Beyonce Week: Upon review, Beyonce's 'Lemonade' an ambitious, game-changing album
It might be too early to call Beyoncé’s Lemonade an entirely new art form. For now, let’s agree that in the world of pop music, nothing like it has been attempted on this scale.
Since its debut Saturday as a “visual album” on HBO, and a proper musical album in the hours that followed, the singer’s sixth LP has dominated the world’s pop cultural discourse, and not unjustifiably — it will go down as one of 2016’s defining albums, a singular statement on the pain and power of womanhood from an artist who could’ve gotten away with far less.
Separating Lemonade the album from Lemonade the film, Lemonade the spectacle, Lemonade the talking point, isn’t easy. In all likelihood, we weren’t meant to try. In the vacuum of any meaningful interviews or promotion by the artist, the HBO special — a gorgeous and innovative piece of filmmaking in its own right — is our only source of context for Lemonade; it laid out for us all how to hear and comprehend it, filling its emotional and lyrical gaps with lush images and intangible moods that aren’t easily forgotten.
But even without the film, Lemonade would still be an achievement, rebelliously alternative in sound and spirit, that utilizes and twists her mega-celebrity in brilliant ways.
It is, you might have heard, Beyoncé’s heartbreak album, the conceptual account of a woman done wrong by her two-timing man, whom she ultimately forgives because, as she sings on All Night, “every diamond has imperfections / but my love’s too pure to watch it chip away / nothing real can be threatened.”
It’s tempting — too tempting — to read Lemonade as a screed aimed at Bey’s husband Jay Z, who’s long been dogged by rumors of infidelity. If in fact it is, Lemonade would go down as the weirdest, boldest true-life relationship album since Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours — but realistically, Beyoncé is too smart, and too private, to call her A-list husband out so publicly. Why withhold for so long, only to trot out the skeletons of your marriage on such a grand platform? Why recruit so many big-name collaborators — among them Jack White, the Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, Diplo and James Blake — to wage such an intimate and personal vendetta? (It’s telling that Lemonade concludes with Formation, that Super Bowl sledgehammer of a single, whose first verse explicitly laughs off tabloid rumors about her marriage: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess ... I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces.” In other words: Don’t believe everything you hear about me and Hov, mmkay?)
None of this is to say the album isn’t personal. A work of feminist fiction can be as meaningful as one that’s autobiographical. When Beyoncé coos “I’m praying you catch me listening / I’m praying to catch you whispering,” in the dramatic, ethereal opening track Pray You Catch Me; or “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” on the breezy, Caribbean-tinged Hold Up, her words resonate with anyone who’s ever suspected they’re being cheated on, female or male.
Whoever the heroine at the center of Lemonade might be — Beyoncé herself, or a stand-in for all women — her emotional roller coaster is reflected in the album’s eclectic sonic palette. Lemonade’s sprawling scroll of producers (Blake, Diplo, Mike Will Made It), songwriters (Father John Misty, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig) and samples (Led Zeppelin, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andy Williams, Soulja Boy) make it sound like nothing else in her catalog, and in fact like little else any pop star of her stature has ever attempted to weave together. (Rihanna’s very good Anti, released earlier this year, might come closest, but now feels destined to become an afterthought to Lemonade.)
A cynic might view the album’s contributors as hipster bait, and there is some awkward, ugly truth to that — any collection that credits White, Koenig and Blake is bound to attract attention from certain critics and publications who might not otherwise give a Beyoncé album the time of day. But none of it feels like stunt casting. Beyoncé pulls those artists and others into her distinct musical orbit, bending and tweaking sounds that are undeniably theirs until they sound undeniably hers. Just as white musicians have long co-opted the sound of black bluesmen and cultures from around the globe, here is Beyoncé, borrowing from those same white musicians to reclaim those sounds for her own magnum opus.
Take rock. There’s a certain segment of music fans who will never give Beyoncé a chance, simply because she doesn’t play “real music,” or at least her own instruments. But Lemonade contains at least two of the fiercest rock songs you’ll hear all year. Don’t Hurt Yourself is a blues-punk duet with White that’s loaded with crashing drums, screaming organs and roaring guitars. Freedom, featuring Lamar, has a slightly more rhythmic groove, yet sizzles with psychedelic organs and the heat of late-’60s protest rock (“I break chains all by myself / Won’t let my freedom rot in hell”). You simply cannot profess to like the White Stripes or Alabama Shakes or My Morning Jacket — or even the Rolling Stones — and refuse to acknowledge these as rock songs.
Daddy Lessons has been described as Bey’s first country song (though I’d liken it more to KT Tunstall’s adult alternative hit Black Horse and the Cherry Tree), and it nudges even that genre in a new directions, weaving in saucy N’awlins brass and a background chorus of celebratory whoops and hollers. It feels not just vibrant, but loose and untethered — a surprising but welcome choice for an artist who’s always seemed hell-bent on meticulously structured flawlessness.
Even those songs that could, within reason, be nudged into a more traditional R&B box feel inventive. On the dubby, skittering Sorry, Beyoncé’s vocals start out forceful and profane, softening to a flutter in the chorus before sounding weary and defeated by the infamous, song-closing line “He better call Becky with the good hair.” The noirish 6 Inch — probably my No. 1 jam on Lemonade — pulls simmering swagger from her partner the Weeknd’s bag of damage and braggadocio, but drifts into a jazzy, trip-hoppy chorus and a bridge packed with operatic vocal derring-do.
Over and over, the album sticks to its themes by returning Beyoncé to the realm of the wounded, the cheated-on. The wounded piano ballad Sandcastles — heartbreakingly plaintive in the vein of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me — and its shadowy coda Forward push her toward a place of forgiveness, a place where “true love never has to hide,” in All Night.
“How I missed you, my love,” she whispers at the end.
It’s hard to imagine an artist as established and powerful as Beyoncé could still be winning over new fans at this stage in her career. Yet Lemonade will go down as a game-changer for her — and perhaps for the industry, too. For months, Adele’s 25 has been the frontrunner for Album of the Year at next year’s Grammy Awards. Now I’d say Lemonade has surpassed it.
The only question: Will she remember to thank Jay Z?
-- Jay Cridlin