Album Review : Beyoncé - Lemonade (2016)
Everybody and their moms like Jay Z and Beyoncé. Not only they're both iconic recording artists, but they're also perhaps the most famous example of conventional life success south of the Obama family. They're career-driven professionals who formed a traditional family and who seem to find the time to enjoy life anyway. Not to mention that they're African American. They're hard evidence of the American Dream.
Jay Z and Beyoncé's well groomed public image was expected to take a hit last spring with the release of Lemonade, a tell-all, confessional album where Beyoncé opens up on the infidelities of her husband. It didn't. They are strong, more liked and, most important, more pertinent than ever to the American public. If anything, it fortified their status as American darlings. How did that happen exactly? Let's examine what makes Lemonade such an important and unwittingly strategic album in Beyoncé's career.
The first thing about Lemonade that jumps to your face is that Beyoncé is discussing Jay Z's infidelities without much of a filter on. She often speaks directly to him. My favorite song on the record is perhaps the angriest Don't Hurt Yourself, where she refers to a particular shirt (I smell a fragrance on your Louie knit, boy) that smells like perfume. It couldn't be any more direct. She is hurt and angry at her husband's dishonesty, which she calls out on the opening song Pray You Catch Me. She calls him a liar on Love Drought. When was the last time an artist actually created art to settle the score instead of using social media? It's been a while.
But what makes Lemonade great and IMPORTANT goes far beyond Jay Z's infidelities. The album's entire point is that he doesn't define her. It is both a stylistic and a sonic departure from the Beyoncé we've gotten used to over the span of her career. She works with new producers, collaborators and opens herself up to new sounds. Daddy Lessons, perhaps the catchiest and most heartwarming song on the record, is old-school Louisiana style soul and features for only arrangements acoustic guitars and a brass section. It is REALLY cool and feels authentic. Discussing her own father's infidelities in such a loving song not only raises the bare of authenticity in her music, but in the music industry in general.
There's an entire political aspect to Lemonade as well. The first single Formation is a celebration of her African American heritage deliberately written in slang (which prompted a hilarious skit from Saturday Night Live) that took everyone by surprise and beat some racists out of the bushes. Freedom is another hallmark of Lemonade that's has more of a universal connotation. In that song, she claims to be paralyzed and looking to break from her chains, which is pretty much what the song accomplishes (Hey! I'ma keep running/Cause a winner don't quit on themselves). Who does she want to break free from? A dishonest marriage? A society that wants to keep black women marginalized? Lemonade is a statement to both.
Now I've only discussed the songs on Lemonade that I really liked. There are other moments that will catch other listeners' ear more than they caught mine. The crystalline and vulnerable (and much more conventional) Sandcastle for example or very sexual and empowering 6 Inches come to mind. But at the end of the day, Lemonade is (and will be remembered as) such an important album because it is where Beyoncé breaks free from her public image and she gives pretty clear reasons for doing so. She shows a more human and vulnerable side, which people connect to. No marriage is perfect. No career goes by without much needed change. Beyoncé does that in Lemonade while showing her husband the willingness to give her family a second chance. She claims power in their relationship while showing its importance to her. What's not to like?
I liked Lemonade personally because it's not taking the easy way out on anything. Beyoncé uses her art, the very foundation of who she is to everyone outside her close circle, in order to make a statement about who she is and who she wants to be. It's very courageous and while I'm sure it has a strategic value to her, it doesn't feel gimmicky or rehearsed. Beyoncé is part of the most artificial business in world and she decided to swim against the tide and take risks in Lemonade. Musically calculated risks for sure, but she ventured way out or her comfort zone to create what I believe to be by far the most important album of her career and, commercially, perhaps the most important album of 2016.