A little over three weeks since "BEYONCÉ" took the Internet hostage in the middle of the night, the buzz for the artist’s self-titled release has not waned, and she seems unlikely to release any hostages. I can still expect to see “SURFBOARD” (who knew you could spell that so many ways?) as the caption of choice on my homegirls’ latest selfies, and I rang in my New Year drunk in love with my fatty, daddy.
As listeners continue to speculate just what “watermelon” means (note: it’s not what you think), an important message has been lost in translation, particularly among men. Shocking. This, the album where Beyoncé Knowles emerges as more than song-of-the-year-YouTube-video-wunderkind for the girls and the gays, has escaped them. The album about female independence is the album they don’t seem to understand.
Knowles’ fifth album is personal and intimate in the same way another mononymous, punctuation-for-purpose release, "janet." was. So said Rolling Stone in its review of Janet Jackson’s 1993 album:
“janet.'s Janet is a more complete sexual being than most of pop's Black women are allowed or allow themselves to be. No Hottentot Venus (an objectified, sexually available Black female) exploiting her legs (Tina Turner), hair (Neneh Cherry) or Blackness (Black drag queen Madonna), Jackson evades reductive sexuality by demanding love and respect from both her partner and herself. She wants you to touch her, and love's got to do with it because "that's the way love goes." Janet won't stand for a trade-off — she wants love and sex.”
Before then, and long before her accidentally exposed nipple during a Super Bowl half-time show made her an Enemy of the State, Jackson was a chubby-faced girl in black, who smiled nice and spoke softly at the camera, who promised suitors she’d be “worth the wait.” The last of the Jackson Dynasty, her music was autobiographical ("Control"), sure, and socio-politically conscious (the critically-acclaimed "Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814"), but never sexy, and certainly never sexual.
This video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," released in 1990, was Janet’s first official makeover that repositioned her public image. The ’93 record, released when Jackson was 27, drove the point home. Like Knowles, Jackson also broke managerial ties with her father, seeking more autonomy, a move that has proven to be instrumental in the successes of both artists.
Here are women who sing about sex. Sexuality. Contemporary womanhood. Wholeness. Arrival.
“Goddammit, I’m comfortable in my skin,” Knowles oozes as though long overdue.
The line is a simple and powerful one for an album that bares her name and nothing else on its cover. Despite her reign as “Queen,” it renders her accessible through confession. You can only respond with a wave of a church hand and a “YES, GIRL!” when you hear it. The declaration is a personal reminder for women like me who sing along, rendering the world around us almost powerless to share in the moment, relegating men to engage by proxy. Even Jay-Z seems muted at his wife’s side.
This is a Grown Woman Album, not because only because of Chimamanda Adichie’s feminist manifesto, but because it collapses the Madonna/Whore Dichotomy entirely. It’s not wrapped in earthly deity of. It doesn’t hide behind an alter ego such as Sasha Fierce, and speaks exclusively about pleasure from a woman’s perspective.
“Cater 2 U”? Maybe later.
The record dismantles the idea that marriage, commitment, or monogamy ruins one’s sex life. It challenges the notion that a woman’s life should be lead in complete service to her child. This album is widely successful because it makes women feel good about themselves. I can see how that might be confusing for some. This is a pop album that soundtracks the lives of we who have survived our quarter-life identity crisis. We, like Knowles, exist in all our forms all at once: mother; sister; daughter; businesswoman; wife, and individual. For many of us, these things are sometimes in conflict. Especially when you factor in the part about the sex. Detractors decried the album’s explicit content in typical "Won't someone think of the children?" form, seemingly forgetting that the singer is 32 and under no obligation to parent any child but her own.
BEYONCÉ introduces Knowles as a sexual being, not a being sexualized by industry. She communicates her proclivities in her own certain terms. And yes, that may sometimes involve a duration on her knees. No, you may not watch.