It’s a weird world of pop when Sean Paul, Pitbull and Iggy Azalea are cranking out top ten hits and the former pop workhorses Rihanna and Beyoncé are creating projects that satisfy the sniffy critics (ourselves included) as well as still making chart-toppers. Beyoncé really put that to the test in 2013 with her self-titled fifth album that dropped out of nowhere as a ‘visual’ album. It also pulled feminism back into the mainstream, with Beyoncé asserting her right to be sexy and not just because some label executives see skintight clothing as flashing money signs in the sky. On ‘Flawless’ she even sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and spelled it out in big bold letters just in case you didn’t hear – ‘Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes’. It was an important moment, it almost felt like radical change in pop music was happening right before our eyes. On Lemonade, which feels a bit like Part 2 of Beyoncé in her imperial phase, Beyoncé takes a magnifying glass to her marriage, dissecting and pulling apart her relationship with rapper Jay-Z and his alleged infidelity. But she doesn’t go about it in the way Adele or Taylor Swift would. She turns it into a discussion of the restrictions placed on black women and eventually alters it into an empowering message that literally comes from the title of the album – Beyoncé makes lemonade out of really, really bad lemons.
There is a palpable narrative arc on the tight 12 tracks featured. It begins with Beyoncé’s paranoia about the cheating, but this quickly turns into a confirmation and several tracks of furious rage, before she comes to terms with it and attempts to reconcile and build a stronger relationship that what she had before. Remember when ‘Pretty Hurts’ opened up Beyoncé and it was like a smack to the face? Instead, we get ‘Pray You Catch Me’, a painful, honest and heart-breaking expression of her sadness that comes before her anger. The instrumental side of the track is sparse, consisting of Beyoncé’s layered vocals and piano. The minimalism works, drawing attention to aching lyrics like ‘Nothing else seems to hurt like the smile on your face’. The worst part is the lying, and when she sings ‘I’m praying you catch me listening’, she’s begging for her husband to find out she knows, just so there isn’t an uncomfortable pain any more. It’s excruciating in the best way possible. Next along is the dancehall-influenced ‘Hold Up’, which has a surprisingly chipper instrumental side – including mid-tempo and muffled drums and an airhorn(!) – for Beyoncé’s seething mood. She still admits she loves him at this point, but is beginning to transition into the rage that defines ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, which features Jack White and has Beyoncé sound unusually similar to Alison Mossheart, from White’s side project The Dead Weather. The track has Beyoncé’s most powerful vocal by far, with her almost screaming ‘Who the fuck do you think I is?’ and she goes up into her upper registers on the final word. It’s the most hard rock Beyoncé has ever sounded, and it helps that Led Zeppelin are sampled on the track.
It’s on the second half, when Beyoncé is coming to terms with the events that have happened, that the social commentary is introduced. Beyoncé is made stronger by her forgiveness (but maybe not forgetfulness), not by her acts of anger she committed. She calls for unity on ‘Formation’ and ‘Freedom’, which quite rightly features Kendrick Lamar, whose album To Pimp A Butterfly was so intrinsically tied to black civil rights. It’s also as bombastic as Lemonade comes, with marching drums, organs and Kendrick Lamar’s well-placed verse in which he tears down right-wing media, the vicious cycle of keeping black people in prison and the lie of freedom on which they are sold. ‘All Night’, which serves as a conclusion before ‘Formation’ comes along as the post-credits celebration. ‘All Night’, which might have been any other make-up song otherwise, works in the context of the rest of Lemonade, where it feels like a payoff that Beyoncé found happiness and has decided ‘every diamond has imperfections’. She knows she can make it work. This is where the arc of break-up and make-up weaves into the social commentary. Beyoncé positions her treatment as ‘bound to happen’ on ‘Daddy Lessons’ according to the time-tested reduction of black women to little more than something to be owned and ruled. But that doesn’t mean she has to conform to what is expected of her, especially as she has an elevated reputation and class which would mean even if she broke it off with Jay-Z, she would still be worth something – she does not need a man to make her valued. Her story is merely a small part of the tale at large.
Lemonade is thought-provoking pop music that can easily be consumed on a surface level – ‘Sorry’ and ‘Hold Up’ are bangers regardless, but that would be reductive to Lemonade as a narrative. Instrumentally, it isn’t as interesting as Beyoncé, though it does make attempts to traverse genres without sounding like a disjointed genre-hop. It’s the most precise and concise Beyoncé album nonetheless – it has the slow-burning ballads that give ‘Halo’ a run for its money, it has the sexy, powerful pop, it has experimentation further into trap and rap. In short, it has everything and more. Pop doesn’t get much better than this, and it’s only right that Beyoncé is still ruling the game over fifteen years into her career. Her absolutism and direction makes any move she makes seem like the right way forward, regardless of whether she wants to make a ‘proper’ pop record like . The sound of a woman in total control and making a soundtrack for it.
Funnel Recommends: Hold Up / Freedom / All Night