Lemonade – Beyoncé
The shock in Lemonade is not in its sudden release: there had been warning signs, plus we’ve now become jaded to such obvious promotional stunts. The real shock is in the
cynical force of the lyrics, which address an adulterous liaison of her husband’s that nevertheless had long been suspected by the press and online gossip forums. I’ve never had an ounce of interest in celebrity gossip – but I’ve long had an interest in Beyoncé, due to her music’s unique blend of toughness and vulnerability. On her last album, which appeared a distant three years ago when she was still ‘Drunk in Love’, she really did make me care and believe in her sexually and romantically fulfilling marriage with the equally talented Mr. Shawn Carter. So it was with some despair that I discovered this album’s blunt opening line: ‘You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath/As you pass it off so cavalier’.
Yes, it’s true, this is Beyoncé’s heartbreak album, her withering response to being cheated on – but where an artist like Adele would wallow in despondent self-pity, Beyoncé launches into a vicious offensive against her wrongdoer: ‘Who the fuck do you think I is? I smell that fragrance on your Louis V boy… Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy!’ she roars on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, sure as hell making you believe it. She’s drawn the line in the sand for Jay-Z multiple times: ‘I’ll be damned if I see another chick on your arm’ she bellowed at him earlier on in her career (‘Ring the Alarm’). Now it seems that he’s crossed the line, so it is hardly surprising (yet still invigorating) to see her unleash a torrent of rage upon him.
What might surprise some instead is the direction in which the album is subsequently taken. Beyoncé finds peace of mind not through leaving her husband, but through reconfirming her love for him: ‘They say true love’s the greatest weapon/To win the war caused by pain’ she sings, sure as hell making you believe it (again). Some might say that this is a betrayal of her feminist ideology, having been wronged by a man yet choosing to remain with him. But Beyoncé is too smart, too honest, too humane to allow such trite generalisations to dictate her life or her art. She realises that it is her love that rescues a
marriage worth saving, her willingness to forgive that prevents the sandcastle of their union from tragically being ‘washed away’ via their bitter feuds. As such, she uncovers a curious power in a scenario where most would find despair and self-loathing. That’s not just inspiring, it’s a mature and intelligent response to the situation, especially given the overtly meaningful love and support these two human beings obviously provide for each other – not to mention their daughter.
Of course, this album’s message should not be read as universal: not all relationships are worth saving, and perhaps Beyoncé could do more to make it clear that in some cases the abuse cannot be undone. But her lyrics have usually been personal first and foremost, and except for when she explicitly deals with mass injustice, such as on the rousing ‘Formation’, they should only be read as such.
In the music, however, Beyoncé finds an empowerment that most certainly can be generalised. Just as the lyrics journey from tragedy to redemption, the mood of this album shifts from the spare, echo-laden, wintry environment of the early tracks to the loud, full-blooded, forward-thinking grandeur of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Formation’. It might not be perfect: the experimental atmosphere occasionally throws out a dud moment, such as the limp electronics on the suitably dry ‘Love Drought’. But, overall, it is an impressive sonic adventure, encompassing R&B, pop, rap, even country (see the infectious hoedown ‘Daddy Lessons’) and rock (where Jack White joins the party).
The cynical might sneer that these genre variations are a mere result of the number of writers involved in the album’s creation, but when it sounds this catchy, fun and downright inventive from start to finish, I don’t give two hoots about how many collaborators are employed and neither should you. The vision, the personality, the humour and the drive are all still Beyoncé’s, no matter what the credits list looks like. She may not be a songwriter, but that doesn’t matter a jot when she knows exactly who to involve to bring her creative vision to life.
And that vision was for an album, one which transformed the lemons thrown at her by life, and most especially her husband, into the bittersweet concoction of the title. She fulfils her ambitions through sheer talent and a movingly empathic voice: ‘Show me your scars and I won’t walk away’ she tenderly intones to Jay-Z after an album’s-worth of recrimination.
He would be a fool to throw such an offer away.