By now pretty much everyone has heard Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love”, her paean to awesome sex with her husband Jay Z. From a songwriting standpoint, it’s not a great song in the traditional sense. For example, I don’t anticipate enjoying listening to someone cover it. Nor can I imagine a stripped down acoustic version, which is where the songwriting itself would shine (or not).
That said, the song is interesting for the fact that Beyonce’s performance is more about conjuring than actual singing. The goal of the song is to evoke the joy and intimacy of sex with her husband. This is about the performance of emotion and sensation.
Which bring us to “grainin’”. You know, the part in the song where she sings that she’s “grainin’ on that wood”. I take this to be a play on “grinding on that wood”, which would be both too on-the-nose and too obvious. What’s happening here is that Bey is evoking something that the great musicians have always known: The soul, the funk, the dirty is often more interesting and it always lies in the spaces between notes. Linguistically, she’s playing in this space between words because the precision of “grinding” would be downright antiseptic in this case. It’s the blues or jazz guitarist pushing the string up to bend the note. It’s the singer making the “ugly face” (see Sandra St. Victor or Chaka Khan, as examples) to get at a sound that evokes more than hitting the note spot-on ever could.
Now this isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. In fact, black people have been pulling apart, then reconstituting the English language since day one. Been like that for a minute, Hedi Slimane. Much of hip hop is a testament to this, as is Urban Dictionary’s growing archive or the Twitter account Ghetto Translations.
The thing with language is that a word has meaning if people say it does. So. . .