“Sorry, junior, I already ruined you,” said an oracular Jay-Z to his future he-swears-it’ll-be-a-son on Watch the Throne’s “New Day,” warning him about the public and paparazzi stampede already aimed at his birth. When the album came out, the world thought this child was hypothetical. He or she wasn’t, as wife Beyonce announced at the VMAs, prompting the public and paparazzi to do the predicted several months early. One imagines that, had they known the date of conception, they’d scramble for internal cameras and film the mitosis. And thus Beyonce stole the show with one announcement and a quick gesture toward a “baby bump” that wouldn’t have been noticeable had she left it alone. Lady Gaga whisked onstage to mug like your drunken uncle with exactly as much speechmaking finesse, Adele performed “Someone Like You” with the full showstopper spread of darkened stage, spotlight and silence, and Britney, Katy, Wayne, Justin and Kanye summoned their respective gravity. None of them were discussed as much.
Of course they weren’t. Gossip may trump music, but nevertheless, the VMAs were confirmation that in the music world, Beyonce’s suddenly on top. Nobody but her could get away with singing an album cut (kids, “Someone Like You” is not an album cut), let alone one that mined the ‘80s for sophistication, not synths, and wasn’t even the critics’ crush. And while pregnancy announcements, as anyone who’s seen Chicago can tell you, attract spotlights, no other artist’s announcement would garner as many. The next day, MTV compiled a listicle of other pregnant artists, and if masses celebrated at anyone else’s pregnancy, most were massed fans.
Why the outpouring for Beyonce, or the record bestowal of future-empress crowns jeweled with puns? Partly it’s simple: she and Jay-Z are a power couple unprecedented in music in the past decade if not longer. And the power’s flowing; both halves of the couple are, if not at their career peaks, then close. Nobody else in music can claim this. Of MTV’s list, Britney Spears couldn’t do it; if Kevin Federline didn’t sap the power from the couple, the tabloids did. Jennifer Lopez couldn’t do it; her 2007 album cycle included “Do It Well,” which is probably new to you. Hilary Duff and Ashlee Simpson were never in that echelon at all. The only real recent contender was Mariah Carey, but her musical career had already rounded its second peak, partner Nick Cannon never had a peak, and her babies were only as famous as their tiresome nickname.
What’s more surprising than the outpouring for Beyonce is the complete retcon-by-embryo of her musical standing–something in serious doubt just months ago. Before 4 even came out, people declared it a flop, told tales of Columbia Records’ hypothetical backroom shadiness, suggested she was hitching her comeback to Kelly Rowland’s and invented an imaginary, oft-kiboshed Destiny’s Child comeback. They wielded numbers; “Run the World (Girls)” ran the muddled middle of the charts, and “Best Thing I Never Had” didn’t seem like it would go much farther. 4 did finally come out, and the criticisms continued. No obvious radio singles, and nothing remotely like RedOne or Stargate; retro, but not trendy; polyester blend, not leg-warmers. Beyonce’s big year seemed poised to deflate.
Then it inflated again, enough that 4 is shaping up to be an album of the year in acclaim if not sales. Of its peers, Born This Way is looking like a singles receptacle instead of an iconic album; most pundits don’t care about 21‘s music as much as its money-making superpowers and “Rolling in the Deep”; it’s too early to place Watch the Throne, which features Beyonce anyway; and Tha Carter IV is already not great. The album’s quality helps–Beyonce’s in excellent voice, has musicianship to match and finally fixed her publicity–but another factor eclipses it, especially now. “Single Ladies” both emblemized and ended its era; now, Beyonce is the domestic goddess the world was waiting for her to become. She’s not only pregnant but in many’s eyes the right kind of pregnant: in a stable marriage well into a long career. People want to see princesses of pop settle down as queens, starting not families but dynasties.
This brings to mind one execrable review in Slant that, starting from opening yuk “Memo to Jay-Z: Beyonce is about to start poking pinholes in your condoms” and proceeding just as ickily, portrayed Beyonce as biologically clocked, totally baby-bonkers. At least one commenter’s smugly mugging for the crowd that he is now vindicated. He is not vindicated; easy biographical criticism is the sport of kings and sophomores, speculating on Beyonce’s pregnancy is the sport of every tabloid since Bey met Jay, and making terrible hormone jokes is the sport of bad sitcom writers. Beneath the thick blight, though, is a sprout of truth; you don’t have to make bad gags to notice how much of 4‘s promotion relies on domesticity.
Beyonce’s career was headed this way even before 4. “Crazy in Love” was a one-off followed by naughty girls, baby boys, single ladies and exits to the left, none of which coded biographical. But toward the end of I Am… Sasha Fierce‘s singles cycle, each hit was more personal than the last. “Halo,” a straightforward love song, begat “Sweet Dreams,” a love song so vulnerable that the “beautiful nightmare” line fit right in. “Run the World (Girls)” could have been a new direction had it a) worked and b) been representative of 4. Instead, the video to “Best Thing I Never Had” showcases Beyonce’s wedding-night lingerie and bridal dresses and has her dancing with kids at the reception with a near-maternal glow. The follow-up, for yearning opener “1+1” (i.e. not “Party,” filmed but not first out), is almost too intimate to watch. Beyonce’s posing, but she doesn’t look like she’ll b on magazine covers but boudoir photos, the kind meant to be tucked away in your partner’s nightstand for no one else’s eyes.
The extra-musical context only helped this along. Bloggers had just finished a kerfuffle over “Run the World (Girls)” and just how worthy and/or independent a role model Beyonce was. Watch the Throne is full of Jay-Z’s pedestalizing his wife–on one track, literally, as he marvels at how she belongs on display in the MoMA. Lil Wayne’s album contains a creepier-in-retrospect threat to kidnap her, kicking the discourse back about a century. Beyonce’s musical career took place in parallel with her domestic career for years, but in 2011, the former got personal and the latter got inescapable. Their combined force was enough to shoot Beyonce’s status into the stars. This is clearly good for Beyonce, but the danger is focusing on her pregnancy at the expense of her music. See Justin Vernon, who found Bey’s pregnancy “awesome as shit” but her performance not even worth mentioning. See any VMA highlights post; at least half celebrate Beyonce for getting an egg fertilized and not much else. It’s unsurprising; when you’re queen, the world watches you not for your leadership but for your heirs.
It’s possible, of course, that this will pass, and it’s not too optimistic to imagine the music might usher it away. 4 tells a more compelling story of Beyonce’s married life than anything a gossip site can concoct. More than one writer has called it the sound of settling, of buying a place in the suburbs, of lifetime commitment. The sounds are as stately and tasteful as a home decorated to last; even the uptempo tracks are better suited to dinner parties than clubs. This love has moats and peaks, but it’s not needlessly complicated or fraught; moodier tracks like “I Care” and “I Miss You” aren’t picking up nearly as much traction than the more straightforwardly exuberant “Love On Top” and “Countdown.”
The latter is most telling of all. It’s the fan favorite, but it didn’t becomes so because the blogs said it was. (Writers only wish they could arbitrate taste that well.) Nor did it catch on solely for being uptempo. Beyonce revels here more than anywhere else on 4; her voice slides into melisma and the horns and drums fly between arrangements to equal, one imagines, the velocity of her thoughts. The imagery is somewhat regressive–much was made, early on, of the heels and grinding, at least until the world’s jokesters discovered “boof”. This can be culturally discussed, but at least its musical effect is the opposite, and it misses the point to dismiss the song as a fantasy of co-writer The-Dream; Beyonce, who also co-wrote, sounds nothing but convincing. “Killing me softly, and I’m still fallin’,” she crows in the beginning and throughout, luxuriating in every vowel and sudden melodic spark. She’s utterly enraptured, and the moment’s galvanizing enough to anchor not only the marketing–the intro was used to promote her TV special–but a generation of fans. Embracing domesticity might have helped Beyonce secure her career, but it first produced her most lush music yet.