Just How Good Could Beyoncé Be? The Still-Unfolding Saga of Michael Jackson’s Secret Daughter

When Beyoncé took the stage at Superbowl 47, I found myself thinking one thing: Kill Them Beyoncé. Kill them all. Beyoncé doesn’t make the best music of all time, nor does she have the best voice. But she is one of the greatest performers of her generation–of this there can be no question. In case you missed it, the entire performance is below.

And this came after her live performance of the National Anthem in the press conference. She might has well have held the mic out at arms length, dropped it, threw her hands up, said “can I live?,” and then George Jefferson walked off the stage.

When someone realizes Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter’s level of achievement, we must begin to consider their contributions in a context. The result of such rumination is often to compare Beyoncé to Tina Turner. It’s an easy parallel to draw: incredible stage shows, sheer spectacle, performances that are more energy and power than virtuosic vocal demonstrations, big blondish hair, great legs, and of course, this:

While that is an easy and apt comparison, it is by no means the best. I tend to think of music in family trees. The parallels drawn between Beyoncé and Tina Turner, if accurate, would make Tina Bey’s musical mom. But it only tells half the story–and in my view, less than half. If Tina is Bey’s mom (and I personally think she’s really her wild and crazy aunt), who is Beyoncé’s dad? (Don’t worry, Matthew Knowles–I’m speaking musically. You don’t have another paternity question on your hands.)

The answer is Michael Jackson. Michael has a lot of kids–and I’m not talking about Paris, Prince, and Blanket. While some people doubt that those three are Mike’s biologically (it doesn’t matter, haters fall back), there can be no doubt about the parentage of Michael’s musical kids: Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Lloyd, Justin Bieber, and so many others. They all should have bought him a tie or at least a red jacket with a bunch of zippers every Father’s Day. The Boondocks episode where Martin Luther King, Jr. came back included a moment in which an angry MLK reminds Usher, perhaps the best of Michael’s aforementioned sons, that MJ is an artist, “not a genre of music.” You can’t blame these guys, though: Mike may very well be the greatest entertainer in the history of human existence, and his influence on popular music is inescapable. Yet none of them can measure up to MJ in terms of sheer greatness. At this point, neither can Beyoncé. But she may the closest one. (Urrsher has a legitimate argument, as well).

Perhaps the reason why Beyoncé has been overlooked as an heir to the throne is as simple as the fact that humans tend to categorize people in easily observable groups. Black quarterbacks get compared to black quarterbacks. Men get compared to men; women to women. Perhaps it is this tendency for categorical bias that prevents people from realizing that perhaps the heir to the throne vacated by the King of Pop is, in fact, a Queen. This fact may not be lost on Beyoncé, though, as she has taken to calling herself King Bey.

My wife and I were driving down a canopy road one Saturday afternoon. We’d been listening to the Thriller and Bad albums. And we realized, for the first time, that Mike always sung his own background vocals.  Singers do that all the time now, but it wasn’t always this case. Mike may have been a pioneer in this way. It’s as though he knew that no one else could give him what he was looking for, and that he was good enough to be his own group, if only there were more of him. Beyoncé herself seemed to be on the same wavelength during the Super Bowl. With the laser light screen, we saw five Beyoncés, each gyrating and bringing it.  At this moment it became crystal clear, if it ever was unclear at all, why Beyoncé had to be a solo artist: she was capable of being Destiny and her children. Much like Michael agreed to perform with his brothers at Motown 25, Beyoncé also extended a charitable hand by bringing Kelly and Michelle on stage for a brief moment. But it was always clear who the star of the show was.

An aside: why did Keshia Cole hate on Michelle so hard on Twitter? Black women were winning at SB 47–Jennifer Hudson opening up, Alicia Keys with the National Anthem, Beyoncé and Friends at halftime. But you know, Jesse Jackson said he wanted to “cut his nuts out” in referring to our President (which left racists in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether or not to agree with Jesse Jackson); Spike Lee kept throwing little jabs at Tyler Perry; and that one guy on Twitter had the nerve to ask Oprah what she had done for black men in America (she mentioned that she sent a whole rack of them to college on scholarship at Morehouse before reading him with a simple but cutting “and u sir?“). In summation, there will always be haters.

A second aside: I’m going to put my Conspiracy Brother hat on (and crazy [or not so crazy, depending on who you ask, tap your third eye] Conspiracy Brother posts will be an occasional feature of this website) and ask, why did the NFL decide to go with an all-black female entertainment lineup for the Super Bowl? Could it be because mamas love their boys and aren’t trying to see them get hurt, and most of the mamas of most of the boys playing football happen to be black women? Is the NFL trying to protect the future supply of talent by bringing their mamas into the game? If you don’t think mamas hold sway on where or if their boys play football you haven’t been paying attention.

Beyoncé isn’t perfect. She’s not in the same class of dancer as Mike (and if you doubt me, consider this: Mike could hold an audience rapt by simply dancing solo on stage, no props, no music other than fingers snapping to keep the rhythm. Could Beyoncé? Let us also remember that MJ invented both the Moonwalk and The Robot.) Beyoncé is a very good singer, but not a great one.  Her music is not particularly timeless or classic, nor does she take on the big topics like class, race, environmental destruction, or social justice. And that’s okay, for now. I expect that to change; in fact, we can see the transition in progress: it’s a long road from “can you pay my bills?” to “let me upgrade you.” Her songs about female empowerment are becoming less surface-level and increasingly thoughtful. It appears that her thinking, her agency, has been both expanded and sharpened over the past few years. I think this is the outcome of a few factors: stepping out of the shadow cast by her father, Matthew Knowles; escaping the constraints created by Destiny’s Child; simple maturity; and her relationship with Shawn Corey Carter. Jay’s a worldly guy, a thoughtful guy. I think Beyoncé has helped him take the edge off and ease into his forties and fatherhood with grace, but I think Beyoncé, twelve years his junior, has benefited from an expand, ed worldview and improved perspective. In Jay-Z, she has found a partner who is not only a shrewd businessman, but a visionary who built his empire from the ground up. That sort of drive, focus, and self-determination has to rub off.

You can see it in some of Beyoncé’s self-produced behind-the-scenes type documentaries. She’s not just someone who is handed the songs and choreography and goes. She’s a deeply involved, consummate performer. Obsessive, even. That’s part of what it takes be be like Mike–someone who lives, breathes, sleeps performance. But as hard as Mike pushed himself performance-wise, he knew it all started with the music. Beyoncé’s largest hurdle in achieving MJ-level greatness is all about the music. And that’s where she has to improve. She’s got a bunch of radio hits, and some of them, such as “Put A Ring On It,” do not get enough credit for their musical adventurousness. (Seriously, listen to the beat and tell me you would hear it on a production demo and predict a hit.) But she’s also got a lot of forgettable songs on her albums. I bring this up not as a harsh criticism, but simply for comparison’s sake: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album has been estimated to have sold as many as 65 million copies worldwide, and it only had nine songs on it. Of those nine songs,  seven of them were singles. Seven. They were, in order, “The Girl Is Mine” featuring Paul McCartney, “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and “Thriller.” That’s right, “The Lady In My Life” (famously sampled by L.L. Cool J in “Hey Lover”) wasn’t even a single–radio stations just played it anyway (back when DJs actually listened to music and made some decisions, ahem). Basically, MJ put out almost his whole album as singles, and people ate it up. The Paul McCartney joint was not very good in my opinion, but that does little in my estimation except justify Michael’s desire to do everything himself.  And this reminds us: being a great performer is important, but the vast majority of the time people consume music, it’s not while they are watching a concert. It’s cleaning up your house and riding in your car and laying around in bed, it’s at parties and weddings and clubs. So while performance is great, it’s ultimately the quality of the music that matters first and foremost.

B’Day is as close as Beyoncé has come. But while her subsequent albums have had some missteps, they have been missteps in the direction of progress. These are necessary steps. You can’t be on the cutting edge if you don’t know where the edge is, and she’s interested in going there.

But if this is as far as Beyoncé goes, she will end up with a great career. She will be by no means a failure. The Oprah of the future will one day wear a Beyoncé wig and TV commercials will license some of your hits. High school bands in suburbia will play some of your songs at halftime shows. She’ll have made great contributions to the music of her time. But she has the potential–maybe–to transcend her time, to make music that people will play for their kids and say, “Now this was music!” It’s a big expectation to put on anyone. It’s unfair, even. But so few people even have the potential to be in this conversation that when you see someone who does, you can’t help but to hope.

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