’ams and no sirs. The trappings of middle-classness aimed at distinguishing refined black folks from the stigma of poverty. Of the hood. Of slavery.
The notion of black people as savages and jezebels and unintelligent and uncivilized has been proliferated since 17th century European scholars and 19th century proponents of scientific racism started telling us this was our identity as a means of defending slavery and, later, discriminatory Jim Crow laws post-Reconstruction. This continues today, as these images have yet to relinquish themselves from society’s definition of blackness. It’s hard for the world to make the separation. To remember we are more than twerking. And clubbing. And sass. And neck rolling.
We had important reasons to wear respectability. “Home training” is a good thing, of which Beyoncé is clearly proud. Yet when you want to express unadulterated joy. When you want to dance. When you’ve been influenced by the polyrhythms of drum and bass, of the guttural soul of gospel music, of the free expression that was only acceptable in the church, there’s no room for pretense. We cannot be so consumed by how the world defines us that we abandon expressions that are a part of who we are. Beyoncé had been able to strike that balance by giving herself two personalities. It was probably necessary for her sanity. She was either Beyoncé or Sasha Fierce. Or Baddie Bey. With her latest album, she seems to be coalescing the two. There is no talk of alter egos. It’s just Beyoncé.
And that’s where she is best. When she just is. “Drunk in Love” is nothing more than her sashaying around drunk, sorta rapping with a southern drawl. The video is black and white. There are no props. No dancers. No leotards. Yet it’s one of her best songs and visuals. It is when she is a little bit hood, like in “Flawless” (coincidentally another black and white affair), when she is the most expressive and the most fun to watch. It’s when I feel her the most. But it’s not theatrics and come hither stares that have come Beyoncé’s signature that grab you. It’s the simplicity—the two seconds of a mean mug expression, a little wave of some hands, the shrug of a shoulder—that ironically gets you the most hype. It’s what so many southern Black women like myself can relate to because this is what we do.
When we’re not trying to balance the many –isms that often burden our shoulders, we just want to do a damn twerk kick on the beach. It’s that simple. When we want to let go with our homegirls, we just want to pop a booty cheek a little bit to the left. And that’s O.K.
Beyoncé’s middle class upbringing, like the upbringing of many of her fans, doesn’t prevent her from expressing herself this way. Before the mid-twentieth century, when Black people fought for the civil rights that catalyzed the shift of some of us into the middle-class, the vast majority of Black Americans couldn’t afford to be divided along economic lines. While divisions existed, most Black people had more pressing concerns. Cultural spaces tended to be integrated with Black people of all stripes because we had to be. Educated Blacks exchanged culturally with those in the working class. This cultural exchange did not cease at the strike of July 2, 1964. Just because legal barriers were removed that previously inhibited educated Blacks from upward mobility doesn’t mean Blacks en masse abandoned the musical and dance traditions we shared with one another. Beyoncé is a testament to that. As are many Black Americans today.
And this doesn’t even begin to touch on what she has done with her sound. This break from her image coincides with her foray into new sonic territory. The Crunk Feminist Collective has approached this with their discussion of her leaked track, “Bow Down” earlier this year, and I’ve assessed Beyoncé’s transcendence across Black American musical traditions in the past. But in her latest work, she’s also traveling across physical spaces.
After releasing herself from the shell of balladry in “Pretty Hurts,” a song beautiful and fairly typical of the belting Beyoncé is known for, she launches into the electronic soul of “Haunted.” The album delves into a number of genres— she hops to southern swag and Houston drawl and 70s disco and cool Prince inspired 80s funk. She travels to cosmopolitan centers for Chicago house, electro, and the indie R&B crooned by Brooklyn scenesters, a territory out of which Solange has assertively carved out a space. Solange was always the cool younger sister, and Beyoncé is certainly aiming to catch up. And while she’s traversing terrain she has previously left unexplored, Beyoncé is providing a cohesive narrative that fits within a particular landscape of Black American music. There’s more bite. An edge. A coolness that she never fully embraced before.
This transformation of Beyoncé is satisfying. Who knows whether she’ll fall back on what was safe. Whether she’ll piece together the delicate shell that had always protected her or continue to test her limbs in this new landscape. Time will tell. But for the sake of Beyoncé and her music, let’s hope she continues along the divergent path she has masterfully paved for herself.