When Malcolm X’s voice shows up midway through the short-film version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, its inclusion says a lot. Beyoncé samples a 1962 Malcolm speech, a part where he calls the black woman the most disrespected person in the world. Given that Lemonade is, above all, an album about personal heartbreak, a moment like that — and plenty more moments, both on the album and in the film — translate that pain on a larger scale. They put this rage and humiliation in a larger social context, making Beyoncé’s story one among many. That resonates in a bunch of different directions, and one of those directions is this: They remind us that it is not a white man’s place to speak authoritatively about Lemonade. So as a white man, I’m not going to attempt any of that. As a part of the demographic that’s done most of that disrespecting over the centuries, I’m a pure interloper when it comes to talking about all the levels on which an album like this works. Here at Stereogum, we’ve already run a great piece from Collin Robinson that gets deeper into the album on that level. This is true of every album, but it’s especially true of this one: I don’t want anyone reading this to think that I’m giving the final word on this, or that I think I’m giving the final word. I do, however, want to write about this album as an exceptional piece of pop music, because that’s what I think it is.
Of course, the album gets plenty of charge from what we think we know about Beyoncé and Jay Z’s private life. We can’t know how much of the album is autobiographical; Beyoncé and Jay Z have gone to great lengths in the past to keep their private story out of our Twitter feeds, at least as much as public figures of their stature possibly can. Beyoncé has been with Jay for most of her career, and she’s written plenty of breakup songs — “Irreplaceable” springs immediately to mind — without sending us scurrying to our keyboards, wondering if a divorce is imminent. Whether or not she’s going through the things she sings about on this album, she’s playing on our idea that she could be singing about herself. Beyoncé knows exactly what she’s doing here. She’s harnessing her own public persona, pushing it in a new direction, projecting heavy emotions all over the place. That falls under the “pop” part of “pop music.” She knows how this is all going to be perceived, and at least on some level, she’s having fun with it.
And as a relationship-strife album, this thing is an absolute motherfucker. It’s spiteful and raw and deadly. Whether or not she intends for this to be an open fuck-you letter to Jay, it works as a more effective ethering of the man than the actual song “Ether” was. It’s mean as hell: “You can watch my fat ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy.” It plays around with his public persona, as well as hers: “Big homie better grow up.” It gets into deeper, more painful territory than most emo-frontman types would dare: “Pictures snatched out the frame / Bitch, I scratched out your name and your face / What is it about you that I can’t erase?” And when she purrs, “I’m just too much for you,” it’s a crushing blow. Jay comes out of this thing looking sad and shaken and faithless. The album works as a wronged-party rage-out of epic proportions.
It’s also a fiery and powerful display of technique and command. Beyoncé’s stunning 2013 self-titled album was that, too, but it functioned in different ways. That album was, above all, a statement of absolute dominance and about the power of love. Lemonade is more fractured and divided, which makes sense, since it’s about different things. On “Hold Up,” she’s buoyant and exuberant in her confusion. It sounds like a Vampire Weekend song, which is what co-writer and co-producer Ezra Koenig originally intended it to be. (Side note: Is Koenig working with Diplo on new VW music? Because that would be great. Diplo can come off like a massive cheesedick, but he’s had his name on at least a dozen pop classics, and we can probably already add “Hold Up” to that list.) “Freedom” is a humid, barnstorming Just Blaze track with a bugged-out psych-rock organ, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that her husband would’ve torn to pieces circa 2000. There’s more bugged-out psych-rock organ on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” on which Beyoncé enlists Jack White to become a better Jack White than White himself. Her splenetic, Tourettic rock-star strut is a thing to behold.
Both “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “6 Inch” find novel ways to flip two sample sources that have already been used to death. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” evades the world-crushing thunderstomp of the drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” going instead for the trickier taps deeper into the song, while “6 Inch” layers Isaac Hayes’ version of “Walk On By” into a psychedelic echo chamber, looping it all over itself. She’s so good at this sort of thing, at layering references on top of references. It’s what allows her to quote the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Soulja Boy on the same song, or to throw Animal Collective a songwriting-credit bone that they didn’t earn, as if they were the first to arrive at the phrase “material things.” (This could, I suppose, just be post-“Blurred Lines” lawsuit caution, but it still comes off as an act of largesse.) “Daddy Lessons,” for instance, would probably get heavy country-radio play if country radio wasn’t so concerned with its own closed-loop system, and if the song didn’t turn into a New Orleans jazz funeral by the time it’s over.
There’s some whiplash to the way Beyoncé restlessly moves among genres and aesthetics and sensibilities, and the connective tissue of the Lemonade short film putting the pieces together. (There’s a lot to be said about the film, and this isn’t really the place for it, but I love how Beyoncé has the capital to put together a non-linear art film to explore her album’s themes — her own version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, essentially.) But there’s an arc to the thing. The freaked-out disbelief of “Hold Up” leads into the destroy-everything fury of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry.” On “6 Inch,” she’s reimagining herself as a club goddess before dropping the self-mythology and just woundedly whispering, “Come back” as the song ends.
“Daddy Lessons” is reflective — Beyoncé pondering her own father’s shortcomings, and his warnings. “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” are the pure heartbreak of realization sinking in, and they’re more naked and vulnerable than anything else on the album. “Freedom” is the moment when Beyoncé looks beyond herself, calling on the trials of the past for inspiration and strength. And “All Night” is the great giving-in, the moment of reconciliation. It’s a song about forgiving someone else’s faults, even if you can never forget them. It’s a song about deciding to stay together, despite it all. It’s a love song, which, considering everything that’s come before it, is both crazy and powerful. People are talking about Lemonade as a breakup album as if “All Night” didn’t exist. It’s not a breakup album. It’s a staying-together album, and it’s one that lays bare all the work it takes to get to that decision. It’s a euphoric ending, and that euphoria is earned. When “Formation,” the one song we’d heard before all that, comes on after, it suddenly takes on new meaning. It’s not just about strength and dominance; it’s about everything that had to be overcome to get there. “I’m so possessive when I rock his Roc necklaces” — now we know why.
I love stuff like this. I love the way Beyoncé uses the album as a complete statement, starting someplace and ending up someplace else, thinking about how all the pieces fit together. I love the way she plays with expectations, with persona, with what we think is going on in her personal life. If this is a real, diaristic look at her life, it’s brave to lay all this out in the world. If it’s not, it’s still powerful, since people are really feeling like this out in the world, and now they have this album to keep them company. I love how she can come along and dominate a conversation, to the point where thinkpiece-fatigue sets in when the album’s not even 48 hours old.
But more than that, I love what Beyoncé has done here as a musician. She’s taken at least half a dozen wildly different genres and showed her mastery of all of them. She’s shown every side of her voice — from the almost-unreal airiness of her upper register, when she sings the “Turn My Swag On” part of “Hold Up” to the scratchy tear-fried immediacy of “Sandcastles.” (When the Weeknd shows up on “6 Inch,” she makes a point to sing deeper than him.) She’s found collaborators who know how to serve her songs, and she’s created a towering statement of an album. I’m still deep in the euphoria-rush stage of processing it, and I don’t think I love it the way I loved her self-titled album. It’s too disjointed. It has moments that leave me cold. “Love Drought” feels like a lull, and I wish “Daddy Lessons” didn’t remind me of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree” the way it does. But this is still a massive achievement. It exists in a lot of spheres, but as a piece of straight-up pop music, it knows what the fuck it’s doing.
Lemonade is out now on Columbia/Parkwood.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Drake’s as-yet-unheard Views From The 6.
• Katy B’s excellent club-culture love letter Honey.
• Aesop Rock’s self-produced, personal, fun The Impossible Kid.
• Brian Eno’s experimental exploration The Ship.
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s garage-psych freakout Nonagon Infinity.
• Pity Sex’s DIY shoegazer White Hot Moon.
• Former Jem Britta Phillips’ cover-heavy solo debut Luck Or Magic.
• Freeway’s post-kidney disease indie-rap return Free Will.
• X co-leader John Doe’s guest-heavy solo album The Westerner.
• Dowsing’s dramatic emo howler Okay.
• Deerhoof and Dal Niente’s full-length collaboration Balter / Saunier.
• Rogue Wave’s catchy and thoughtful Delusions Of Grand Fur.
• Plants & Animals varied and contemplative Waltzed In From The Rumbling.
• Horse Lords’ avant-garde whirlwind Interventions.
• Mo Kenney’s introspective but assured In My Dreams.
• A Dead Forest Index’s ominous, expansive rocker In All That Drifts From Summit Down.
• Museum Mouth’s lovelorn shoegazer Popcorn Fish Guinea Pig.
• Grubby Hands’ tense, exploratory DIY album Garden Party.
• Parc en Ciel’s ambient post-rocker Path Integral.
• Jaggery’s sweeping chamber-rock piece Crux.
• Lattice Moore’s scratchy bedroom debut Split.
• Plebeian Grandstand’s technical black metaller False Highs, True Lows.
• Leggy’s self-titled compilation of EP tracks.
• DJ Koze’s Pampa Vol. 1 compilation.
• The tribute compilation The Reverberation Appreciation Society Presets A Tribute To Pet Sounds.
• Holy Ghost!’s Crime Cutz EP.
• Haybaby’s Blood Harvest EP.
• Baby In Vain’s For The Kids EP.
• Plush’s Please EP.
• Kwesi Foraes’ 27 EP.