Revisiting Beyoncé: Could 'Jealous' Be Its Most Important Song?

Three months after its release, it's clear that Beyoncé's latest album contains one of her most startling messages yet: Maybe she's wrong.
Columbia Records

It’s been exactly three months since Beyoncé, without any warning, dropped one of the finest albums of the past year—not to mention 17 beautifully shot music videos to go along with it. The ambitious, self-titled project was a lot to take in all at once, but a few points stood out in The Atlantic’s initial assessment: Beyoncé amped up the sex appeal, pulled back the curtain on her family life, and showed what she's capable of when left to fully indulge her creative vision; she challenged pop culture’s beauty standards and fired back at critics who took issue with her brand of feminism.

But the most rewarding pleasures of Beyoncé are actually its most subtle ones. And in the months of repeated listens since the record suddenly appeared on iTunes at midnight, I’ve picked up on a few details and themes that went unnoticed the first time. Chief among these observations: “Jealous” is not only one of the best songs on her moody, minimalist album, it’s also one of the most important songs in her catalog.

In the frenzy over the album’s unconventional release, “Jealous” largely went unnoticed. Most reviews of Beyoncé didn’t mention it, and those that did had barely anything to say about it. It wasn’t the catchiest song on the record, nor was it an obvious pick for radio singles or awards shows. It wasn’t the most GIF-able song (“I woke up like this”), and it didn’t teach us any new words (#serfbort). It didn't feature any of the album’s high-profile collaborators, nor did it offer any juicy insights into her sex life or her path to motherhood. The accompanying music video, while gorgeous, was often ranked as one of the least interesting of the bunch.

But "Jealous" is where Beyoncé sends what may be the most interesting message of any song on the album. (Beyoncé's writing credits have come under fire before, so it's very likely she had some help in crafting it. But regardless of who ultimately penned the music and lyrics, it's Beyoncé who chose to include the song on the album.) The track begins when a half-naked Beyoncé realizes she's been stood up for a sexy dinner date, so she responds in typical Beyoncé fashion: She dons her freakum dress and stays out all night, enforcing her no-tolerance policy for being underappreciated. Then, during the bridge, something unusual happens:

And I hate you for your lies and your covers
And I hate us for making good love to each other
And I love making you jealous but don’t judge me
And I know that I’m being hateful but that ain’t nothing
That ain’t nothing
I’m just jealous
I’m just human
Don’t judge me

Did you catch that? It’s not exactly an apology, and it’s not exactly an admission that she's somehow responsible for her date (Jay Z, presumably) not showing. But it is, by my count, only the second time in her solo career that Beyoncé has ever admitted that just maybe it’s she who’s in the wrong. (The other time was “Flaws and All,” a track from the 2007 re-release of B’Day in which she ’fesses up to being a mean, neglectful “bitch in the afternoon.”)

Across her solo albums, a few recurring themes have shown up: the empowerment that comes with being a strong, independent woman, and the fulfillment that comes with love and marriage (and now, motherhood). At times, these two themes have appeared at odds—like when she was criticized for calling her tour the Mrs. Carter Show, as if she couldn’t adopt her husband’s last name (officially, she is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and still be a feminist—but “Jealous” excels at exploring the tension between these ideas creatively. When she’s making a meal naked in her penthouse, Beyoncé seems pretty excited about playing up the role of the wife in the kitchen, but the moment it goes wrong—when she’s all alone with the dinner she slaved over—that same role she embraced can turn and feel oppressive. “Sometimes I want to walk in your shoes, do the type of things I never ever do,” she sings after the chorus. “I take one look in the mirror, and I say to myself, 'Baby girl, you can’t survive like this.'”

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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