When Beyoncé unexpectedly released her self-titled album in December of 2013, it exploded into a fireball of new-found and unapologetic ownership of her sexuality. Without any indication that it was coming nor any pre-emptive promotion, there it was: the rebirth of an ailing link between cinematography and music in the form of the Visual Album, told with the tale of sexual awakening destined to empower other women into instigating their own and spawning seemingly eternal pop culture catchphrases.
This past weekend she did the same again with Lemonade, though this time with the kind of artistic ammunition we’d felt the rumblings of but couldn’t possibly have fully imagined. US TV giant HBO had exclusive television rights to broadcast the Lemonade Film for a 27-hour period from Saturday evening. Unlike her last visual album, a more traditional collection of videos to accompany each track, here she takes snippets from each song and binds them together into an hour-long movie telling two clearly defined stories that inform the lyrics.
On Sunday, the record was only available on Jay Z’s TIDAL streaming service. A canny move, for definite. By Monday morning, those who’d resisted the urge to sign up to TIDAL in reaction to the release found Lemonade available to buy on iTunes, though it can still only be streamed in the one spot. The album has already broken records and the accompanying film is being put forward for Emmy nominations courtesy of HBO’s hand in its production. It has currently been in the public domain for six days and it already seems as if the bar has been raised for other artists in terms of creativity.
Musically, Lemonade displays the hallmarks of all the perfectionism we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé. Styles, genres and tempos switch with ease. Layers of expert production mingle with her combination of borderline operatic, churched soul and urban pop vocals. But what’s caused the most wide-eyed discussion isn’t so much that it’s an anthemic album to sing along to in your car, it’s the depth of feeling and honesty in the lyrics. Whether it’s the verbal window on her marriage that she opens the curtains on, or the political stance she can no longer keep quiet about, Beyoncé’s employed a ‘go hard or go home’ mantra throughout.
Played out through each track, the narrative is pretty simple. She suspects her husband is cheating on her and discovers that he is. Angry and heartbroken, she takes their child and leaves him, swinging her middle finger in the air as she goes. Realising exactly what he’s lost and with her love for him clinging on, even if the trust is in tatters, they plough all their efforts into starting again and rebuilding, recording every gruelling step. Repairing the cracks instead of just taping over them.
What’s astonishing is that despite the subject matter, she doesn’t paint herself the victim. He noticeably breaks her heart and makes her question her worth with his betrayal, but he is made to feel the idiot for doing so. He stays because she decides he can, not because she’s given up any pride or self-esteem of her own. This is where watching the film first really comes into play. The spoken word segments linking each event and not present in the audio tracks punch your stomach with their pain.
Much of the tabloid interest has been in outing who ‘Becky with the good hair’ might be. But in all honesty, fuelling a witch-hunt for a woman that, if you listen carefully to the lyrics, no longer matters to their relationship, is the least fascinating part of this album. The words the music wrap around are a stunning philosophical investigation into long-term relationships, the deepest love, loss and knowing when two people connected to each other by a chemical force should fight to work through their problems to stay together. Simply because nothing else will ever compare. In the least patronising way, it’s an intensely grown-up and mature purging of thought on love and a platform rarely offered seriously to women. Especially black women. Women who discuss love are considered frothy. There is nothing even mildly cute about Lemonade. It’s brutal.
Criticism that Beyoncé and Jay Z are marketing geniuses and have merely fabricated or at least embellished the insight into their marriage for monetary return is short-sighted. Jay Z comes out of the album badly. Really badly. To say that his pride is bruised by the level to which she tears him down is an understatement. So it seems unlikely that someone who already has more money than he could spend would trade that in so his wife can stack another pile of cash. And besides, even if the story was entirely fictional, it’s told so expertly and beautifully that there’s no reason to care any more than you might care about the reality behind a film script or a novel’s basis. There is no duping. Maybe it’s okay if it’s music for music’s sake. Also, if we assume that Beyoncé really is wearing her heart on her sleeve in Lemonade, why shouldn’t she commodify her emotions? Creative people need inspiration to make things for us to consume for entertainment. Why would she give the source of hers away for free when she can make money having us feel things in response? That’s her job and we have no right to her story for free merely because we think we know her.
The second theme in Lemonade is that of political activism in relation to race and gender. If Beyoncé’s last album was her breaking the societal constraints that suggest women aren’t allowed to be sexual creatures, Lemonade does the same for women and politics, specifically for black women. While it’s certainly not for me to speak on their behalf, it’s heartening how many black women especially have in the past few days stated that they now feel empowered to claim their place in the world, without bending to fit a mould they don’t recognise.
Where we had no clues that relationship troubles would be explored in such harsh depth, the switch to taking a public stand in light of America’s currently messy and festering relationship with race was teased with the earlier single, Formation. The track that caused as much controversy as it did delight when it was performed in militant dance style at this year’s Superbowl was just a gentle introduction to Beyoncé owning her heritage the way she did her sexuality. Far less polite and even more emotive is Freedom and its predecessor Forward. Powerfully expressed in the film via the victims of police brutality and imagery set on plantations, there is no doubt that Beyoncé intends to be on the front line of the movement that redefines and unravels the tangle that is the USA’s awkward attitude toward race. It now has an unflinching contributor with a remarkable worldwide reach.
It’s telling that the only people who’ve expressed a problem with Beyoncé’s discovery of a political voice are affluent white men who feel threatened by her influence. Despite the album not being made for him, increasingly irrelevant media fool Piers Morgan took it upon himself to question Beyoncé’s social justice motives, on the basis that she didn’t express any political interest when he interviewed her some five years ago. As if she was picking them up because it was somehow trendy and only he could decide what she was trying to be. Morgan stated that he preferred the Beyoncé of old, who just sang for her supper, as it were. ‘Just shut your mouth and be bootylicious for me’ could not add more fuel to Beyoncé’s fire and could not be a greater indication of how badly this new incarnation of her is needed in the current social climate.
When Beyoncé somewhat dismissed the notion of feminism in a Vogue interview in May 2013, she went away and did some reading on the topic, only to realise that she’d been a feminist all along. She had misunderstood the moniker before deciding to embrace it. She matured, she grew, she learnt something new and changed her mind, which is a human prerogative. Except, women are constantly suspected of insincerity when they grow more powerful and feel more secure or confident in their views. Men are applauded for it. With the politicised tracks on Lemonade, Beyoncé’s detractors want to peg back her clear agenda. If the strength of feeling within them is anything to go by, they should prepare to feel wounded.
Much like a book series or a long-running film franchise, a conceptual album only succeeds commercially past its first flourish of excitement if each track can be enjoyed in isolation. Lemonade achieves that, but some are certainly more radio friendly than others. Hold Up, country-tinged Daddy Lessons, bouncy All Night and the aforementioned battle cry that is Freedom all have catchy singalong qualities that make them loop in your brain after you hear them. But rockier distortions such as Don’t Hurt Yourself, featuring Jack White, are stirring too. Along with more traditional Beyoncé-brand R&B like Love Drought and the gut-wrenchingly raw ballad that is Sandcastles. What’s clear though is that Lemonade’s potential for both empowering and entertaining is greater than the sum of its parts. It has made the 2013 album seem like a mere introduction to her potential in comparison, with Destiny’s Child an entire lifetime ago.