Beyonce – Lemonade Review
1. “Pray You Catch Me”
2. “Hold Up”
3. “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
5. “6 Inch”
6. “Daddy Lessons”
7. “Love Drought”
11. “All Night”
For the longest time Beyonce appeared to be an artist destined to appropriate and aestheticize. She had the swagger of a boss and a diva, but, outside a litany of immaculate singles, her early albums groped for direction and felt strangely purposeless. The notion of Queen Bey the artiste, replacing Beyonce the imperious, whiter-than-white, superstar-in-chief, only began to gain traction on 2011’s 4. If that record suggested that Bey could be more than just a cypher through which others channelled their dreams of empowerment and dominance, then 2013’s eponymous, world stopping, digital drop was the moment when Beyonce – however implausibly – became an album orientated artist first and pop star second.
Beyonce, the record, would be wildly successful, but it was never conceived as a tent pole LP. Her record label (allegedly) washed their hands of it, but Queen Bey was committed to her vision and was proved emphatically right. Bey not only delivered the most daring, dynamic and unashamedly avant-garde music of her career to date; she finally led from the front. “Flawless” remains an immaculate feminist statement. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words are both unequivocal and universal, while, in the song’s now legendary (and meme-ified) hook (“I woke up like dis”), Beyonce gave the world a rallying cry that resounds as powerfully on the lips of a club ready glamor puss as does on those of a 9-to-5 desk jockey or a make-up scorning student protestor.
“Formation”, Lemonade’s lead single and coda, set a remarkably high bar. Mouths watered with anticipation at the prospect of Beyonce raising the Black Lives Matter standard and picking up the baton laid down by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. In truth, the album doesn’t quite prove to be the radical assault of pure blackness it threatened to be – nor does it ever quite rival the majesty of “Bow Down Bitches”/”Flawless” or the intoxicating beauty of “Haunted”. Instead, Lemonade is a sledgehammer strong, narrative driven LP, that finds Beyonce reimaging the role of the working mother in pop, providing a powerful counter narrative to masculine excesses of hip hop and, most notably, unequivocally rebuking her husband’s infidelity.
Thrillingly, Beyonce achieves all this while sidestepping expectation. When reggae horns blare on “Hold Up”, it’s natural to assume that a Popcaan aping Dancehall jam is imminent – Beyonce demurs. Rather than bending over backwards to join Drake and Rhi Rhi on the dancefloor, Beyonce skips to a classical (but-not-remotely-crusty) Bajan rhythm. The beat is sedately paced, while the arrangement plinks and plonks with a rustic charm that speaks to a deep love of reggae inspired popcraft. Make no mistake, there’s a lilt and a little dip, but no grind. Instead, Beyonce pirouettes across this Kingston sunbeam with a smile on her lips and fury in her eyes. Yes, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, she is putting Jay on blast: “what’s worse: looking jealous and crazy, or being walked all over lately? I’d rather be jealous and crazy”.
There’s something wonderfully satisfying about hearing the world’s biggest popstar embracing understatement and rejecting the ADHD thrills of trap and Big Room house’s mind numbing assault. After all, why dumb down or beef up dancehall, when all the heavy artillery is reserved for the lyric sheet?
If “Hold Up” and the sorrowful, pin drop poignant opener “Pray You Catch Me” suggest that Jay’s infidelity will provide a subtlety weaved emotional undercurrent, then the Jack White assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself” flips the script and introduces Beyonce the chainsaw wielding avenging angel. Seriously, Hova should be running for his life (or, at the very least, cowering behind the panic room door), because Queen Bey is out for blood.
Jack White has some previous when it comes to revenge fantasies. His stunning solo LP Blunderbus was a largely fictionalized account of a bitter divorce and here, his disjointed riff and macabre rattling percussion perfectly meld into Bey’s bleak voodoo funk. As the guitars ramp up and begin to rip flesh, Beyonce slowly starts to lose her shit. She graduates from imperious control (“beautiful mane, I am the lion; beautiful man, I know your lying; I’m not broke and I’m not crying”) and stinging put downs (“I fucks with you, till I realized, I’m just too much for you”) to wild screams (“who the fuck do you think I am boy?”) before delivering the ultimate ultimatum (“this is your final warning, you know I give you life/If you tries this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife”).
On the visual portion of the LP that line is accompanied by the image of Beyonce casting her wedding ring aside. It’s honestly hard to think of a more powerful or jaw dropping statement in contemporary pop history and the question of whether the song would thrive without the soap opera intrigue is largely immaterial. Fault lines and fructuous undercurrents have underwritten some of the pop pantheon’s finest works (see Rumours by Fleetwood Mac). The one disappointment is that Jack White’s vocal is included at all. His guitar and artistic input are more than welcome, but his voice feels like an unwanted intruder in a domestic dispute between two intimates.
“Sorry” is a less shocking, but nevertheless welcome follow up. Beyonce is loose, surprisingly so given the stakes, as she flits between flippant cathartic dismissal (“suck my balls” – surely a coded reference to Jay’s “Monster” verse) and heavenly cooed confessions (“he only want me when I’m not there/he better call Becky with the good hair”). The super-celebrity drama is so rich and the put downs so brilliant, that it’s easy to let the avant-garde production pass you by. Feral screams, down pitched vocals, wonky synthetics, broken syncopation and UFO sonics combine with classic 80s pop flourishes to forge an arrangement that tips its cap to FKA Twigs/Odd Future while sounding utterly singular.
If this is all sounding a little personal and, by definition, exclusive, then “6 Inch” serves as an all inclusive feminist masterstroke. Playing like Beyonce’s answer to “Pryamids” by Frank Ocean and riding a blistering handclap driven bridge (with an oozing underlying horn), “6 Inch” effectively raises the idea of the mother as bread winner to the zenith. Neither a rejection of sexuality or a goodie-goodie exercise in liberal back patting, the song (and the album at large) makes motherhood and the pursuit of professional ascendancy seem both mutually compatible and the attainable goal of every woman. In the simplest terms, wife = winner: the grind never ends. “6 Inch” perhaps lacks the killer hook to tip it over the edge, but the way the track sprawls from the “Love Lockdown” minimalism of its opening (and its fiercely stark close) through a Weeknd guest spot (that has the chart topper doing his best Rae Sremmurd impression) and out into some glorious astral jazz breaks, is truly sublime.
Sadly, the sonics aren’t uniformly thrilling. “Daddy Issues” starts promisingly enough. Hand claps and Louisana horns suggest Beyonce might be about to mix that “negro with that creole” once again. Tragically, there’s no swampy jazz to be found. Instead, Beyonce rattles off an acoustic ditty that’s eerily reminiscent of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and The Cherry Tree” – with a dose of the great American expanse thrown in for good measure. The results aren’t disastrous, just middling and frustratingly pleasant on an otherwise spikey and off-kilter LP. Therefore, “Daddy Lessons” doesn’t so much burst Lemonade’s bubble, as inflate some smiley face party balloons and bake a nice cake spread – and, to be perfectly honest, the last thing Jay-Z’s personal torture chamber needed was a MOR tea party.
Still, if “Daddy Lessons” is a little too jaunty for its own good, it proves far more addictive and enjoyable than “Sandcastles”. Beyonce is in undeniably fine voice, but a Striesand worthy hallmark ballad feels utterly out of keeping in these otherwise daunting sonic waters. It, however, does put the James Blake assisted “Forward” into stark relief. Viewed as two song suite, the latter elevates the former, with its hiccupy lurch exposing the cracks in the facade of its predecessor’s rosy predictions of reconciliation. Still, it’s worth pointing out that Beyonce’s personalized take on Blake’s signature sound (“Pray You Catch Me”) is far more progressive than the English producer’s own appearance (“Forward”) – suggesting that Blake me be saving his next leap into the unknown for his own LP due this summer.
Regardless of the wobbles and the momentum that’s squandered when Beyonce exchanges ferocity for rationality, Lemonade remains a tightly sequenced and riotously satisfying start-to-finish listen. It might please this listener to hear more from the wounded predator on the prowl, than the thoughtful mother concerned with keeping her home unbroken, but in terms of narrative arc and delivering on her promise of holistically tackling heartache, these songs serve an important purpose. Beyonce and her team had a statement to make and the purity her vision and the cohesion of the end product were clearly paramount in creative process – even at the expense of making a stone cold psycho killer of an LP.
Viewed in this light, it quickly becomes apparent that the sensational “Formation” is an afterthought: a tacked on closer that feels like a parting gift, rather than a thematic cousin or touchstone. Lemonade is, at its heart, a symbiosis of marital strife and the entrepreneurial grind. Despite the rich lineage of black artists who inspired album’s signature sonics (not to mention the proud and plentiful cultural references), Lemonade is not a Black Life Matters record – it’s a personal, my pain is mine, and mine alone record.
Nevertheless, while Bey may have her sights set closer to home, Kendrick Lamar’s barbed tongue and feverish mind is loosed atop the raucous, stadium-sized, Doors-on-black-acid march of “Freedom”. Beyonce is a pillar of strength screaming her message of personal defiance (“I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell”); Kendrick is the righteous rebel rouser throwing a Molotov cocktail at hypocrisy (“Channel 9 News is telling me I’m moving backwards”). Together they’re an acid rain firestorm of fury: incinerating rotten, retrograde oppressors and melting the malicious flesh of the unfaithful. Who needs an army of balaclava-clad protestors? The sight (let alone the sound) of Lamar and Yonce standing side-by-side, mics in hand, is enough to reduce the most brutish thug to a jabbering urine soaked mess.
In “Freedom’s” wake, “All Night” – Lemonade’s true closer – feels like a victory lap. Sneakily, it might just be the best thing on the album; a grand finale that reconciles the classic pop/soul sounds of 4 with the enigmatic future RnB of Beyonce’s eponymous release. Bey’s vocal is spectral, floating between the phases while retaining a razor sharp clarity. The decision to juxtapose this mellifluous modern murk with a gloriously vibrant and uplifting horn blast is inspired. It might have taken the best part of four years, but, at long last, a mainstream pop star has found a way to master and push forward the peerlessly ambitious patterns of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (coincidentally, this decade’s other great superstar album built on a brutal break up).
Beyonce spent the first decade of her solo career convincing the world that she was an unbreakable and unblemished vision of success itself: an unflappable image of perfection incapable of misstep and unimpeachable in her majesty. Even in her moment of artistic introspection (2013’s self-titled future-pop masterpiece), Bey still reined supreme – standing alone, screaming: “bow down bitches”. The seemingly inconceivable achievement of Lemonade is that the dictatorial Queen Bey can sing, “I’m not too perfect, to ever feel this worthless” and be both believable and utterly sympathetic.
Brand Beyonce might still be going strong, but Lemonade is no commercial repositioning exercise, this is the realest and most powerful piece of music Queen Bey has ever produced. This is an album that could only have been delivered by a flawed, uncertain and angry human being and – as much as the world may cling to image of Empress Yonce – this vulnerable, paranoid and righteously vindictive woman is a far more thrilling artistic proposition. Lemonade isn’t out of this world or larger than life, it’s petty and it is real – so sorry Bono – but ain’t nothing better than the real thing.