[Originally published May 1, 2016]
Beyoncé will not apologize for being a black woman. The Destiny’s Child leader-turned-pop powerhouse, whose star has risen to quasi-messianic heights—whose very name has become synonymous with black feminism and empowerment—looks down from her throne on high and laughs at your “All Lives Matter” protests, your angry reactions to the Super Bowl XL halftime show, your general attitude of belligerent racism. She has no time for any of that. She’s too busy making the world a better place with her music.
Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth studio effort and her second to be released in a visual format, is a multimedia feminist masterwork. It’s a concept album of sorts, documenting a woman’s journey to emotional and social emancipation. By this point, we’ve all seen the phenomenal HBO short film that accompanied the release and can agree it’s spectacular in every way. But what’s really important here is the music – and the powerful message which that music conveys.
Bey spends the first quarter of the album bemoaning a love gone awry. The minimalist “Pray You Catch Me” opens the record with breathy harmonies that hearken back to Bey’s Destiny’s Child days but simultaneously mirrors the bizarre, angular harmonies of groups like Dirty Projectors. It gradually swells, adding somber strings, keys and echoing background voices. The sense of longing for connection is tangible in her voice: “My lonely ear/Pressed against the walls of your world…I’m prayin’ you catch me listenin’.” “Hold Up” perfectly highlights the lower range of Bey’s voice; she sings with a slight Jamaican lilt, backed by pizzicato strings. This track marks the point when we begin to feel the singer’s growing anger at a lover who remains anonymous: “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch…What’s worse, being jealous or crazy?”
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” opens with a rumbling drum loop and angelic voices. Bey enters, raspily and full of rage, bragging of her sexual prowess and furiously scorning the unnamed betrayer: “Who the fuck do you think I am…Tonight I’m fuckin’ up all your shit, boy.” The track features guest vocals and production from Jack White and is appropriately heavy and raw. It’s truly a breakup tune for the ages. The sentiment continues on the gleefully pissed-off “Sorry” (as in “I ain’t…”), the video version of which features Bey riding a bus packed with swaying black girls in tribal makeup, proudly waving their middle fingers in the air. “Today I regret the night I put that ring on,” she mutters.
Having lost her love and her sanity, the singer soon learns to love and appreciate herself, and we feel her confidence increasing as the album progresses. “6 Inch” is a dark, ethereal track in which Bey sings about herself as a powerful female presence who “works for the money from the start to the finish” and who is “worth every dollar and…worth every minute.” “Daddy Lessons” is a jazz-tinged country boot-stomper worthy of a Tarantino soundtrack, complete with a brass section and acoustic guitar. Bey sings about her late father raising her to be a “tough girl” and offers up a lethal warning to any man fool enough to do her wrong: “When trouble comes to town/And men like me come around/Oh, my daddy said shoot.” It’s a lovely and inspiring—if not slightly bizarre—moment that shows Bey’s range as a performer.
However, it seems that reconciliation is not far around the corner. On the airy, sensual, Mike Dean-produced “Love Drought,” Bey begs the lover she previously scorned to reconnect with her: “Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying/But nine times outta ten, I know you’re trying/So I’m trying to be fair/And you’re trying to be there and to care.” Then comes what is arguably the album’s starkest, most naked moment—the piano ballad “Sandcastles.” Bey verges on tears, her voice straining and cracking as she expresses her uncontrollable regret at leaving her lover behind. The song flows directly into the understated interlude “Forward,” which features a sensual vocal from James Blake. Finally, on the soulful, horn-filled “All Night,” the narrator comes full circle and seems willing to return to her lover’s arms: “Our love was stronger than your pride…If you get deep, you touch my mind/Baptize your tears and dry your eyes.”
In the midst of these emotions, we are swept into the deafening roar of “Freedom,” an electrifying anthem of the fight for equality packed with thumping war drums, thunderous organ, and monstrous gospel-choir hooks. It stands as one of the most powerful civil rights statements of this decade as well as one of the album’s strongest moments – especially when Kendrick Lamar, at this point without question our generation’s greatest rhyme-smith, drops one of the fiercest, most confident verses of his career. The track ends with a recorded speech from Jay-Z’s mother that gives the album its title. “I had my ups and downs,” declares Hattie White, “but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” That’s the overriding sentiment of the record: no matter what life throws at Bey, she’ll bounce back with a vengeance.
And then, there’s “Formation.” Has there, in this century, been a more positive, unabashed, triumphant affirmation of blackness? “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana,” our singer proudly proclaims. “You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas ‘bama/I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” I remember how overjoyed I was the first time I heard the song and saw the video. Bey fearlessly rocks her braids and Givenchy dress, double-daring tight-lipped white folks to try and deride her. The track ends with a sly jab at the haters: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation/Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”
In addition to her irrefutable talent as a musician, Bey is a masterful producer—a skill for which she doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Samples are drawn from across music history: Animal Collective, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Isaac Hayes, OutKast, Andy Williams, King Crimson, Led Zep and an Alan and John Lomax field recording. The end result is a complex, stunning musical palate that offers the ideal housing for Ms. Knowles-Carter’s unique vocal sensibilities.
Ultimately, Lemonade spans the entire spectrum of human emotion and highlights a desire for both human connection and social equality. It’s a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement – and one that won’t easily be ignored. Rest assured we’ll be talking about this record for decades to come. America’s most beloved performer has struck gold once more.
“‘Cause I slay, ’cause I slay,” Bey repeats in the chorus to “Formation.” Oh, does she ever. (9.2/10)