Following up the instant hype of Beyoncé’s last surprise release, the multimedia blitz of Lemonade and attendant focus on what it said about the Beyoncé-Jay Z marriage threatened to eclipse discussion of the actual material before said conversation even happened. Certainly, the album is fascinating for what it reveals (be it real or an elaborate work) about its maker’s relationship, but that is only a fraction of what Lemonade contains. In the accompanying film, subtle replications of sister Solange’s wedding photos collide with occasional musical references to Beyoncé’s parents as well as Blue Ivy, weaving a more holistic family web. Not entirely unlike Björk’s Vulnicura, the album is as much addressed to the artist’s child as to her husband, as protective as it is vindictive. That protectiveness extends into the political realm, squaring her own family drama with broader social concerns.
As angry as so much of the music is, however, it’s surprising to return to the record and hear the warmth of its arrangements. “Hold Up” percolates on faint, wet calypso beats that render her anger in reflective terms. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” rides out on padded drums and mock steel drums before Jack White’s punk-blues influence seeps in for the chorus. Then there’s the bewildering “Daddy Lessons,” which bounces along on New Orleans swing before morphing into an honest-to-God country song that does pop-Nashville better than damn near anyone who’s peddled it in the last decade. Of course, when Beyoncé lets rip, she is terrifying to behold. On “Sorry,” she’s so dismissive that nothing seems worth her time, but she can turn right around and yelp with fury on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” before finding her righteous stride in “Freedom” and “Formation.” At the other end of the spectrum is the delicate, soothing fragility of her voice on “All Night” and “Sandcastles,” songs that express the desire for reconciliation as powerfully as the other songs epitomize her rejection and self-actualization. In a year dominated by politically and personally aware pop albums, the reigning queen of pop set the standard by which the others would be judged. – Jake Cole