Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade

Lemonade is that rare work where you will remember exactly where you were and exactly who you were with the first time you hear it.
Columbia / Parkwood

“I still think she’s a wonderful singer and performer, and some of the music on Lemonade is fantastic. But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one. The one who didn’t use grieving mothers to shift records and further fill her already massively enriched purse. The one who didn’t play the race card so deliberately and to my mind, unnecessarily. The one who wanted to be judged on her stupendous talent not her skin color, and wanted us all to do the same.” — Piers Morgan, The Daily Mail (25 April 2016)

It sounds as if Morgan is saying he wishes Beyoncé wasn’t behaving so “black”.

This isn’t to say that Morgan is merely waxing nostalgic here, pining for an era when Beyoncé made her name on Destiny’s Child cuts like “Say My Name” all over again, but there was a time in his mind when Beyoncé was “safe”, when she was “less inflammatory, agitating”. He’s probably thinking about Dangerously in Love-era Beyoncé, pop hit Beyoncé, “Single Ladies” Beyoncé. Inauguration Beyoncé. To him, this was a less complicated Beyoncé, a less in-your-face Beyoncé, and, most of all, a less “political” Beyoncé. “I never like it when entertainers go all political,” he starts his op-ed, “the cynic in me believes it’s rarely done for genuine reasons but for strictly commercial ones.”

Yet if Morgan truly is a fan, which he claims to be in his numerous bratty tweets defending his article, the road to Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth solo effort and her boldest-yet artistic statement, is littered with clues. The instantaneous success of her first standalone turn Dangerously in Love, was so massive that Beyoncé found no need to do the same thing twice, inventing an alter-ego with 2009’s I Am … Sasha Fierce and then doing it again on 2013’s more complex self-titled effort. Now she’s becoming less bound to traditional song structure and she’s far more specific (and therefore universal) in her lyrical content.

While having a music video accompany every song definitely made Beyoncé feel more like a complete, considered work, the album’s underlying themes of modern feminism, monogamy, and the numerous pleasures of sex radiated far beyond rigid principles such as “chart success”. It was a bold artistic credo that ended up outselling her previous album (the still-underrated pop-soul throwback 4), and proved capable of generating not only one of her biggest hits in years (the #2-peaking “Drunk in Love”) but also her most political statement at the time: the daring “Flawless” opens with a portion of the previously-previewed and already-confrontational “Bow Down” before seguing into a TEDxEuston talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, placing a boldly feminist credo right in the middle of one of the most important pop albums of the past five years.

Why? Because even when “Crazy in Love” announced her arrival as a solo artist with fanfare, Beyoncé was infused with a far more distinct identity, one that was rebellious, confident, and in no mood to compromise. Yet with Lemonade now upon us, it’s clear that that eponymous set was a mere warmup for what was to come.

Although the “visual album” / surprise release conceit makes comparisons between Beyoncé and Lemonade inevitable, the two releases share an unapologetic duality, covering similar ground (monogamy, sexuality) but in very different ways. In the narrative for the film portion of Lemonade, she reads the poetry of Warsan Shire with grit, a casual tone that drips with with alternate amounts of confession and poison, summed up no better than this excerpt directed towards her man regarding the “other woman” in an affair:

If this is what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp a cap. Her sternum my bedazzled cane. We can pause for a photograph, all three of us, immortalized. You and your perfect girl.

Yet note, if you will, that this review, like several others, has gone several paragraphs without mentioning a single song from Lemonade, and this is intentional. Lemonade‘s themes are big, and some of them are ugly, and rarely are they summed up in a single song. Morgan opines that Beyoncé uses short appearances of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown to “shift records”, but such a statement is too absurd to even take seriously. As Ijeoma Oluo’s notes in her excellent op-ed in The Guardian, the inclusion of these grieving mothers is pointed, as “these are women who, like so many black women, carry their love and pain forward as they continue to fight for black people in a world that doesn’t acknowledge they exist.”

No, Lemonade cannot be boiled down to a singular theme, no matter how hard headline writers may try. Although much has been made about Lemonade‘s “hook” of cheating accusations leveled against husband Jay-Z, such a gambit ultimately serves more as a jumping-off point for not only how Beyoncé as narrator has been scorned and used, but how black women all over have been neglected time and time again. Yes, the mothers of black sons killed by cops are featured here, but so is Serena Williams, so is Creole chef Leah Chase, so are the words of Malcom X, wherein he states that the most neglected person in America is the black woman. Writer Milan Cook summed up the breadth of voices featured here nicely: “Beyoncé is woke. People like to tear her down for wearing weaves or wigs and coloring her hair or being light skinned. However, nobody can say that this woman has not taken the time to educate herself on the plight of her people.”

After the brooding, almost Flying Lotus-styled dark jazz of opener “Pray You Catch Me”, the album shifts over to its most playful track, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-indebted “Hold Up”, which, less than a week from release, has already garnered iconic status due to the shots of Bey walking down a street in a bright Roberto Cavalli dress, smashing cars and cameras as she goes. “I don’t wanna lose my pride,” she opines, “but I’mma fuck me up a bitch.” The pre-chorus (“What’s worse: looking jealous or crazy?”) is a compelling watch, and with its slow-motion circus backing, the song gains a hypnotic quality that draws the listener back time and again, making for the album’s catchiest moment and the closest connection Lemonade has to the sound of Beyoncé’s previous work.

The rest of Lemonade‘s songs stretch far beyond anything Beyoncé has done before, whether it be her rightfully-ballyhooed turn at country (“Daddy Lesson”) to the incensed psych-gospel rave-up that is “Freedom” to the Led Zeppelin-sampling Jack White feature “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. On the latter, where she proclaims that she’s a dragon breathing fire, it’s clear that Beyoncé has found new dimensions in her own voice, her yelps and screams having no precedent to anything she’s released prior, with the on-the-nose ballad “Sandcastles” also giving her a chance to show off a dynamic, theatrical strain of anguish that helps anchors what would otherwise be considered an overwrought slice of melodrama.

The spoken word bits sewn between scenes during the visual portion of Lemonade really beefs up the album’s narrative, even if creative cuts are made (i.e., virtually all of Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse on “Freedom” is relegated to the audio portion), leaving the songs, as good as they are, having to do more heavy lifting when left on their lonesome. And yes, the James Blake ballad is pretty forgettable and “Sandcastles” would be considered even more schmaltzy than it already is were it not for its firey second verse, but such quibbles are minor when considering Lemonade in terms of its sheer boldness.

She’s clearly been viewing the visual works of FKA Twigs and iamamiwhoami for inspiration (the dry-but-beautiful video games synths of “Love Drought” could very easily be traced to either artist), but the middle-finger anthem “Sorry” and the brutal scorned drama that is “Don’t Hurt Yourself” come from a new place, one that is distinct, palpable, and yes, relatable. She’s dropped any pretense of being a torch singer and instead turned into a firebrand, and due to the groundwork she laid out so carefully on Beyoncé, the end result works well.

Lemonade isn’t an easy album, but it wasn’t meant to be. Lemonade is blessed with nuance and fueled by anger, awash in politics but still meant to be consumed as a pop product. It’s as danceable as it is dark, as incendiary as it is inspiring. It’s not an album that can be summed up by a single song, a single summary, or even a single review (which is why you’re strongly encouraged to read Miriam Bale’s excellent article for The Hollywood Reporter and Clover Hope’s insightful article in The Muse, each detailing Lemonade‘s cinematic and literary inspirations). It’s a deeply personal work that effects each listener on a personal level, a risky endeavor where minor flaws can be forgiven due to its sheer ambition, and a breathtaking vision.

You can argue about whether you’ll hear better pop albums this year and you may very well win that dispute, but Lemonade is that rare work where you will remember exactly where you were and exactly who you were with the first time you heard it. Few albums can lift themselves up to the level of “experiences”, but few albums could ever be considered as bold, complex, or resolute as Lemonade.

RATING 8 / 10