Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” ****1/2
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Like her 2013 self-titled album, “Lemonade” finds Beyoncé really expanding her sound to cinematic levels. This is literally the case when you consider that both albums came with a visual companion counterpart. “Lemonade” is shorter than her previous record, but it is in many ways a more ambitious piece of art. It’s a well-constructed, genre-defying record that might surprise some of her biggest critics. This record shows a considerable amount of heft.
At its center, this is a reflective narrative about a relationship marred by a violation of trust. Its video companion aired over the weekend on HBO and immediately speculation began if this album is a direct response to a possible affair by Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z. If this is based in reality, Beyoncé is very publicly calling him out. But this is an album full of anger that is often quiet and seething in nature. When Beyoncé quotes Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” on “Hold Up,” and sings, “They don’t love you like I love you,” there is a quiet, hurt sense of menace to her voice as if she’s asking, “How could you do this to us?”
That sense of anger erupts from time to time, like on the Jack White-assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” but this is often a very introspective record at its peaks. “Pray You Catch Me,” the somber opener, is about looking for answers and subtly seeking out clues. “Sorry” is also a cautiously angry piece, with the eyebrow-raising lyric, “He better call Becky with the good hair.” This line alone caused its own Internet storm over the weekend. It’s quite powerful to hear the singer of “Single Ladies” now saying “Tonight I regret that night I put that ring on.”
“Daddy Lessons” is a surprising mixture of jazz and country. With its cowboy and gun-themed lyrics, it runs the chance of someday getting a full-fledged country treatment in cover form. It is definitely different than anything Beyoncé has ever recorded.
Toward the end of this record, it shifts focus from songs about affairs to anthems of strong, black, feminine pride. The acid-washed funk of the Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Freedom” deserves to be blasted from the rooftops, while the edgier single (and unlikely “Red Lobster” ad) “Formation” ends the set with an authoritative bounce, as if Beyoncé is saying that she will never be brought down. These two tracks stand out from the rest of the set, providing both a bit of spiritual resurrection and something booming for these political times.
This is a tremendously adventurous set. Beyoncé surrounds herself with a lot of good people. James Blake, The Weeknd and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig all make strong appearances. Beyoncé and her producers also know how to quote and sample well. I mentioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs earlier. They also borrow from Animal Collective and sample Led Zeppelin’s take on “When The Levee Breaks.”
With each record, Beyoncé is getting further from typical pop and R&B realms, instead advancing into her own sense of musical fusion. This shift really kicked into gear on the last record and continues on this one. She’s one of the only pop stars who is afforded the chance to really show some artistic edge at this point, given that she has a tremendously loyal audience.
“Lemonade” may be an incredibly personal record. While perhaps dealing with a crisis, what better way to recover than to bring your supportive fans along for the ride? An old adage no doubt tells you what you should do when life gives you lemons. Beyoncé has given us “Lemonade” that is tart, sweet and bitter all at the same time.
“Hold Up” Co-produced by Ezra Koenig, this sounds like a tricked-out, more dance-hall ready version of a Vampire Weekend song, but again, Beyoncé brings a tenderness to the table. She sounds sweet but angry at the same time, singing, “What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you” at a near whisper. The video which finds her walking down the street in a yellow dress, hitting targets with a baseball bat, image-wise has some nice “RIOT GRRRL!” style echoes.
“Freedom” (Featuring Kendrick Lamar) This is Beyoncé going for the gold. This is a really charging number for the ages and yet Kendrick Lamar’s appearance here effectively ties it to the tone of his album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” (Featuring Jack White) It’s amazing how well Jack White and Beyoncé mesh on this track. She sounds hoarse which gives a throaty authoritative drive to this track, while he provides nice interplay during the chorus. She ends the song by saying, “If you try this s--- again, you’re gonna lose your wife!” BOOM! The mic has been dropped.