(The Root) — Full disclosure: I'm a Beyoncé devotee. But I surely didn't break my neck nodding furiously when I first heard her new hip-hopped, Houston-soaked song, "Bow Down/I Been On." The track is just OK. I prefer my Bey full-voiced, belting love songs or pop anthems while moving in a manner that has little regard for the laws of motion as they relate to simultaneous singing and dancing. (*Takes off Stan hat now.*)
What's more interesting than the track's pop muscle is what she evokes. On it, Beyoncé waxes bombastically about being the best — asserting and acknowledging her accomplishments while reminding invisible enemies and unnamed haters to respect her standing as the best to ever do it. She croons: "This my s—t/bow down bitches."
In other words, Beyoncé just did a turn as a rapper.
Fans and critics alike claim that the song's lyrics and bravado are in direct opposition to Beyoncé's long-touted, feel-good girl-power message. Singer Keyshia Cole jumped into fray by launching a Twitter missive, ending the barrage of tweets with the comment, "First 'Women need to Stick together' now bitches better Bow. Smh."
Writer and feminist activist Rahiel Tesfamariam expounded on Cole's sentiments at The Root DC, unpacking what she views as Beyoncé's harmful duplicity and arguing that the song's lyrics cripple and perhaps invalidate Bey's pledge to women's empowerment. She writes, "The release of 'Bow Down' suggests that the pop icon only adorns the feminist label when it suits her — dangerously straddling the line between female empowerment and subjugation."
It's easy to use "Bow Down" to portray Beyoncé as a hypocrite, but there's a lot more at play here to complicate that argument.
First, in its production, conception and even in its inflections, it is a hip-hop song. (Beyoncé is actually rapping over her own background vocal in the "I Been On" portion of the track.) Beyoncé is using her creative license to play in another medium — something she's done before but with less ferocity on songs like "Diva." But here, she fully commits to hip-hop bravado, an element that's been a crucial part of the genre from its inception. Bravado is also at the core of it all — in-your-face self-celebration, regardless of whether anyone asked for it. To isolate the song from the genre in which it is rooted leads to messy mischaracterization.
Playing with that pomposity as an artist — within the hip-hop framework — is not enough to negate her commitment to feminism. To claim that it does, quite frankly, is a reach. After all, isn't this song employing a female hip-hop bravado — something that hip-hop often lacks? Beyoncé asserts, "I took some time to live my life/but don't think I'm just his little wife/don't get it twisted." If we can agree that bravado is central to hip-hop, women should be able to use it as a creative tool as well.
Also, here's what is central to her brand of feminism: the option to play like the boys play. Listen to "Run the World (Girls)" if you need a reference. We might not agree with that approach, but it surely isn't ignoble. If men can boast about their accolades on a track, so can Bey and any other woman who chooses to. In that sense, isn't "Bow Down" pro-women?
If we understand that this is a hip-hop song, then we have to pay attention to how a lot of fans really interact with the music. When we listen to hip-hop records in which our favorite rapper is denouncing haters and claiming to be the best, don't we adopt those songs as anthems of our own? Aren't we more like the artists and less like the nameless detractors? It's a mischaracterization to say that "Bow Down" only subjugates Beyoncé's female fans. It might also empower them.
I don't write this to say that what governs hip-hop should supersede all that governs feminism. But we should view Beyoncé's feminism as complex — because it is, just as it is for most feminists. She shouldn't be reduced to "you either are or you're not" dichotomy because of her lyrics. And most importantly, we shouldn't label her efforts disingenuous because her feminism doesn't conform to our own.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.