This is Beyoncé’s best album yet.
“I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,” croaks Beyoncé’s grandmother-in-law Hattie White at the climax of the singer’s sixth album. It’s an old chestnut, but one Beyoncé’s taken to heart. If the lyrics on Lemonade are any indication, Jay-Z’s been unfaithful, so it’s safe to say life’s served her a lot of lemons lately. Lemonade is something sweet, something pop, just like bubblegum and sugar, sugar. And the best thing about Lemonade is that in spite of its ferocious treatment of its themes, it never plays like a collection of diary entries. It plays like a pop album.
Those who anticipated a sonic sequel to her proudly electronic self-titled album from 2013 might be taken aback by how many guitars and pianos there are here. These are instruments used to convey authenticity of emotion, often in a stripped-down context, so it’s not surprising to hear them on Beyoncé’s most “confessional” album. But when Beyoncé plays with rock, country, and quiet storm balladry here, she doesn’t do so in the service of making her emotions feel more “real” but rather as light-hearted pastiche. She and the small army of songwriters and producers backing her up never forgo craft to make her confessions stick out. “MTV Unplugged” this ain’t.
Take “Daddy Lessons” as an example. A country ballad, it’s got more acoustic guitar than the rest of the Bey discography put together. Given that she preceded it with four stark confessionals (plus “6 Inch,” a gleefully subversive take on the R&B stripper-ballad format featuring maybe the best use of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By” ever), we expect she’ll use this format to channel her most vulnerable emotions. But then we hear her whisper “Texas” three times as if she’s chanting a spell to make the desert appear before our eyes. “Daddy Lessons” is a Western epic that stunningly evokes the mythical qualities of her home state in spinning its story about a daddy and daughter riding motorbikes and shooting guns. Slot it alongside “Rocky Raccoon” and “Bad Meets Evil.” It’s so joyful and free we can practically feel wind whipping through her hair as she sings.
Perhaps the biggest curveball on Lemonade is its pronounced rock influence. Rock’s another “authentic” genre whose focus on artists writing their own songs and playing their own instruments makes Beyoncé inherently an enemy—remember the 2015 Grammys brouhaha? Bey’s not interested in this. Like her hero Janet Jackson, who set the most emotionally devastating moment of The Velvet Rope, “What About,” to heavy metal guitars, Beyoncé wants rock for the anger it can convey. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” her collaboration with Jack White, is a fire-breathing rebuke of her husband’s infidelity with the singer’s voice soaring into the red on a performance that’s pure, undiluted rock ’n’ roll. And “Freedom,” a late-album firestorm, seethes with fizzy organs, filtered vocals and slippery guitar/vocal duels. It sounds an awful lot like something off Jack White’s Lazaretto. What a surprise to find out it was produced by Just Blaze.
Elsewhere, Beyoncé flirts with indie rock (“Forward”), Technicolor reggae (“Hold Up”), quiet storm (“Sandcastles”) and the bass-heavy alt-R&B of the self-titled (“Love Drought”). It’s remarkable how well these songs hang together. While the self-titled was a collection of islands, each representing a facet of Beyoncé’s personality, Lemonade is a capital-A album. Much of this has to do with its focus on a single emotion and experience rather than trying to overwhelm with an abundance of content. A human personality is something so complex one can’t hope to encapsulate it on an album, though Beyoncé sure tried. There are really only two themes on Lemonade: cheating and discrimination, the latter of which Beyoncé explores on “Freedom,” “6 Inch,” and the black power anthem “Formation.” Lemonade’s monomania is the glue keeping it together. This is a truer concept album than Beyoncé, and it’s ultimately more similar to 4, her 2011 meditation on marital bliss to which Lemonade could be seen as a dark mirror.
Perhaps Lemonade’s release strategy made this necessary. Beyoncé turned the music industry on its head in 2013 by surprise-dropping her self-titled record during an era when Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories pushed the album rollout to its excessive peak. Beyoncé had to hold up as a back-to-front album or risk failing, and the same goes for Lemonade. It was first released on Tidal, so bonus tracks are out of the question. This is likely why the album’s sole single “Formation” was tacked onto the end. It’s a weird and incongruous closer, though it’s more anticlimactic than deflating. But it’s still a great song, and it packs more oomph in the context of the album than it did as a single; the “I’m so possessive when I rock his Roc necklaces” line is intriguing in context of the album’s cheating narrative.
Speaking of which: it’s not unlikely at all that the couple made up the entire cheating story. After all, how is Jay-Z this cool with Beyoncé dragging his name through the mud like this, even if the allegations are true? But if the whole shebang turns out to be phony, the real tragedy isn’t the authenticity the music loses but the fact that Beyoncé even had to make up an elaborate story to sell her concept. What a vicious trap “realness” can be. Nobody complained about the Beatles writing songs about being lonely while happily married.
Tidal describes Lemonade as an album about “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing.” The “every woman” part is key. This is not an album about being Beyoncé. It’s about something far more universal: feeling used, abused, mistreated and stepped on. Lemonade channels these emotions into 46 minutes of music that never forsakes pop sweetness for catharsis, or vice-versa; they become one and the same. This is Beyoncé’s best album yet and one of the most compelling cases ever made for the pop album as confessional art form.