Beyonce’s Lemonade is not sipped quickly.
As the Houston-born pop superstar’s sixth studio album, and second visual album, premiered April 23 on HBO, Twitter was abuzz with all manner of speculation — she’s divorcing Jay Z! She’s delivering a Black Lives Matter manifesto! She’s processing her parents’ divorce!
And while the hourlong special certainly provided audio-visual evidence for any of those interpretations, it required a little more time, and a few more listens, to really taste what Beyonce is attempting to do with Lemonade.
What was evident, just a few songs into the project, was that Beyonce has once again undertaken a quantum leap as an artist between records.
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Her 2013 self-titled surprise, which set the stage for another album-length ambush, was a stark departure for Beyonce, moving her beyond nearly all of her pop contemporaries (certainly, the industry-rattling surprise release altered the calculus for anyone of consequence).
By tackling messy, adult subject matter — the frank sexuality of Beyonce simply put what had been alluded to and teased about at the forefront — she established herself as an artist capable of going anywhere and addressing just about anything.
In that sense, Lemonade marks a natural evolution, folding in a multiplicity of topics, from marital fidelity, to personal history, to what it means to be black and female, to the state of race relations, without ever straining to feel cohesive.
Lemonade also features some of Beyonce’s boldest breaks from the R&B and pop that has been her hallmark to date.
Hold Up is sweet, lilting dancehall pop (shades of — or throwing shade at? — Rihanna), while the gnarly stomp of Freedom fuses rap and rock in a way that is electrifying. Daddy Lessons schools Nashville by way of Southern soul.
Tough, tender and wise, Lemonade is a vivid portrait of the grim existence many women, and specifically many black women, endure: “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,” says Jay Z’s 90-year-old grandmother Hattie at one point.
Bound up in that is the notion of infidelity, which comprises half of the album’s focus — allegations about Jay Z’s faithfulness have long dogged the couple, and Beyonce’s father has been slapped with several paternity lawsuits, which doubtless led to the divorce of her parents in 2011.
But just as it did during the “On the Run” tour, when Beyonce and Jay Z were effectively chased by rumors of their imminent split at every stop, Beyonce isn’t working from a strictly autobiographical template here.
(Although, to look at Twitter on April 23, the gut reaction to images of Beyonce going berserk while snarling lyrics like “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” is concern for Jay Z’s safety.)
And perhaps that is Beyonce’s point — the assumption that her marriage is on the verge of collapse is no more wrong or right than that of the police officers gunning down black youth because they think that, maybe, they have a weapon or are on their way to or from committing a crime.
The long view
Connecting those two leaps in logic deepens both, and positions Beyonce as someone taking the long view, presenting a work of art meriting more consideration than a snap judgment (outlets scrambled to get reviews posted in the wee hours of April 24, as Lemonade was kept under wraps until its HBO premiere). Lemonade, initially an exclusive on streaming service Tidal (which Beyonce co-owns), is now available for download from iTunes, and will be sold in physical form starting Friday.
The visual component makes assessing Beyonce’s intentions a little trickier — it is certainly easier to pull apart the lushly composed, uniformly gorgeous songs without the equally arresting images in your face — but it has to be taken into account as well, since, like Beyonce, Lemonade is being billed as a “visual album.”
The short films accompanying the songs were, on HBO, titled almost as chapters (“Intuition,” “Denial,” “Anger,” “Resurrection” and so forth) and exerted a pull as intense as the music.
Beyonce has long been one of pop’s preeminent visual stylists and she understands the need for visceral impact, and often delivers it without breaking a sweat. Teamed with directors like Mark Romanek and Jonas Akerlund, she renders the broad themes of the project in elegant fashion.
Judicious once more in enlisting collaborators on the record — the Weeknd, James Blake, Jack White and Kendrick Lamar turn up — Lemonade is wholly Beyonce’s show, and she sounds utterly in control, even at her most emotional (Sandcastles is a starkly compelling piano ballad).
If any missteps can be singled out, it’s that Formation, her powerful feminist call to arms, feels oddly out of place here, sequenced as the last track, effectively a coda to the preceding 11 songs, which flow into one another and function as a complete, coherent statement.
Lemonade will continue to be unpacked and mulled over in the days and weeks to come. It will be fascinating to see how (or even if) any of these songs are translated live as Beyonce’s “Formation” world tour arrives at AT&T Stadium on Monday.
Regardless, like the beverage giving the album its title, Lemonade is refreshing, a major pop album as satisfying intellectually as it is emotionally and aesthetically.
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)