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Track Review

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter seems to be having a pretty good year.

She's happily married (by all accounts) to one of the most influential men in music today (rapper Jay-Z). She's the proud mother of one-year-old Blue Ivy Carter. She earned (mostly) rave reviews for her Super Bowl halftime show in February. She "sang" at President Obama's inauguration, then managed to deflect criticism for the fact that she was actually lip synching (due to a lack of rehearsal time). HBO just aired a highly rated documentary about her, Life Is But a Dream. Oh, and she just inked a whopping $50 million endorsement deal with Pepsi.

Reasonable observers might expect to find the 31-year-old singer basking in the blessing of her outsized good fortune on her latest song.

That, however, is not the case.

"Bow Down/I Been On" is a two-track effort mashed up seamlessly into one, and it finds Queen Bey adopting an insecure and defensive posture as she profanely reminds fans, friends and foes that she alone sits on the pop-music throne. As for any other pretenders and contenders to her lofty royal position, well, they can just all "bow down."

Beyoncé nods regally at young fans who would aspire to imitate her, though. "I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world." And that's the gentlest thing she ever says here. Because after that, this diva among divas launches into a vulgar slap-down of anyone and everyone who might dare to usurp her queenly reign: "Respect that, bow down, b‑‑ches." Then, as if hearing such a phrase once wasn't enough, she repeats it six more times, with the last iteration bragging, "I'm so crown, bow, bow down, b‑‑ches."

Why Beyoncé feels the need to demean those looking up to her, be they fans or fellow musicians, is just one of the song's mysteries. The second head-scratcher comes when she sings these lines: "I took some time to live my life/But don't think I'm just his little wife/Don't get it twisted, get it twisted/This my s‑‑‑, bow down, b‑‑ches."

As Huffington Post contributor Kia Makarechi puts it, "Does anyone think of Beyoncé … as 'just' Jay-Z's wife? … We have a lot of questions for Beyoncé, but her standing as a pop icon isn't really one of them." And never mind, apparently, that her forthcoming tour is dubbed The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.

The second half of the song—or perhaps I should say the second song, "I Been On"—also goes for a lyrical stroll in strange territory. Computers digitally lower Beyoncé's voice several octaves as she impersonates a male rapper and, unfortunately, appropriates many of the most tired clichés in that genre's playbook.

We've got the de rigueur drinking in the club ("Pop them bottles"), followed by a shockingly foul repeated threat to have her entourage beat up another woman ("I heard your boo was talking lip/I told my crew to smack that trick/Smack that trick/Smack that trick/Guess what they did, smack that trick"). Next up: bling ("Gold everything, gold a‑‑ chain/Gold a‑‑ rings, gold a‑‑ fangs") and bravado ("I'm bigger than life, my name in the lights/I'm the No. 1 chick, ain't need no hype"). As the song closes, we hear what sounds like an allusion to backseat sex in a car ("Didn't do you sister, but your sister was alright, d‑‑n/In ya homeboy's caddy last night").

Some suspect that this song, which was released on Beyoncé's Tumblr account, is little more than a cynical attempt to stir up controversy and publicity. If so, it's working, with fans, other musicians and music critics weighing in—heavily.

Twitter reports that the track(s) drew 500,000 mentions in only 24 hours online, many of which were sharply critical. One fan tweeted, "how can u sing at the presidents inauguration then release this disgusting, offensive song @Beyoncé? I'm genuinely shocked." Another wrote, "The new Beyoncé song is horrid. Unnecessary swearing, offensive misogynistic referencing of women, and terrible music and vocals." Another said simply, "So much for female empowerment."

Fellow R&B singer Keyshia Cole unloaded as well, saying, "Can't stand it when people all self righteous when it's convenient it makes them look good. Lmao! But can still talk s‑‑‑ when convenient 2 FOH." Another message from her said, "I done kept it real from the start #RespectTHAT." Even Entertainment Weekly's senior editor observed that Beyoncé's repeated use of "b‑‑ch" doesn't fit the image she's cultivated: "I think hearing her use that word in a song is less expected than say if Rihanna or Katy Perry or Lady Gaga used it."

Finally, former Vibe editor Danyel Smith suggests that Beyoncé is more interested in energizing her status as an edgy celebrity right now than she is conforming to anyone's ideas about how she should behave as a wife, mother or performer. "This is not a Good Housekeeping moment for Beyoncé," Smith says. "This is a pop star moment for Beyoncé."

Which leaves me with very little else to say. So I'll just translate: Don't expect pop stars like Beyoncé to act like good role models at any stage of life.

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March 17, 2013

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Adam R. Holz

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