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.

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.'”

Unlike "Jealous," much of Beyoncé's previous interest in female empowerment and relationship dynamics has dealt in extremes: “If I Were a Boy,” “Irreplaceable,” “Ring the Alarm," and “Single Ladies,” for example, are great songs, but lyrically, they’re all-or-nothing situations so often tied up in material wealth that their statements felt a little heavy-handed. They lack the emotional nuance of the real-life situations that are almost never as morally well defined as the songs they inspire. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that publications like the A.V. Club have included “Single Ladies” and “If I Were a Boy” on lists of well-intentioned but misguided feminist anthems. “Single Ladies” turns Beyoncé into “just a passive ‘it’ that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending.” “If I Were a Boy,” meanwhile, engaged in “whiny self-pity and broad stereotyping.” Certainly some of that is intentional to a degree—why shouldn’t Beyoncé put money first on her mind and treat men the same way women have often been treated in pop music?—but “Jealous” and Beyoncé suggests that, by moving away from big, sweeping statements in favor of more personal narratives, Beyoncé most effectively examines the topics and statements she’s been exploring all along.

There are exceptions to this pattern elsewhere on Beyoncé“Pretty Hurts,” declares that "perfection is a disease of nation,” but for an artist who’s made perfection such a quintessential part of her image and reputation—this is the woman who began her 2013 Super Bowl halftime show with a recording of recording of Vince Lombardi saying, “Excellence must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one’s might and every bit of effort we might have”—its trophy-smashing music video felt more like a revealing, intimate turning point than another condemnation of mixed messages in the media. “***Flawless” has big ideas, too, and while the inclusion of a speech about feminism from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie led to a spike in the author’s book sales, the song’s real contribution to pop culture is the line “I woke up like this.” It's a phrase that, as Lindsay Zoladz’s excellent Pitchfork feature about hashtags points out, resonates because it’s deceptively simple, speaking for no one but herself yet totally malleable in its meaning:

#WokeUpLikeThis is a perfect instance of “I mean this and I don’t at the same time”—a way to both point towards the tyrannical digital-era expectation that women should always be camera-ready, while at the same time celebrating the art of looking (and feeling) so goddamn fine. These are not contradictions, but the complexities of a feminism that comes from lived experience rather than hollow, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us sloganeering. Beyoncé’s perspective reminds me of something the writer Joan Morgan called for in her 1997 hip-hop feminist manifesto When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: “a feminism brave enough to fuck with the grays.”

And that’s what “Jealous” does—it fucks with the grays. It’s not a breakup anthem, nor is it a declaration of undying love. It’s angry, it’s introspective, it’s regretful, it’s playful, it’s loving, and it's everything in between. Beyoncé will probably be remembered for being an industry game-changer (surprise-release albums have been more popular in the months since), her big feminist manifesto, and one of her most personal albums ever, but it could also be remembered as a turning point in the types of lyrics and songwriting she gravitates toward. Beyoncé is the album that starts finding the most engaging material in the moments that aren’t so black or white.