Beyoncé’s back and brighter than ever. The relentless worker that she is, her fourth album, the appropriately named 4, is already receiving buzz via her first single and music video, plus album cover art.

If you take one glance at the album cover, questions will inevitably arise — is that Britney? Ke$ha? Shakira? Nope. The bedraggled blonde mop and pale skin don’t belong to a white pop singer. It is the one and only Beyoncé, in full “did she bleach her skin?” glory.

Click here to view a slideshow of Beyoncé’s big screen performances

The complaint over Beyoncé’s rumored color complex goes all the way back to her Destiny’s Child days (the second incarnation), when an ousted group member claimed Beyoncé’s dad and then-manager, Matthew Knowles, made her tan her naturally light skin so that Beyoncé could remain the lightest in the group.

WATCH BEYONCE’S NEW MUSIC VIDEO HERE:

Since then, fans and foes have watched as she’s gotten blonder and brighter with each passing album. By the time she hit 2007’s duet with Shakira, half the appeal of the video was the carbon copy mind trick they executed on screen — which one’s which?

In 2008 cosmetics company L’Oreal was dodging rumors of photoshopping Beyoncé brighter for one of their ads. Then just a few short months ago, the hardcore rumor mill started — her blonder and lighter appearance at the 53rd annual Grammy’s left some to believe that she was bleaching her skin.

So really, what’s up Bey? A notoriously tight-lipped interviewee, I’m sure mum will remain the word for Mrs. Knowles-Carter. But her actions are speaking louder, and her commitment to the blonde and bright signals a troubling pattern. Could she be suffering from a color complex? Are industry pressures (and perhaps personal insecurities) forcing Beyoncé to go light, bright, and damn near white?

Already her new sound is going places her fans are hesitant follow — borrowing from hipster electro-reggae group Major Lazer to provide the beat for her new single http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmMU_iwe6U&feature=player_embedded”>“Who Run the World (Girls).” Even the most loyal Beyoncé fans have their reservations about the song, and this brightened look isn’t really helping. When fans are already cautious to follow her down this new musical path, does she also want to render herself physically unrecognizable? But perhaps in her mind and in that of record label executives, blonder and brighter is where the money is. Check the Billboard Hot 100 and you’ll see the top 10 is filled with blonde pop divas. The closest brown-skinned singer is Beyoncé’s old counterpart Kelly Rowland hanging out down in the 20s, but outside of that, it’s a scarcity of melanin on the female pop charts.

Maybe there’s a cultural agenda involved — if you want to compete and be successful on the charts, do your best to blend in while subtly standing out.

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By all means borrow from African culture for your dance and music — white kids love that! But when it comes to your looks, let’s go with the whiter, the better.

Of course Beyoncé cannot control the color skin she was born with, nor any stigmas attached to it, but the persistent brightening brings back memories of another talented and world-renowned pop star who jumped from black to white somewhere around his third album. Coincidence much?

The truth is Beyoncé is no Michael Jackson. Beyoncé probably isn’t bleaching her skin or suffering from vitiligo, but she is complicit in the editorial decisions that light her up until she looks dusty, or Photoshop her photos a few color grades fairer than her true hue.

Here’s to hoping this skin-brightening phase is just that — one day Beyoncé will get back to the copper tone everyone has come to know and love. Beyoncé’s beautiful and talented no matter what her color. I hope she won’t let outside pressures convince her of otherwise.