It takes a lot of skill to maintain the level of privacy that Beyoncé and Jay Z have managed to shroud their marriage in. They got married and no one knew. Beyoncé got pregnant, lost the baby, got pregnant again and no one knew until she wanted them to and of course she revealed the latter on stage and the former in her 2013 song ‘Mine’. That song was a small part of her incredible self titled opus, a work that shifted her from commercial powerhouse to commercial powerhouse auteur (or at least that’s how we should be viewing her). The story of the album is well known, it came out of nowhere and sent Twitter into meltdown when it appeared on iTunes at midnight on Dec 13 without any prior promotion. Similarly, Beyoncé’s latest album Lemonade, appeared on her husband’s music streaming service Tidal on April 23 and wasn’t available for download anywhere else until two days later. It was very stressful for everyone. Lemonade is the second visual album from Beyoncé the artiste, and it chronicles her struggle through her husband’s surprise adultery.
Lemonade is a work of art. It tells a story that is relatable, emotionally affecting and at times it’s truly beautiful; from the realisation that there’s something going on to her fury, her denial and gradually her ability to forgive and move forward. Her voice is reserved, smooth and emotive on opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’ as she sings, “You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath, as you pass it off so cavalier…”. It’s the introduction to a broken woman, deceived and isolated. It’s actually only one of two down tempo ballads, the other is the stripped, piano led ‘Sandcastles’ that showcases an incredible vocal turn as she moves towards forgiveness.
Lemonade is sonically stunning. It mixes elements of blues, country, hip hop, pure R&B and reggae throughout and the execution is mesmerising. ‘Hold Up’ is an album highlight, reggae beats and echoes compliment Beyoncé’s disbelief at her husband’s betrayal but the production is so playful, light and almost fluffy that it intelligently conveys the notion that she’s not quite realised how angry she is, but it’s coming. It comes on what is, for me, the best Beyoncé song to date. ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ pulls in some of the reggae vibes from Hold Up and mixes them with the stylings of Jack White, merging together into an anthemic rock explosion packed with White’s trademark riffs and Beyoncé’s best vocal growls and roars as she snarls, “Who the f*ck do you think I is? / You ain’t married to no average bitch boy / You can watch my fat ass twist boy / As I bounce to the next d*ck boy”. R&B is where she started and it comes out in its pure form on Lemonade on ‘6-inch’ featuring the Weeknd. It’s a seductive female empowerment anthem produced by Beyoncé revelation Boots, laced with shaky synths and a thumping bassline, that ends with her telling her lover it’s time to come back.
Lemonade is focussed on the journey through adultery. It never strays and it’s so easy to follow that you never find yourself unsure of what’s actually going on. It’s an album overflowing with emotions and it’s Beyoncé at her most exposed, most accessible, most human. Although it’s packed with brilliant song after brilliant song, there isn’t much single potential here and that’s where the album succeeds.
“Lemonade is sonically stunning.”
Like Beyoncé, it’s unlikely to set the charts alight with its single releases because they’re not written for radio and they’re not produced in a way that panders to contemporary trend relevance. ‘Daddy Lessons’ sounds like it’s been lifted from a Dolly Parton record and given a Beyoncé makeover and then there’s James Blake collaboration ‘Forward’. It only lasts for 1:19, serving as the turning point in the album’s story, and Blake’s haunting arrangement fits in beautifully as a break from the emotional whirlpool that precedes it.
The visuals for Lemonade are stunning, but what they do best is create a sub theme (that is actually a lot more obvious once you’ve seen the film) of racial equality. This is very apparent on ‘Freedom’, an exhilarating song with incredible vocals, a brilliant contribution by Kendrick Lamar and an arrangement that starts off Janis Joplin then moves on to sound like it was written for Django Unchained. There’s a lot of chatter on social media regarding the identity of the woman Jay Z cheated with, but her identity remains nothing more than “Becky with the good hair” on ‘Sorry’. Whether this does in fact reference the quality of white hair over black hair remains uncertain in my mind, but it wouldn’t be surprising.
Lemonade is a magnificent album, there’s no getting around that. It’s an intelligent piece of story telling and it’s more revealing than anything Beyoncé’s ever penned before. I didn’t think she could better her last album, but she has and by quite a leap. It’s more cohesive than Beyoncé, more relatable and it combines musical influences you’d never have expected on one of her records. She wraps things up with ‘All Night’ and ‘Formation’. The former is a glorious rekindling of romance and the latter a step forward and away from the darkness that’s preceded. It could mean that this is the last we get to see of Beyoncé’s exposé and that her next album will be something akin to 4. I really hope not because she’s at her best when she’s ‘f*cking sh*t up’.