These posts are about the songs that fell just short of crossing the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
In March 2013, Beyoncé logged on to Tumblr and shared a new track. Titled “Bow Down / I Been On,” the surprise song featured distorted vocals and was full of fury. It was that latter quality, Beyoncé reported, that caused her to lay down the atypical track in the first place. It is damning reflection of society’s reflexive male chauvinism that a massive pop star with a string of multi-platinum albums and five chart-topping singles to her name — only counting her work as a solo artist — felt obligated to assert her individual personhood apart from her equally famous spouse, singing, “I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife/ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted/ This my shit, bow down bitches.”
Nine months later, “Bow Down / I Been On” was significantly reworked into the track “Flawless,” included on the album Beyoncé, which, like the earlier cut, was dropped onto the internet with no forewarning. On “Flawless,” the material is buffed up and given an added sheen of polish. To make its points yet clearer, the track marks its midpoint with a lengthy sample of a TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The words of Adichie — who, it should be noted, wasn’t entirely thrilled to have been brought in as guest MC — are worth quoting in full:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.” Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage, I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
The song had yet another iteration, a remixed that slowed the rhythm, incorporated a guest turn from rapper Nick Minaj, and added lyrics that addressed a recent notorious incident involving a notorious family dust-up in the elevator of a posh New York hotel. Officially released as a single, the remix of “Flawless” stalled on the Billboard chart, just short of the Top 40.
A little more than two years after the surprise release of Beyoncé, Queen Bey again demonstrated her nearly unparalleled panache for commanding a cultural moment with the shock of new music. Fans knew HBO was turning over a chunk of its Saturday night programming to Beyoncé for a program titled Lemonade, but the cryptic promos gave little indication what to expect. Viewers who tuned in were treated to a visual tour de force announcing nothing less than the best album of the year. (I understand that’s a matter of opinion presented as fact, but I still very confident about the accuracy of that assessment.) Created in the aftermath of Beyoncé’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity, Lemonade is extraordinary in every way.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Lemonade is the way Beyoncé freely incorporates a myriad of musical genres, bending each one to her formidable will. “Daddy Lessons,” recounting a Texas upbringing that included instruction in shooting, draws on country music tropes and remains firmly, unmistakably a proper Beyoncé song. When she remixed the song to release as a single, Beyoncé sought collaborators who could help emphasize the song’s twanging soul. Luckily, there just so happened to a be a trio of uncompromising powerhouses, with a tumultuous history within the country music industrial complex, who were willing to add their own spit and polish to the song. Working with the Chicks, before they lopped the word Dixie off their name, didn’t get Beyoncé onto the country music charts — or past a peak of #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, for that matter — but it did lead to an improbable appearance on the stage of the Country Music Association Awards. That ain’t nothin’.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.