Beyonce’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” Is Her Years In The Making Black Feminist Rock Anthem

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by C. Shardae Jobson

I had to really ask myself what it was about Beyoncé‘s Lemonade that moved me to cheers, tears, and adulation for it. Was it her honesty about marriage, with lyrical allusions to infidelity? Feeling unappreciated as a wife? Could it be the sheer unity she displayed for #BlackLivesMatter and unfiltered celebration of Black womanhood? Or, the cinematography of the visual counterpart to Lemonade that shifted Beyoncé from a subterranean goddess emerging from brass doors (“Hold Up”)? To a sun-hat wearing, underground queen of the red light district (“6 Inch”)?

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How about the Cajun-flavored “Daddy Lessons” where she took us back her Texan roots, singing about the life lessons she learned from her father, Mathew Knowles. Not at all a saint of a man, he was an influential leader. By Lemonade‘s end, Beyoncé’s was yielded at a place of forgiveness and where she has cooked all her emotions into a mean, healthy serving of, alas, liberation (“Formation”).

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Premiering on HBO, on April 23, both the visuals and audio for Lemonade left an indelible mark. In time, it will uphold the artistic legacy of Beyonce, who has remained one of contemporary music’s most glamorous and successful stars of the last fifteen years.

She’s increasingly become (more) courageous in every angle of her career. And the change was an unprecedented plot twist. While always admired for her execution of song and dance, it’s been a redemption road for the multiple Grammy Award winner since 2011’s 4.

Her album 4 swam gloriously in its comfortable pool of R&B-pop with a likable focus on love. Sometimes the love was heartbreaking, like “Rather Die Young”, a melodramatic stomp the yard declaration that recalled Whitney Houston‘s greatest ballads. Then, dance because you’re so in love, it hurts, jams like “Love On Top.” Then in 2013, it arrived. The surprise mammoth of her self-titled fifth LP, her first official “visual” album. Shockingly yet realistically sexual and emancipated from pop culture’s idea of her as Mrs. Nice Girl, Beyoncé was a revelation of a controversial growth. Naturally, artists should evolve with every album, especially ones with so many years in the game. But Beyoncé was never really allowed permission to change in the public eye. She’s was supposed to be “Crazy In Love” forever. With the superior Lemonade, it’s as if she cemented an eff off response, to the idea, for the ages.

The film Lemonade presented itself in chapters. Containing contexts of Southern Gothicism, psychological horror, and rockabilly; the crux may be the pages or frame of “Anger” and its song “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”

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After having hysterically bashed neighborhood cars in the reggae-lite “Hold Up” (“Denial”, chapter two), the slow burn guitar and drum of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” launched itself. On the sartorial front, Beyoncé struts in a matching grey-taupe crop top and leggings, a hefty fur coat, Ankh necklace, and freshly braided cornrows. In moments, it’s clear that she is mad as hell, ready for revenge, Foxy Brown style. Singing will not be heard here. Growls and hisses instead abound, with lyrical threats like daggers aiming for the body of her man. A very deceitful man. (At this point, we still had a few songs to go before “Daddy Lessons.” So the emotions in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” are particularly wrought).

“Who the fuck do you think I is?
You ain’t married to no average bitch boy
You can watch my fat ass twist boy
As I bounce to the next dick boy
And keep your money, I got my own” –

“Keep a bigger smile on my face being alone. Bad motherfucker, God complex
Motivate your ass, call me Malcolm X
Yo operator, or innovator
Fuck you hater, you can’t recreate her, no
You’ll never recreate her no, hell no.”

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” is an arrogant track and the arrogance stems from hurt and full recognition of betrayal. Twice, Beyoncé hollered “Who the fuck do you think I am?” And the request of “Don’t hurt yourself” was just the start of a laundry list of haughty kiss-offs such as “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself. Don’t hurt yourself. When you diss me, you diss yourself. When you play me, you play yourself. Don’t play yourself.” 

Musically, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is thrilling for Beyonce’s catalog. She’s awesomely comfortable and unpredictable in this realm of rock. Having flirted with the genre before and by flirted, we’re talking a graze or humble outing. Here, she bravely owns the platform, making full use of collaborator, former White Stripe-r, Jack White‘s penchant for producing spooky, creaky wooden floor rock. The track could’ve easily been on his band The Dead Weather‘s last release. (It also samples the Led Zeppelin classic “When the Levee Breaks”).

“I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying
You ain’t trying hard enough
You ain’t loving hard enough
You don’t love me deep enough
We not reaching peaks enough
But I leave your love, I fucks with you
‘Til I realize, I’m just too much for you
I’m just too much for you.”

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” is the culmination of her last three albums. 4, she was lovestruck and a soon-to-be mom. Dreams had come true. On Beyoncé, she was claiming and yet determined to keep her sexy and push her freewheeling to the limit. On Lemonade, the aftertaste is bittersweet as after all that “grind upon him girl, show him how you ride it” and aspiring to“just be the girl you like”, she still somehow ended up in a space where she’s shrieking: “Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit boy.”

The track is also memorable for reminding us of the terrific and important contributions Black women achieved in traditional rock music. To the contrary of the genre usually represented by heterosexual cis White men, Black women have a storied history within. Rolling Stone‘s Brittany Spanos, in textbook explanation, whipped up a breakdown of past Black girls who rocked. Her online piece was directly inspired by “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”

Black women, particularly black female blues singers, are part of the foundation from which rock & roll was built. The raw, unhinged vocal style and sexual ambiguity of Big Mama Thornton, the innovative guitar playing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the frenetic stage presence of Tina Turner shaped our ideas of what it means to not only play but embody rock music. Yet our conception of what the rock musician looks like has become starkly white, boxing black performers into R&B and soul categories no matter how genre-bending they are.

The presence of black women in the mainstream performing rock is an act of reclamation, especially at a time when the genre’s clout on radio and the charts is severely diminished. Beyoncé’s choice to not only work with White, a forerunner of the movement to bring back blues-rock in the new millennium, as well as sample Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which was itself a reworked version of a song by black Delta blues artists Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, is a shrewd statement on the genre’s complex lineage.

Not only did Beyoncé effortlessly tribute the Black women powerhouses of rock. Jack White, a ” White” male artist, isn’t the ringleader here. He is the hypeman, backing up this Black woman’s menu of well-done vengeance.

Beyoncé’s neo-noir cover of Amy Winehouse‘s “Back to Black” track, for The Great Gatsby soundtrack, was dry and vocally lacked a kind of compelling heartbreak that Winehouse seemed adroit in. Finally, on Lemonade, the Queen Bey got to craft and vocally participate in expressing her combat with relationships and self-love, most effectively, on “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” This album, as a whole, is her Back to Black moment. She raged, she cried, relished in her smugness, let it go, and healed.

When I first saw the ads for “Lemonade”, I really thought it was going to be a one video premiere for another track off of her album as “Formation” had already debuted. What I viewed was a stirring collection that will come to challenge, yet define what is view and valued as Black feminism at its core. And Beyoncé, reacting (at times) completely unhinged, making her more identifiable than ever before.

“Love God herself” – “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

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