“Bow Down/I Been On”: Beyoncé's Unexpectedly Gritty Return
As much as she’s been in the news lately – singing the national anthem at the Presidential Inauguration, turning in a half time performance that caused the lights to go out at the Super Bowl – Beyoncé hasn’t actually released any new solo material in two years. This changed yesterday afternoon when the singer posted “Bow Down/I Been On” to her Tumblr. The track, which was released without context other than some pretty adorable cover art, isn’t a song per se. Instead, it appears to be a mashing together of snippets of two other tracks, which, based on the file’s title, we’re going to assume are titled “Bow Down” and “I Been On.”
Beyoncé’s return to making new music after a two-year hiatus is reason enough to get excited, and not surprisingly, the song has already racked up nearly 1.5 million listens on Soundcloud less than 24 hours after it was made public. But it’s unlikely that anyone expected the latest from Queen Bey to sound like this.
From its opening seconds, it’s clear that “Bow Down/I Been On” isn’t typical Beyoncé. The beat on the first half of the track comes courtesy of producers Hit-Boy – who has scored a number of hits with A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and, most famously, Kanye West and Bey’s husband, Jay-Z – and Planet 6. Around the 20-second mark Beyoncé’s voice comes through in usual strident form, before morphing into something significantly angrier than we’re used to, with the continued “Bow down bitches” refrain. It’s startling at first, but once it’s repeated a handful of times you’ve accepted it and all of the song’s out-of-nowhere testiness. As weird as the first section may seem, it’s downright traditional compared with the second, the Timbaland-produced “I Been On,” which kicks off with a cosmic-sounding operatic sample before mutating into a pitched-shifted rap song that reminds us that the singer is from Houston. It’s just as angry as “Bow Down,” but definitely more bizarre, especially with the laughing and shout outs to Pimp C and UGK.
Because the song is so out there, it’s undoubtedly going to confuse a lot of listeners. But whether or not this song is any good is beside the point. What’s most noteworthy about the track is that it’s not at all what we’d expect from a pop star on a return from a long absence. Granted, someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude can get away with a lot of things – she’s reached a certain level of infallibility with her fan base – but it’s rare these days that pop stars step out of their comfort zone. Instead, we’re treated to returns like the one Justin Timberlake pulled this January with “Suit & Tie,” a single that was a fun and lightweight reintroduction to his shiny take on R&B. It was totally fine, but when taken in the context of his solo career, middling at best. “Bow Down/I Been On” feels like something else entirely, like the work of an artist at the top of her game, one bubbling over with so much creative energy that anything seems possible, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense. This isn’t going to go down as a highlight of her career, but it’s a reminder that we don’t know what she’s fully capable of yet.