Out of the blue on Saturday night, Beyoncé released her sixth studio project – a stunningly directed visual album, free of the safety net of promotional singles. Twitter exploded. Hashtags were formed. Emoji’s were thrown in all directions – some of them intended to scald. We’ve been here before, with 2013’s self-titled release, a sleek pop album centred around female sexual empowerment. Upon its release, ‘Beyoncé’ felt bolder than anything the artist had done previously, with its proud feminist declarations and an unflinching portrayal of sex (there are three choruses about Beyoncé receiving oral). But things are different this time around. By the time the credits roll on ‘Lemonade’, the previous album feels timid.
Early pieces have understandably compared ‘Lemonade’ to recent album’s from Kanye West and Rihanna, two surprise releases that used their unconventional promotion to drum up excitement for what were actually messy, underwritten projects. By comparison, neither has the nuance or focus of ‘Lemonade’. A more apt comparison would be with Bjork’s ‘Vulnicura’ – an album that documented the intense decay of a relationship. Both works use a potentially shallow subject matter to create something deeply intimate and honest, whilst retaining a cinematic scope.
Listening to ‘Lemonade’ feels like listening in on something almost too personal in proximity, but Beyoncé’s agency over her own narrative becomes a tool used to turn the camera onto the treatment of black women in a similar position. This is most clear in the art-film accompanying the album, where a Malcom X quote sets the theme out with clarity: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” It’s a quote with even more contemporary significance than first apparent, having been delivered during the funeral of Roland Stokes, a man shot by the LAPD while reportedly holding his hands up in surrender.
Beyoncé uses her position of power to comment on oppression in America – but more importantly, she gives hope that those oppressed can transcend their position. “What’s worst, looking jealous and crazy? Or like being walked all over, lately?” she snarls on ‘Hold Up’, believing her husband, Jay-Z, to have cheated. An echo effect underlines the word ‘crazy’, perhaps glancing back at ‘Crazy in Love’, the most ubiquitous song the couple have appeared on together. The potential of losing the tag of ‘power couple’ doesn’t phase her – “Hey keep your money, I got my own”, she screams on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’; it’s a position she’s aware many women simply couldn’t afford to be in, but solidarity is the clear message.
Sonically, the album is just as powerful. The monstrous credit list would suggest focus-grouping to a cynic, but part of the sheer size has to do with the heady samples laced throughout: a snippet of ‘Can’t Get Used to You’ by Andy Williams forms the chord sequence of ‘Hold Up’, creating an effervescence contrasted by the song’s sinister lyrics; the glorious horns of Outkast’s ‘SpottieOttieDopaliscous’ strengthen a poignant moment of healing on one of the album’s shining moments, ‘All Night’. Elsewhere, soulful electronic tinkerer James Blake, blues rock legend Jack White and seminal poet Warsan Shire contribute immaculate pieces to the stunning whole.
And despite the scatter-brained influences, the album feels wholly Beyoncé’s. With these diverging genres all playing a part, she delivers a clear message in a multitude of modes, from the scathing indie-rock edges of ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, to the desolate march of ‘Forward’, through to the rally cry of ‘Formation’. Lyrically, she has never spoken with such conviction. Vocally, the she has never sounded so raw or dextrous. ‘Sorry’ is a key example, its tingling synth underbelly fusing with the artist’s giddy vocal: “Middle fingers up. / Put ’em hands high. / Put it in his face: / Tell him ‘Boy, Bye’.” she struts. It’s easy to picture a million glowing faces embracing this unpatronising call to self-reliance.
The album’s only major misstep comes from ‘Daddy Lessons’, a generic country stomper that uses didactic lyricism and a redundant melody to display its southern roots. It feels an essential part of the story, though an overly sentimental one.
Beyoncé could have dropped an album of anything and it would have sold well, but she chose to release ‘Lemonade’ – a project that speaks of infidelity, power, retribution, and black womanhood with incredible force and lucidity. She has always been a pop star stronger than most, but ‘Lemonade’ is the most vital thing she’s ever made, without ever losing its accessibility.
Beyonce’s Lemonade is available now via Parkwood and Columbia Records.
This Beyoncè review was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor.