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Dylan vs. Beyoncé: Quarantine Showdown

In the past month, Bob and Bey have surprised fans with new music. Maybe a duet next?

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Two music titans—one old, one young—snuck out new songs in the past month. In headline form, the news is that Bob Dylan is writing songs about dying and Beyoncé is consolidating her credibility as a rapper. Upon longer listen, however, Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” turns out to be a sprawling reminiscence of twentieth-century culture, with him and JFK in the middle. Meanwhile, Beyoncé appears as a guest artist on a remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage” and reveals herself to be a fan of legendary Atlanta rap outfit Trillville.

In late March, Dylan (or some tech-savvy young assistant, probably) posted “Murder Most Foul” to his website with the message, “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

“Murder Most Foul” is a hair under 17 minutes long. It features Dylan singing well over soft piano, strings, and barely-there percussion. If you’re not in the right mood, the experience is a little like being trapped in a movie theater while the credits for a weepy movie play.

The surface plot of the song covers the assassination of John F. Kennedy while he was being driven down a Dallas street in a big Lincoln Continental in 1963. Odd choice for a song, perhaps. But what else happened in 1963? A certain Robert from Duluth had released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and created for himself a new identity. Bob Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” live on television in March 1963; JFK died in late November.

The song is a rare reflection on Dylan’s own life. “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage,” he sings, before rhyming “let the good times roll” with “grassy knoll.” Then the wheels really come off, and Dylan breaks down into a Rick-from-Casablanca list of demands to some invisible band:

Play “St. James Infirmary” and “The Port of King James”
If you want to remember, you better write down the names
Play Etta James, too
Play “I’d Rather Go Blind”
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind
Play John Lee Hooker
Play “Scratch My Back”
Play it for that strip club owner named Jack
Guitar Slim going down slow
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe.

That “strip club owner” was Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Lee Harvey Oswald while he was in police custody. These acts of violence, which Dylan seems to be naming as a kind of root trauma or influence for him, mix with the songs—“St. James Infirmary” et al—that built an alternative historical canon, this time of emotion. Of which is Dylan a star? It’s a question that nags him as he roams the rich territory of time gone by, all while nearing the end of his own road. It’s a sentimental piece, but then these are sentimental times.

In 2017, Sheldon Pierce wrote a great analysis of Beyoncé’s early rap work stretching all the way back to the Destiny’s Child predecessor Girl’s Tyme and her recitative-rap in the 2001 movie Carmen. The rap alter ego she calls “B” has a distinctive style, flickering between staccato-clean enunciation and long swoops up and down her vocal range.

Her appearance on “Savage” is no disappointment. Beyoncé in swagger mode is intoxicating, and here she’s badder than ever: “Can’t argue with these lazy bitches,” she raps, “I just raised my price.” Her lighter voice decorates Megan’s more solid tones, and the mixture is just right.

As sharp-eared Twitter users have also observed, “Savage” has more than a little flavor of Trillville’s dirty classic “Some Cut,” which comes out in Megan Thee Stallion’s rhyming style but particularly in Beyoncé’s ad libs. All of them are as clean as knives. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, like her tribute to getting dressed in the morning: “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, baby, you don’t feel my pain!” The Beyhive has probably thrilled the most to her line about OnlyFans, the site where users can stream their own homemade porn.

To each their own. Dylan is still making quite lovely music, which is encouraging news, but “Murder Most Foul” is written in the kind of past tense you use when you’ve got one foot already in the grave: Elegiac is the polite word. In contrast, Beyoncé’s turn on “Savage” is a triple-hander of a good idea: She’s raising money for a disaster organization based in Houston, lending her support to a worthy up-and-comer, and the song is catchy as all hell. God knows our isolated flesh-sacks need some enticement to move, and “Savage” is just that.

These are two very different transmissions from planet pop star, but they serve a welcome distraction for bored earthlings everywhere. Maybe a duet, next?