“Is it any good?” my sister asked, after I tell her I’ve given in and subscribed to TIDAL for the sole purpose of experiencing Beyoncé’s hour-long Lemonade (for experiencing is the only way to accurately describe it; watching and listening sound too straightforward). My sister and I are not serious over text, yet somehow, a simple “It’s amazing: just watch it!” won’t suffice. I pause, then reply: “Well… it’s exhausting. It’s so personal, raw and dark, I feel like I shouldn’t have been watching some of it. The visuals are exquisite. It’s just so…different”.
Whether you’re a fan of Beyoncé or not, it is clear that this is a woman who knows exactly what she is doing. The notoriously private star (it is rare she grants a TV interview these days) does all her talking through her music, letting the outlet that she feels most in control of speak for itself, and boy does she do that on Lemonade.
When speaking about her previous visual album, Beyoncé said: “I remember seeing Thriller on TV with my family; it was an event. We were all sitting round the TV, and I’m now looking back, and I’m so lucky that I was born around that time. I miss that immersive experience. Now, people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods; they don’t really invest in a whole album.”
Seeking to replicate this experience in present day, Beyoncé aired Lemonade on HBO in the primetime spot of 9pm on April 23 (giving her fans just enough time to memorise the lyrics in time for her Formation World Tour which kicked off just four days later), then released it on TIDAL, and later, iTunes.
So yes, Beyoncé has done the whole visual album before, but this is something else. Lemonade is bolder, harsher; it’s Mrs Carter being honest with herself and the world, interlacing themes of infidelity and her marriage with her own daddy issues, peppered with references to ancestry, slavery, the struggles of the black woman, and police brutality.
While some may sneer at the nearly 100 collaborators (including samples) that are on board on Lemonade, we have to ask ourselves, does this detract from the fact that this is a triumph of an album?
It starts with the blissed-out Pray You Catch Me, immersing us in intoxicating layers of Bey’s voice. Her vulnerable vocals take centre stage over mournful keys as she sings: “I can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath / My lonely ear / Pressed against the walls of your world,” – hinting that all is not well in the Carter household.
The film (although not the album) weaves spoken word between songs; here she reveals: “You remind me of my father / A magician / Able to exist in two places at once / In the tradition of men in my blood / You come home at 3am and lie to me.”
“Are you cheating on me?” she asks, before launching into the reggae-infused Hold Up, literally opening the floodgates Kubrick-style in the video as water rushes from behind opening doors. It’s radio-friendly, light and gentle – then suddenly jarring when paired with the lyrics: “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch,” Beyoncé grinning in the video as she gleefully smashes car windows with a baseball bat and ploughs over cars in a monster truck. (Watch out, Jay).
“If it’s what you truly want / I can wear her skin over mine / Her scalp; a cap,” she suggests dangerously in the lead up to one of the album’s standout tracks, Don’t Hurt Yourself – a gritty and raw bass-heavy number featuring the unmistakable vocals of Jack White.
“Who the fuck do you think I am? / You ain’t married to no average bitch boy,” she snarls venomously over thunderous guitars, calling out Jay Z’s 'God complex'. This is Beyoncé as we’ve never seen her before; angry, imperfect, spiteful and furious. “This is your final warning / If you try this shit again / You gon loose your wife,” she warns.
The middle fingers up theme continues in the defiant Sorry (hint, she ain’t sorry); the video featuring a cameo from Serena Williams, representing the powerful black woman; Beyoncé surrounded by her girls in tribal get-up as she spits: “Tonight I regret the day I put that ring on,” and later “Me and my baby we gon be alright / We gon have a good life.”
6 Inch is another highlight, a dark and woozy track featuring The Weekend, celebrating the independent woman making her own money and taking no prisoners: “She murdered everybody and God was her witness,” – although not literally, I’m guessing. It’s practically impossible not to at least manage a head nod to the hook as the listener twists with the different arcs of the song, letting the power of her voice fly at the end of the track.
On Daddy Lessons, Beyoncé is the country singer we should have always known she was born to be (raised in Texas, and as she sings on Formation, “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana”). The song is one of the best on Lemonade in a genre not expected of her, teasing out her complicated relationship with her father: “Daddy made a soldier out of me.”
Mixing New Orleans jazz with a country beat, the song is infectious and catchy – hell, it’s brilliant – blending her real life experiences with her father with fantasy: “When trouble comes to town / And men like me come around / My daddy said shoot.” I defy you not to reach for the volume button after a few seconds of listening.
The breezy Love Drought is pleasant enough, but amongst the stronger tracks it’s easily forgotten, although we see a ray of hope for Jay Z emerge as her tone softens: “You’re my lifeline and you’re tying to kill me / You and me could move a mountain.”
Moving on to themes of reconciliation, the moving track, Sandcastles showcases the power of Bey’s voice over simple piano chords. Never has she sounded as raw and exposed as when she howls “What is it about you?” – her voice cracking with emotion.
Any doubt over whether the infidelity theme in Lemonade is based more in fantasy than in truth is immediately removed: Jay Z is in the video giving her his best ‘I’m sorry’ face. Voyeurism never looked so good; he is basically kissing her feet at one point. ‘Life isn’t perfect,’ Bey seems to shrug with this track; after all, why should she be any different?
The haunting vocals of James Blake quiver on Forward, which almost serves as an interlude, albeit towards the end of the album. The video sees black mothers holding up photos of sons they have lost, a perfect segue into Freedom, a powerful ode to #blacklivesmatter featuring Kendrick Lamar. It’s big, it’s soulful; it’s thunderous and tremendous. “Freedom! Freedom! I can't move / Freedom, cut me loose,” she belts out like it’s the gospel.
Serving as the closing chapter on the infidelity theme is the magnificent and uplifting All Night, which soars, triumphant; a horn-led ballad intertwined with Bey’s fondness for staccato singing (fans will be tripping over themselves trying to sing along). With its nostalgic video (we see Jay and Bey on their wedding day, getting matching tattoos, Beyoncé pregnant with their daughter), it feels like the album is wrapped up.
However she’s not quite done. Formation rounds Lemonade off; a defiant, politically charged black power anthem: “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” At first it sounds like a lot of noise, but listen closer, it’s saying something important.
Yes, Beyoncé could sing the phone book and her loyal fans would cry “Yas queen!” but Lemonade is a triumph of an album and is her must accomplished, adventurous and fiercely proud work yet.
“Slay trick or you get eliminated,” she sings on Formation. No chance of being eliminated from the game here.
Listen to: Don’t Hurt Yourself / Daddy Lessons / All Night / Formation
Review by Alice Gustafson