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A New Vision Of Gender In Hip-hop In Beyoncé And Jay-Z’s Joint Album

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Walsh & Davidson comprehended how artists in the music industry today are working to combat rigid masculinities, and are expressing more vulnerability and self-emotion in their music (2017). Today, those already in the mainstream and who are influential are making it a point to challenge listeners and viewers through their art, and this is exactly what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did in their recent joint project. For the first time since they got married in 2008, the couple dropped a joint hip-hop/rap album signaling the blending of their artistry under their marital name The Carters. Jay-Z, a famous rapper and former hustler turned CEO, and Beyoncé- this flawlessly manicured self-made feminist and singer are the hip-hop Obamas, totally larger than life and are the premiere example of a successful black heterosexual marriage (Ramsby, 2017).

Hip-hop has been long derided as anti-woman and anti-emotion, but in their only video from their joint album shot in the Louvre titled Apeshit, the Carters challenged normative gender roles as they posed as this modern day kind of royal family, one that is not managed or set in patriarchy, but involves two partners working as equals and flourishing together (Ogbar, 1999). This idea of gender shown in the music video is important because it establishes new gender roles, takes the mask off masculinity and mostly portrays women on a pedestal- something that hasn’t been commonly shown in hip-hop music.

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In this paper, I will argue that Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s joint album marks a new vision of gender in hip-hop as it leads the way towards a cultural redemption of centering women in the genre. I will do so by looking at the visual, vocal and artistic elements in the music video. In these three cases, my argument comes true as the video breaks stereotypes of gender in rap and celebrates progressive masculine identities in hip-hop.

This view is clearly portrayed in the video Apeshit, where the normative gender script is broken as typical gender roles are shifted and dissolved. The construction of masculinity in hip-hop was birthed from social constructs regarding manhood, and Jay-Z has in the past succumbed to performances of black masculinity to ground his authenticity and progress his music (Huey, 2014). In this video, a progressive masculine identity is portrayed as Jay-Z, one of the hardcore rappers who has in the past prided himself in being a pimp – shows a side that is rather soft, and not very masculine (Ogbar, 1999). Without taking away our main focus on a softer masculinity portrayed in the video, Beyoncé also flips the script, as she raps more and takes a more assertive role in the video, something that is surprising as she is well known for her usual melodic singing style. She stretches feminine stereotypes as she raps in most of the song, and doesn’t exactly act in common ladylike behaviors.

Visuals

The Carters in their video used a series of powerful visuals to portray men as graceful, women as powerful, and to visualize how influential it is when men and women relate to each other.

Album cover

Although we are now in the age of Tidal and Spotify, where people stream music and hardly buy physical copies, album artwork still maintains an amplified importance as people still lean towards judging a book by its cover, in this case- by having the art on their phone lock screens. In one article by Shah, he mentioned that artwork serves as a portal into what the listener can expect from the album, and also the message the artist will be portraying and this is exactly what the Carters did (2016).

The image used as the album’s cover art on the Carter’s music video taken from a still from Apeshit, shows a black woman standing, and picking a black man’s afro, capturing black love, intimacy and vulnerability at its best. It is also worthy to note that this happens in front of the Mona Lisa, a very famous painting – which is blurred in the picture, to emphasize the importance of black womanhood and manhood, in such an experience important to our culture symbolizing how beautiful vulnerability is (Young, 2018). Also, as the concept of masculinity has always stressed on dominance, the album cover does the opposite as it portrays a delicate treatment of black masculinity in a sensitive manner, as the man is shown in a more submissive position, giving the woman power in this situation. In Hook’s book, she points out to black hyper-masculinity as depicting black men to be superior, but the reverse is portrayed in the Carter’s album cover as the man is depicted in a meek position, in the presence of a woman (2004).

Celebrities like the Carters function as an artistic union, and are often given responsibilities to be a social representation of what black people should be for many, and with this album cover, the duo embraces this and presents a progressive identity of gender- where a warm image of a man is shown bringing out a side that is historically (according to hip-hop) not very masculine (Johnson, 2018). It also praises a new vision of gender as it celebrates and embraces the mutual tenderness and equality between the two.

Apeshit video

The video opens with a black dreadlocked man crouching in front of the museum wearing angel wings. The angel wings symbolize innocence and purity, something that isn’t as common in the hip-hop history, as the young black male has always been seen as dangerous and feared because of how the hip-hop culture has historically been embedded in violence and crooked behavior (Hooks, 2004). In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, Jay-z said ““The strongest thing a man can do is cry, to expose your feelings, to be vulnerable in front of the world,” and this vulnerability is what he tries to show in his video with Beyoncé as the men are shown embracing a softer masculinity (Hosking, 2018). Thanks to his interview which frowned upon toxic masculinity, and paved a better appreciation for a healthier kind of masculinity shown in the Apeshit video.

In the video, there is also a painting of a crying woman clinging from below to a man in distress – and this is followed by a scene of a black dreadlocked man (probably the one with angel wings) crying with his head on a woman’s chest. The man in this scene shows vulnerability, something that is hardly ever seen in hip-hop music videos as the culture of the genre has historically been inhospitable to vulnerability (Richardon & Scott, 2002). In these scenes, the Carters portray and normalize vulnerability in not only rap, but black rap, and they do this by flipping the script of masculinity in hip-hop to being emotional and warm. Jones in one article emphasized how in the past, rappers embraced masculinity by showing an absence of vulnerability and this is the opposite of what Jay-Z in his interview and in his video with Beyoncé are denouncing (2017).

While men in the video show a softer masculinity, women in the video show an aggressiveness and power that shows and celebrates the strength of women. In the same scene of a man leaning his head peacefully on the chest of a woman, she is at a higher or more dominant level than him, flipping how women have traditionally been portrayed in a suppressive manner in hip-hop (Larsen, 2006). This scene also reminded me of how Jay-Z pointed to Beyoncé as to have helped him discover a healthier masculinity (Hosking, 2018). Such an image speaks volumes as it recognizes how powerful women are, embraces vulnerability in men, and at the same time accepting equality between partners.

Throughout the video, women are shown dominating spaces embedded in masculinity, and as the dancers stand on the staircase, it echoes empowered black women of all shades. What is most important, however, isn’t the fact that women are seen as more dominant than men, but that in the scene that follows, as the two are kissing and caressing, they are at eye level where neither one is dominant, and this celebrates a progressive representation of gender equality. Similar moments of mutuality are shown as the Carters stand in front of the Mona Lisa in the beginning and end of the video.

Vocal performance

Even before knowing them as the Carters, Beyoncé and Jay- Z have for a long time been accredited as one of the most powerful duos with tunes that are unstoppable (Forbes, 2018).

One of the main things that stick out from the song is the fact that Jay-Z doesn’t rap much, for a piece that is a collaboration and not a feature. Unlike in other songs where although Jay-Z featured, his touch was needed to achieve greatness, Apeshit is mostly Beyoncé rapping and singing whilst he takes a step back (Devlin, 2010). Comparing to one of their collaborations on Upgrade U, unlike the scene when Beyoncé acts manly while Jay-Z is off the screen and reverts to her feminine side as he comes into the frame, in this video, she acts crazy and aggressive with him in the picture (Hosking, 2018). She celebrates her independence while Jay-Z supports her in the background defining the Carter’s vision of a progressive way of interaction between men and women in hip-hop.

According to Allison, male artists tend to play on their masculinity in their music so as to reach their intended audience, but this isn’t so for the Carters (2016). The fact that these are two different but powerful musicians are working together without leveraging on society’s idea of masculinity or femininity displays how revolutionary this piece is, as it reconstructs a narrative that is new, strange and necessary especially in a hip hop collaboration featuring a woman (Parham, 2018).

Lyrics

In this song, we are re-introduced to rapper Beyoncé as she raps in pretty much the whole song. Jay-Z’s role is more limited as he lets his wife do much of the rapping. Beyoncé totally pushes aside feminine stereotypes in hip-hop through her lyrics by reminding us that the days of women in hip-hop needing a cosign are over (Weitzer & Kubrin, 2009). She raps “stack my money fast and go”, proving how she was the highest paid woman in music in 2017 (Genius, 2018). She also goes on to flip the script and reclaim her power as she refers to herself as a bitch by alluding that Jay-Z got himself a bad bitch. In hip-hop, the naming and shaming of women has always been a badge of honor for men, as some have even claimed that it is encouraged and rewarded in the music industry (Weitzer & Kubrin, 2009). Beyoncé however, in this song, flips the traditional ladylike script as she takes the lyrical position that has always belonged to men in hip-hop, as her lyrics mostly glorify materialism and are much more aggressive (Ogbar, 1999). This is shown as she says:

“He got a bad bitch, bad bitch

We livin’ lavish, lavish

I get expensive fabrics

I got expensive habits

Bought him a jet (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)

Shut down Colette (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)

Phillippe Patek

Here she references the jet she bought Jay-Z and how she shut down a high fashion retailer called Colette (Genius, 2018). These lyrics mark a departure from the misogyny in hip-hop, as the Carters don’t follow the usual girl meets powerful businessman script, but carve new gender roles as Beyoncé, in this case, lists her achievements almost in the same way Jay-Z did in Public service announcement.

In 2014, Beyoncé wrote a piece on how gender equality was nothing but a myth. She stressed about how this idea was far from being a reality, and how that would be achieved when women were finally granted equal pay and equal respect (Beyoncé, 2014). The lyrics from Apeshit act as a follow up from her words and also highlight her demanding the respect she deserves by saying:

“Gimme my check, put some respek on my check

Or pay me in equity (pay me in equity)

Watch me reverse out of debt (skrrt)

Lastly, Beyoncé also seems thankful that her relationship with Jay-Z is stronger after issues regarding infidelity as pointed out in their recent single projects Lemonade and 4:44. In one interview, Jay-Z alluded his unfaithfulness to have been caused by insecurities regarding his masculinity, and this is a celebration of a healthier masculinity (Campbell, 2017). The line also refers to how their love or relationship defied society’s expectations of what is right, and how they were able to get back to becoming the power couple that they have always regarded to be. She raps:

I can’t believe we made it (this is what we made, made)

This is what we’re thankful (this is what we thank, thank)

I can’t believe we made it (this a different angle)

The significance of the Carters doing this lies in their previous albums (Lemonade and 4:44), and how this album resolves the issues they addressed before. They offer audiences this opportunity to engage with non- stereotypical images through their place in popular culture.

Fashion and Art

Anyone who is familiar with Beyoncé’s work knows that every outfit contains a deeper, more significant meaning behind its mainstream pop culture sheen.

Attire

For generations, the color pink has been associated with femininity, and in the first main scene of the couple together, Beyoncé stands beside Jay-Z as she wears a pink suit. This scene portrays equality on various levels. First of all, they stand on the same level where neither is the most dominant and in her modern power suit (a look stereotypically reserved for glass shattering women) and diamonds, suggests how she can be a boss without sacrificing her femininity (Mulvey, 2018). In her interview with Cosmopolitan in 2011, she praised working mothers- and this is not only an ode to them, but a reminder that women can just be as powerful and influential as their partners, and that power and femininity are not mutually exclusive (Peter, 2017). One blogger went on to say that this was the Carter’s way of showing us that they both wear the pants in this partnership (Mulvey, 2018).

In another scene, Jay-Z and Beyoncé switch roles as they stand in front of the Venus de Milo, as he wears a light pink suit symbolizing how this could be his step into feminism, and him also showing a fluid approach to gender and a kind of masculinity that is warm.

Art

It wouldn’t be fair to critically explore how the Carter’s video without analyzing the role artwork played in the video.

The couple brilliantly incorporated artwork into their music video, using the entire Louvre and museum space. A predominantly white space, which soaks in patriarchal works of art, thereby challenging the status quo. The classical art helped highlight their vision of gender equality as the video contrasted paintings from this male controlled space, acting as a middle finger to convention and to the gatekeepers of artistic tradition (Gemmill, 2018). In one of the scenes where Jay-Z wears a pink suit in front of the Venus de Milo, Beyoncé- again- takes a much aggressive role as her husband Jay-Z steps back and keeps calm as he partakes this graceful role. They play and pose with the artwork, pointing out how they have shaped the culture industry- especially in hip hop as seen in this video, Apeshit.

Conclusion

Although I have argued and supported my view of their social progression regarding gender, it is necessary to highlight that Jay-Z’s healthier masculinity could be nothing more than a mere marketing strategy as these two are marketing geniuses. The Carters although they challenged gender roles in their video, didn’t go as far as reversing or flipping them completely as it would have been nicer to see a man tending a woman’s hair for instance. More broadly, as they released their album in the middle of their tour, this could be a musical offering and strategy to Beyoncé’s feminist fans, to allow them to forgive Jay-Z after his issues on infidelity. Also, although they try to give us a fresh version of equality, it goes without saying that this is a billionaire couple who live in what is mostly seen as a fantasy world- such that in as much as their message is powerful, it makes it hard to relate as they stand in front of these avant-garde art pieces screaming commodification and capitalism. This plainly masks the message of a progressive gender identity, and strips off its significance as art is used as a backdrop of showing their status, resulting in the strengthening of the dominant culture other than challenging its power.

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