Beyonce's return to new music came in the form of "Bow Down / I Been On," a syrupy trap anthem that sounds as if she heard a song by Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky and thought, "Hey! I can do this too!"
It's fun and aggressive, a capable answer to criticism that followed her staid HBO documentary. In "Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream," Beyonce offered up none of her insecurities for the audience's viewing. The film felt like a marketing exercise, testing even some of her most devout fans' patience with a singer who appears to have grown more and more obsessed with controlling her image.
But on "Bow Down," Beyonce comes close to naming names. "I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world," Beyonce sings through her teeth. "Don't forget it, don't forget it, respect that -- bow down, bitches."
So far, Beyonce's engaging in a time-honored hip-hop ritual: asserting herself as an idol even to her own competition. But then things take a turn for the weird: "I took some time to live my life, but don't think I'm just his little wife."
Everyone knows she's married to Shawn "Jay-Z" Corey Carter, but does anyone really think of Beyonce -- who sang the national anthem at Barack Obama's inauguration, headlined the Super Bowl and put out an entire movie about herself just because she felt like it -- as "just" Jay-Z's wife?
In fact, it's Jay-Z who has followed Beyonce around for much of the past year. Sure, there was that time she made a guest appearance during his run of shows at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, but for the most part Jay's been living the life of a very lucky "plus one."
Jay mentions Beyonce in plenty of songs (referring to her as "the hottest chick in the game" and his "high-yellow broad"), but in most cases, he's using their relationship as proof that he has "made it." That Beyonce can't feel the same way about her society husband probably speaks to our collective view on lots of things (celebrity marriages, beautiful women, female performers, the list goes on).
The lyric is even more confusing when viewed in the broader context of Beyonce's recent career moves. In the absence of an album or single to promote, Beyonce used her Super Bowl appearance to plug her upcoming world tour, which she's calling -- wait for it -- The Mrs. Carter Show.
We have a lot of questions for Beyonce, but her standing as pop icon isn't really one of them. What we'd rather know: How's the album going? And where's the "real" single? This release feels like a placeholder, its lyrical insecurity-masquerading-as-bravado matching its musical unoriginality. Beyonce is a singular talent, but here the Houston native sounds as if she's borrowing from Jay-Z and Kanye West's "H.A.M." (opera!) as well adopting a chopped-and-screwed southern sound that's been re-popularized as of late by the aforementioned Rocky.
And here's another question: Has motherhood really made Beyonce feel like she's been away long enough for folks to think of her as a glorified video vixen?
If so, there is something undeniably sad about "Bow Down." If a 17-time Grammy winner who inked a $50 million-deal with Pepsi feels like she's still in the shadow of her spouse, what's it going to take for her to understand that her millions of fans don't really care about her little husband?
Author's note: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that Beyonce hails from Houston, the birthplace of screw music. While there is no question that Beyonce was familiar with the style before A$AP Rocky recorded his No. 1 album, the timing suggests that his success may have inspired her to return to it.