Most pop stars spend their careers chasing their next big hit or recreating past ones, but Beyoncé, who’s unapologetically become more of a meme-generator than a hit-maker in recent years, seems increasingly uninterested, or rather unwilling, to play that game. By dropping surprise albums and eschewing traditional marketing, the singer bypasses the often-crippling pressure to follow-up on previous successes, thus avoiding the whiff of inevitable failure associated with, say, underperforming pre-release singles. Though this approach bears the benefit of sparing Beyoncé any perceived decline in commercial appeal, it’s also resulted in reinvigorating the flagging album format.
Beyoncé has made valiant attempts at concept albums before—specifically her 2008 two-parter I Am… Sasha Fierce, and 2013’s “visual album,” Beyoncé, which was, of course, a promotional and commercial coup. But her similarly sneak-attack follow-up, Lemonade, is her most lyrically and thematically coherent effort to date, taking a concept—the breakup album—as old as the LP itself, and reinventing it in both presentation and narrative.
The album’s title is taken from a speech given by Jay-Z’s grandmother, Hattie White, at her 90th birthday party, in which she paraphrased the old adage about making the most of life’s lemons. Hattie’s granddaughter-in-law, it seems, took those words to heart, featuring an audio snippet of the woman’s speech at the end of the album’s climax, the exhilarating Kendrick Lamar-assisted spiritual anthem “Freedom,” and concluding Lemonade’s storyline not with a scorned woman’s declaration of independence, but with an offering of culpability and mercy.
That might sound terribly retrograde, but Lemonade is unmistakably a feminist statement. The album’s other standout collaboration, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” finds Beyoncé slinging barbs like “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy” atop a Led Zeppelin loop and guitar riffs courtesy of co-writer/producer Jack White, before concluding with the pointed threat, “If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose yo wife.”
From “Crazy In Love” to “Drunk In Love,” Jay-Z has been a fixture on Beyoncé’s songs for over a decade, so it makes sense that he would eventually be featured in them. Indeed, she ostensibly takes direct aim at her husband’s physical appearance on “Hold Up,” an otherwise sunny reggae groove contrasted by Beyoncé’s withering assertion that women wouldn’t give Jay a second look if not for his wealth and fame—of which she has plenty of her own, she’ll have you know. So suck on her balls, boy, bye.
By the third act, Beyoncé’s steel begins to melt, and the piano ballad “Sandcastles” poignantly recounts a woman’s journey from anger to acceptance to, finally, forgiveness. But while fans will undoubtedly celebrate Bey’s vocals on this unremarkable track as “raw” and “emotional,” they at one point sound hysterically similar to those of “LA FWAY.”
If Lemonade feels less ambitious than the near-70-minute Beyoncé, it’s probably because the penetrating spoken-word interludes, composed of verses by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, featured in Lemonade’s accompanying long-form music video have been excised from the album itself. A reference in the film to “my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once” feels like an accurate depiction of Mathew Knowles, who fathered a child while still married to Beyoncé’s mother, but the rifle-toting paternal figure at the center of the Americana pastiche “Daddy Lessons” is deceased, so it’s unclear how autobiographical Lemonade is intended to be. In the film, Beyoncé’s own potential struggle with infidelity in her marriage is juxtaposed with shots of the singer dressed in a black hoodie and footage of black mothers holding portraits of their sons, killed by police. But whether the album’s lyrics are pure autobiography, or merely a snapshot of true events interwoven with the stories of countless other women, poetic license never sounded so personal.