In case you’ve done your best to avoid any news surrounding the recent release of Beyonce’s latest album, Lemonade, I’ll sum up the majority’s opinion in two words: it’s good. Strike that, four words: it’s really really good. And they’re right. What Beyoncé has done here is what I’ve been wanting from the mainstream music scene for as long as I can remember. Similar to what Justin Timberlake did in 2013 with The 20/20 Experience, or more recently what Rihanna did earlier this year with ANTI, Beyoncé expands her expertise infinitely, both musically and content wise, laying herself bare as she tackles a handful of genres new to her arsenal. Even the ones she’s familiar with seem to have taken on new life, like the gospel jam “Freedom,” where, with the help of Kendrick, she addresses the racial injustice at work in America today. Lemonade’s structure might be its shining achievement, each song peeling back another layer in Queen B’s tale of her husband's infidelity. The record is ambitious, which isn’t a word that gets tossed around often in regards to mainstream music, and even less so when it comes to ‘pop stars;’ however, this, in accompaniment with her previous record, warrants a new label. Calling her music ‘pop’ is a disservice to the scope of what she has created, and what I hope she’ll continue to create.
In hindsight, Beyoncé has been foreshadowing this break from the norm since 2013’s 4, where she began her ascent from simple pop artist to something much more. The New York Times reflected this perfectly when they insisted that while songs like, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” “Get Me Bodied,” “Crazy in Love” and “Baby Boy,” were ‘songs that other singers could have plausibly released and made their own’ they concede that, ‘Most of 4, though, no one else could get away with, or would even want to try.’ I can only assume that the feeling of that creation gave her a sense of liberation, because that concept was taken to another level with the surprise release of her followup the very next year; the extremely personal, sensual, intimate, Beyoncé. The album was far and away her best release and another step forward for an artist who didn’t need to change to retain her worldwide love and army of adorning fans. Yet, she did; creating a record that was as listenable as it was affecting; approaching her struggles and victories that accompany womanhood with extreme honesty and a natural touch. And despite her coming from a female perspective, the issues she highlighted were universal, relatable to anyone willing to open themselves up to it. Beyoncé was also the first time she presented a record that carried noticeable continuity in terms of feel and presentation. The record was a triumph, little did we know that her revolution was still evolving, and that her best wouldn’t arrive for another two years in the form of Lemonade, which, in comparison to Beyoncé’s previous work, is perfect. In comparison to music as a whole? Near perfect. She and an army of producers handled the reigns here, and while I normally scoff when a billion producers lend a hand, Beyoncé makes it work in a unique way, and all other artists should take note. What she created is a non-traditional concept album, and while there isn’t much continuity throughout from a musical standpoint, it flows just as well, if not better than a natural concept album because of how she presents it. She tells her story through emotional stages, each feeling treated like a different chapter. It’s ingenious. The record is brutally honest, and for someone in such a highly public relationship, a courageous act. I realize that many artists reveal themselves in the same way, and yes that type of vulnerability is difficult and commendable, but most of them aren’t living their life in the spotlight, married to a man who’s also a major presence. Her proclamation…declaration…confession…whatever you want to label it as, will be torn apart and scrutinized by every media outlet known to man. I bring that up only to say that I hope this doesn’t deter other artists from creating like this; it’s refreshing, and again, courageous. Now, let’s talk about the record.
*Before I get into it I decided to provide tracks to represent each section so you can get a feel not just through my words but from the album itself, starting with the opener...*
“Pray You Catch Me,” the opening track, ropes us in right from the beginning, not with a perfectly crafted hook, but rather with the rawness of a wound she has no idea how to cope with, the infidelity of her husband. Shedding all layers as she repeats, “I pray to catch you whispering // I pray you catch me listenin’.” The song is her thesis, preparing us for the story that’s about to unfold, finishing the track with a whispered “What are you doing my love?,” a line that would help signify the full circle that our heroine will embark while also providing the perfect break in sound to introduce the second track, the light and misleadingly warm “Hold Up.” The presentation of the track is genius as the shock of what has happened has her in a state of disbelief rather than anger, singing “what a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you” over a bubbly old school reggae groove. But don’t get too attached to the joyous sound, it won’t be revisited, as the weight of what her man has done hits her with full force on the next track. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is basically hell hath no fury like a woman scorned in a nutshell as Beyoncé trades in her fierceness for unhinged ferocity. This is Beyoncé in a way we have never seen her before and likely to never see again. Accompanied by production from Jack White, we listen as her rage grows, culminating in an explosion as big as any you’re likely to see in one of this summer’s hollywood blockbusters. Next is “Sorry,” but the song is anything but an apology, in fact it’s the exact opposite, and rightfully so, ending with a smooth fuck you as she croons , “He only want me when I’m not there // He better call Becky with the good hair,” a lyric that has garnered almost as much publicity as the album itself.
The next track switches course, now focusing on Beyoncé as an independent woman, with “6 Inch Heels” as her declaration. Her empire was built through her own hard work, and she won’t be defined or dethroned or belittled because of her husband’s actions. Musically it’s the only track I didn’t really care for, content wise it’s necessary and empowering, but I just didn’t care for the song as a whole. Everything from here on out is pure gold, starting with my favorite track on the record, the spectacular big band/ blues/ country mashup, “Daddy Lessons.” It’s her first venture into this style and she sounds like a veteran as she sings about the lessons her father instilled in her. The mention of her father, who Beyoncé cut ties with as her manager in 2011, adds another element, as it was reported that his infidelity with her mother had something to do with it. While it was never made clear, her parents did split up later that year. It seems fitting to mention the positives he instilled in her as she heads into the backend of her album where the next three songs show the broken hearted but not broken singer attempt to navigate her sorrow to forge a path toward forgiveness. On the Mike Dean produced “Love Drought,” Beyoncé does her best Jhené Aiko impression as she calmly questions what she did to push him away, and reminds him how much potential they have when they’re together. Don’t be fooled by her demeanor here, this track carries as much weight as the album’s heaviest hitters. “Sandcastles,” the album’s only traditional ballad, is possibly the most important song on the album, as she finally comes to terms with her feelings, and despite her pain and anger knows that the life she’s built is something to fight for singing, “And I know I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby // Every promise don’t work out that way.” The mood continues with “Forward,” which operates as a companion piece. In it she shows she’s ready to move forward as she quietly supports James Blake’s lead vocals. Its simplicity speaks wonders, as the sentiment itself is simple, let’s move forward.
“Freedom” is where she finally takes a break from the marital drama to focus on a more general issue, women. More specifically black woman, and the trials that they are facing today, (though a feature from Kendrick Lamar widens the scope addressing the black community as a whole). It’s the first of two anthems (the second being the album’s final track “Formation”) that focus on the strength, history and current issues that affect black culture. While these messages aren’t intended to help or empower me (white male in case you didn’t know) I do think it pushes these issues forward to those who have dismissed them or been blind to them previously. Sandwiched between those two songs is the finale to her cracked love story. In “All Night” she laments the fact that she’s surrounded by people who want a piece of her man, but realizes that they’re moving forward and the issues they had won’t stop or deter her loving him, finishing with a whispered “Oh I’ve missed you my love” showing that we’ve come full circle. This album is spectacular. Plain and simple.
Part of the reason I spoke about every track is to shed light on what I previously mentioned, that this is a uniquely crafted concept album. Each track is different, built around the emotion it represents. I love that, as it allows you to truly feel what she’s trying to convey to full effect. This action speaks volumes. While this record isn’t without it’s critics, from my perspective all I can say is that it’s essentially perfect. Lyrically it’s deep, compelling, and genuine. Musically it’s diverse and masterful. As a whole it’s enlightening, affecting, and most importantly it’s real, offering something new every time I listened. For instance it took me about six full listens before I realized that she used the bass line from the Outkast track “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” on “All Night” it is OH SO TASTY. The impact of this work will be felt for quite sometime and I feel like I should note that part of it was because nothing was revealed beforehand. It allowed the album to wash over us without any pre-determined expectations. Everything was new, revealing itself with each track. It would be like sitting down to an incredible movie having not seen the trailer or knowing who’s involved. All you can do is sit back and take it in. I love this record. And I hope all of you that listen give it the attention it deserves. Beyoncé has transcended her brand, or rather pushed it to new heights. It’s a masterpiece. She’s taken all that negativity and sorrow and put it all into her art, truly turning lemons into lemonade. Don’t hate me for saying that.