If you told me one week ago that Beyoncé would be dropping her sixth studio album on Saturday, I would have shrugged and said “I guess that’s nice.” This is because I think Beyoncé is one of the most overrated and unnecessarily acclaimed artists of our generation. That might sound harsh, especially for members of the Beyhive, but I just never understood the huge hype. There is no denying she is a talented entertainer and if she is able to inspire and empower a generation of young women I will be more than happy. All this being said, and given the fact I really did not care for her self-titled album from 2013, I did not care much when I heard this was released over the weekend.
Out of curiosity I still checked it out with very little knowledge of what would be on here. After my first listen, I was in absolute shock. I could not believe that this album was as good as it was. I listened to it time after time and each time I found something new to appreciate until I came to the conclusion that Beyoncé had not just created the best album of her career but she might have made the best album of the year.
The first thing that stood out to me was the long list of artists who contributed to each of the tracks on Lemonade. Incredible musicians like Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, Diplo, Father John Misty, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, James Blake, The Weeknd just to name a few all had their hands in this album. The heavy use of samples from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” to “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” by Outkast on “All Night” also keeps the sounds here interesting and fun to pick apart.
And of course, possibly the most talked about aspect of this record, there is the lyrical content which is focused on Beyoncé’s husband and rapper Jay-Z supposedly cheating on her. As someone who does not pay much mind to celebrity gossip like this, I was shocked to find that would be the center of discussion here and Beyoncé does not hold back here, letting her anger and sadness explode with pure raw, emotional energy that I would have never expected to hear from her. And I will not lie, there is satisfaction in seeing Beyoncé, an icon that has rarely lost her composure in the public eye, yell “who the fuck do you think I is?” and to give her “fat ass a big kiss boy.”
Every track here is worth discussing and it only seems right to go through each and discuss how each build on each other to create this amazing album. The opener “Pray You Catch Me” sets the tone of the record, setting the scene of Beyoncé hoping that her husband finally notices that she is going through his stuff, finding out all the information of his affair. It is a simple but effective song that is only complemented by its use of pianos and strings to really make the song beautiful.
Following this, we get “Hold Up” which was co-written by Father John Misty and Ezra Koenig and is produced by Koenig and Diplo. The song goes deeper into Beyoncé’s feeling for her husband and how despite his infidelity and the pain it causes, she still loves him and wants to find answers. The use of lyrics from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” and even Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On” are also interesting but never feel out of places or stolen but fit right at home here.
The first truly great song here is “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with Jack White. It is the first time we see Beyoncé really explode with the raw energy and confidence I mentioned earlier. White’s fingerprints are all over this with the loud, distorted rock and roll sound that he has become famous for. His vocals add to the song as he warns that when you hurt Beyoncé you will only hurt yourself. This is honestly the kind of song I could imagine an artist like Brittany Howard taking on but to see Beyoncé on it just makes me so happy.
This confidence bleeds into the next track “Sorry” which is essentially a breakup song where Beyoncé announces she is not sorry for anything that she has done. This song should definitely appeal to the Beyhive as the first half is largely self-empowering as she describes sticking her middle finger up and leaving. The song begins to take a turn for the sad as the production slows and it seems her real emotions catch up to her as she sits in her own head waiting for him to come home. She even gets close to revealing who the mistress is with the now famous “Becky with the good hair” line that has sent to Internet on a witch hunt.
Beyoncé never lets her sense of empowerment fade, as is clearly seen in “6 Inch.” The Weeknd also joins her on the song, delivering a solid first verse but there is no mistaking that this is Beyoncé’s song. Wisely, she chooses to broaden the narrative to not just include herself but any women and demands respect for them, regardless of their profession.
Another drastic genre change comes around with “Daddy Lessons,” a song that is very much a country song with its acoustic instrumentation and lyrics regarding life lessons taught by her father. The chorus is especially memorable here, with a string of particularly powerful lyrics and Beyoncé’s vocals continuing to be as strong as ever, keeping its edge when singing about how her father said never to trust men like her husband.
The songs “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” work well side by side, as they are both slow tracks about the struggles of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’ relationship. On the former song, focusing on the lack of love being reciprocated between the two, is heartbreaking in how it seems to be leaving Beyoncé vulnerable, contrary to her normal persona. The latter of these, a piano ballad, looks back on what is left of the relationship. We still understand that there are feelings of love between the two and that Jay-Z is truly upset, seemingly breaking down over the issue. All their scars are revealed and that is why they are able to move forward as the interlude “Forward” with James Blake implies.
The last leg of the album is focused more on the idea of building yourself up from the pain, starting with “Freedom.” This is the moment Beyoncé says to herself that she will not be brought down by the pain of this situation and will be free to look ahead. Like she says “a winner don’t quit on themselves.” This is definitely the climax of the record and Beyoncé lets loose with pure emotive proclamation of empowerment. She is so great that she is able to compete with Kendrick Lamar who appears to drop an amazing verse where he lets us know this is about more than personal freedom but societal freedom from racism and oppression.
“All Night” wraps up the state of Bey and Jay’s relationship, as they work together to build up their trust in one another again, see what went wrong and improve upon it. The Outkast sample works great in the back of this ballad, adding some sonic variety. This is a sweet song and if it had ended the album I think this would have been a near perfect record.
This does get me to my one qualm with the following track and leadoff single “Formation.” This took a while for me to come around to and while I appreciate the messaging of it, the lyrics can be a little silly at times and it does not fit perfectly with the record. The empowering content of it still works and it is not too much of a sore thumb, I just am not totally satisfied with it. I also am having difficulty warming up to the boings in the background. It is still better than most songs out now though so I will not complain too much on it.
In summary, this is a reminder of how great pop music can be when the artist focuses on making a great product and not on how many albums they can sell. Beyoncé was able to use her superstar image and work it in a way to show she is not perfect and also is susceptible to vulnerability but can still get through any situation life throws at her. This is the best record from an artist this big in years. This is miles ahead of any of her previous records, this is way above something like 1989 this is even better than Adele’s 25. This is a must listen to album so go and get it by and legal means necessary. I cannot praise it enough.
Best Tracks: Pray You Catch Me, Hold Up, Don’t Hurt Yourself, Sorry, 6 Inch, Daddy Lesson’s Love Drought, Sandcastle, Freedom, All Night
Worst Track: Formation