Beyonce released Lemonade out of nowhere following her HBO special of the same name last Saturday. This is kind of surprising and kind of not: on one hand, there wasn’t any hard information on an album in the works, but on the other, she dropped “Formation” a few months ago and announced a solo tour, and while the Lemonade special wasn’t advertised as an album, it also wasn’t advertised as not an album, either. That and the whole “Beyonce normalized releasing albums out of fucking nowhere” thing. Like Beyonce, Lemonade comes in both album and visual albums modes. For our purposes here, I’m going to stick with the album as a piece of music, partly the shallow reason that you’re reading an album review on a site called Ranting About Music, but mostly because if someone like Melissa Harris-Perry assembles a crack squad to discuss the film in-depth, you and I are much better off reading them instead.
Before we get to the Lemonade, let’s take a look at where Beyonce is as an artist. More than her considerable abilities, Beyonce’s trademark is her superhuman execution. It’s not enough for her to simply out-sing and out-perform you: she will show up, nail every intricate step in her choreography and every note in whichever hit she’s there for, smile through it all, bow graciously, and leave to go work on her next project. Cut, print, slay. She carries herself with poise and focus during all of this, too; being Beyonce isn’t effortless, (nor is it supposed to be), but you always see her in control. At the same time, her rigid perfection could make it difficult to find an emotional center in her music; when Beyonce songs were sad, it was because they were supposed to be, not because anyone involved was writing them for catharsis. Beyonce included more tangible themes, but mostly functioned as a power move: the music wasn’t just good, but massive, and the collaborative-heavy album and all of its high-production music videos were a complete secret until they were out. That album was an embodiment of everything Beyonce has worked toward.
So then it’s a small miracle that Lemonade improves on just about every front. Like Beyonce, its songs go off like concussive grenades, but the material here is stronger overall without a trace of filler. There’s a level of cohesion here missing from Beyonce’s previous albums, mostly due to its emotional narrative and journey from shock to rage to healing to actualization; this is an album you can truly dig into. And it’s so good just as a listen that any listener can get immersed in it; purely from the surface, Lemonade is the best pop album of the year so far, and that’s likely to hold. Beyonce’s still just as imposing and perfect as she was, but she’s learning how to musically connect in an emotional capacity. For herself, and her fans, this is a good thing. For her competitors (which somehow seems like everyone and no one), this is like that part in Jurassic Park where the raptors learn how to open doors.
Lemonade‘s best run comes early between “Hold Up” and “6 Inch.” The album’s narrative arc is the inner turmoil of a black woman who has been cheated on, and this stretch focuses on her righteous fury (sidenote: there’s more than enough evidence to say this is a Thing That Happened between Beyonce and Jay Z, but there aren’t enough details to go beyond, er, reasonable doubt. I’d argue that Lemonade‘s emotional trajectory is nuanced enough that the reality of the situation is irrelevant, but believe as you will). “Hold Up” soundtracks learning of the affair with breezy dancehall that includes interpolations of “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and “Turn My Swag On” as Beyonce processes everything from being hurt (“I’m not too perfect/To ever feel this worthless”) to wrath (“I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch”). She’s going slightly mad here, but it’s more a byproduct of shock and disorientation. Yet the music is catchy enough that it already feels perfect for the upcoming summer.
The rage snaps into focus on the explosive “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The whole thing is fire-breathing southern rocker, complete with Jack White on a simmering hook and a sample of those glorious “When the Levee Breaks” drums, but the part I keep coming back to is around 2:46 where Beyonce outright howls “Hey baby, who THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I IS?!. It’s one of the most repeatable songs o Lemonade from the start to that final threat of “You try this shit again, you gon lose your wife.” But for me, the “listen for 20 minutes on repeat” number right now is next track “Sorry.” “Sorry” is the album’s first emotional pivot: the song is still covered in “fuck that guy” sentiments (or to use its own language, “Suck my balls, boss!”), but the white-hot anger has dissipated, leaving a defiant but emotionally frayed protagonist whose crest falls as the song continues. And “Sorry” is just so damn beautiful as a pop song, boasting a great melody among reverberating synth hooks and a skittering drum machine at the sad-eyed cross-section of R&B and electro-pop. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year.
From “6 Inch” onward, Lemonade’s focus shifts inward. “6 Inch” on its face is about a stripper killing it in six-inch heels, but is lyrically much more of a celebration of her work ethic and the tons of money she’s making than a “Partition”-style sex jam despite the pair’s shared deep bass and smoky textures. In the context of an album about the psychological and emotional consequences of being cheated on, this send-up of women’s power can be seen as a reaffirmation of self-worth, something alluded to in the song’s fantastic bridge that drives home just how hard she’s grinding (other sidenote: Beyonce put famed horndog The Weeknd on her “it’s about strippers but not really” track that also at times sounds like Jay Z’s bro Kanye West’s most debauched song–whee, subtext). That internal focus stays on dusty cut “Daddy Lessons,” and even when she addresses her estranged partner on the spacey “Love Drought” and piano heartbreaker “Sandcastles,” you never hear anything about him, just her reaching out.
This stretch from “Daddy Lesson” to “Forward” is Lemonade at its lowest energy, but even here it’d be hard to find something to cut. “Love Drought” is an unhurried, spacey number that should feel like filler, but the production and the hook are memorable enough that it could be a single. “Sandcastles” doesn’t have any tricks to its lone verse, but it’s Beyonce’s chance to just sing the shit out of a song like it’s the last thing she’s pleading during an argument. The James Blake featuring “Forward” is fine enough, mostly as a connective tissue between Lemonade’s 2nd and 3rd acts. If anything could get cut here, it’s probably “Daddy Lessons:” I understand its place thematically, and if anything, it’s proof that Beyonce can do something with twangy acoustics and Texan jazz, but it’s just not engaging as a listen.
Lemonade’s ending is flatout stacked. “Freedom” is Beyonce at her most explicitly universal, an anthem championing the resiliency of black women loaded with baptismal and protest-inspired imagery, qualities strengthened by the marriage of gospel organ and martial drums. It’s an immensely powerful song that makes full use of Beyonce’s battering ram voice, underlines her support of Black Lives Matter, and has a great supporting verse from Kendrick Lamar. The ending quote (“I had my ups and downs, but I always found the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade”) from Jay Z’s grandmother isn’t just the album’s title drop, but its thesis. The sunny “All Night” is a reconciliation for an album’s worth of wrongdoings, and while something that sounds this joyous could seem cheap or unearned after an album of hurt, I think it works because Beyonce is the active party here: check how the lyrics are about her choices, and there’s even a line about giving him time to make sure she can trust him again. On its own, “All Night” is a very good ballad, but in context, it’s near radical.
“Formation” is entirely different in Lemonade’s context, as well. When we first heard it in February, it was a black as fuck, vaguely trap banger with Beyonce in Flawless Queen Bey mode. But there’s a new power in rewarding her man with Red Lobster after good sex after seeing how much damage was done to their relationship, and more desperation in acting possessive of him, as well. And after an album proclaiming self-love for black women, calling women into formation and supporting their endeavors feels more like a rally cry than #branding. One thing unchanged is that “Formation” still sounds like Beyonce at her most superhuman, but now, there’s an emphasis on her humanity. Lemonade isn’t just a great album, but a reminder that before Beyonce was Beyonce, she was a black woman, and she’ll never leave them behind.