Beyoncé Knowles Carter surprised fans with the sudden and stunning release of “Lemonade,” her sixth album, on Saturday night. HBO played a one-hour “video album” featuring haunting videos of the new songs interspersed with dramatic poetry. The album was then made available on Tidal, a streaming service owned by Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z, among other artists.
The marketing genius’ fans took to social media to reaffirm their devotion to the singer, as well as express shock at what the album seemed to reveal. Here are five quick takeaways from the release.
1) A Fully Realized Concept Album with a Beautiful Message
The release grabbed everyone’s attention so quickly because it became clear that we were dealing with a concept album, where each song contributes to a story of a wronged woman and cheating husband who very much matched the description of Beyoncé and Jay Z. The opening line of the opening song “Pray You Can’t Catch Me” is “You can taste the dishonesty.” She sings as a woman tormented by suspicion, punishing herself for her husband’s absence. By the next song, “Hold Up,” she transitions from jealous to crazed with rage over the infidelity. The video album spells things out to help the viewer along — intuition, despair, anger, apathy, and so on.
This was so powerful and shocking — to see one of the world’s most powerful and controlled celebrities seem to announce her divorce in a global television event — that people immediately began cheering her on as she seemed to humiliate her philandering husband. Some friends joked that they wished they were in a relationship just so they could break up in such a cathartic fashion. Some media outlets focused on the anger at the beginning of the album. One said, “Beyoncé’s Lemonade is an album full of resentment towards an unfaithful husband, who is assumed to be the singer’s spouse, Jay Z.”
But the resentment and rage is just the beginning. The subsequent songs carry out the themes of accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope, and redemption. Song and visual imagery emphasize the importance and benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. By the end of the visual album, Jay Z himself is featured playing with the couple’s daughter and showing tenderness to his wife.
What begins seemingly as one of the most public dissolutions of marriage ends up a story of the importance of preserving family against great odds. She sings of love that is stronger than pride and a torturer who becomes her remedy.
Perhaps the best part of the visual album is when we see a room with various artifacts, one of them a Nina Simone album. On a table is a piece of pottery in the kintsugi style. That’s the Japanese art form and philosophy that believes things that are broken and glued back together are more beautiful, that the cracks show the history of an item and the value of restoration over newness.
2) Great Music
It’s always good to listen to an album many times before weighing in on which are the strongest tracks, but the album is full of potential and benefits from collaborations with talented folks outside the R&B genre. The opening ballad is well produced and the slowness lays the groundwork for the almost trip-hop undercurrent of much of the album. “Hold Up” is the catchiest summer song to be built on Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” that you will ever hear. But seriously, the steel drum just works. And the video for this — which features Beyoncé destroying cars and security cameras while wearing a flowing cadmium yellow dress that amplifies her bosom — is memorable.
“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which features Jack White, uses reverb to amplify a passionate anger. “Sorry,” in which Beyoncé somewhat unconvincingly protests that she’s not sorry for moving on emotionally, is both catchy and melancholic. Some critics describe “6 Inch” — featuring The Weeknd — as weak, but it’s a nice homage to Portishead (for more reasons than the shared sampling of Isaac Hayes).
The range is such that it’s not even that surprising when the album has a straight-up country song (“Daddy Lessons”) with a brass section. It’s somewhere between Texas country and New Orleans funeral procession jazz but would not be entirely surprising if this did well on country charts. “Love Drought” is a breezy but funky lovemaking song that plays well on repeat listens. The album includes a standard, if completely overwrought, ballad in “Sandcastles” and a compelling collaboration with a soft-voiced James Blake in “Forward.” Beyoncé belts out the chorus of “Freedom,” which works as a hopeful song about both working to overcome relationship problems and, even more so, working to fight racism and other injustices. The final previously unreleased song on the album is “All Night,” a hopeful reclamation that blends Beyoncé’s typical sex-infused R&B with the complex influences of “Lemonade.”
3) The Drama Is a Bit Much
The music is so strong that I wish the album could stand on its own. The visual album includes the poetry of Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer. If I like to listen to an album a few times before weighing in, the same goes for poetry. And the poetry itself might be fine, but placed in the context of a major marketing push of an album release, it comes off as clichéd and melodramatic. I’ll just say that my first thought was “Rod McKuen” when I heard it. But some of it works well, and there are poignant lines. The real problem is that marketing an album about the raw pain caused by real infidelity is … weird.
One of the lines in the album is “He only want me when I’m not on there / He better call Becky with the good hair.” So cut to the next morning when the very woman rumored to have been Jay Z’s mistress, Rachel Roy, posts on Instagram that she has “good hair don’t care.” Queen Bey’s devoted fans immediately took after Rachel Roy — and, for good measure, celebrity chef Rachel Ray as well. Surprisingly, there was very little comparative anger expended online at the person alleged to have broken his marriage vows.
There’s no question that the Knowles family is full of talent (though I’m on Team Solange), and Jay Z is no slouch himself. But so much of their success seems to be the emphasis — if not the triumph — of marketing over art. Beyoncé made this album and put it out on her husband’s streaming app. It made a splash precisely because of how the tightly guarded family was revealing major drama. Beyoncé is frequently accused of only pretending to be open with her fans, instead of actually open. Was this real or just marketing? Was the album not good enough on its own, requiring this poetry of infidelity to get the marketing machine into high gear? Does any of that matter?
4) People Might Want to Take It Down a Notch
Listen, I loved the album and enjoyed so much of the visual album. Watching and listening was a fun way to spend the weekend. But the reaction strikes me as a bit much. The New York Times didn’t just cover the album release, they put the album release on page one of the Sunday paper. Above the fold.
There’s also, “The 45 Best Lyrics From ‘Lemonade’ You Won’t Be Able To Stop Thinking About,” “The Internet Still Hasn’t Been Resusciated (sic) Following Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Release,” “Beyoncé Just About Breaks the Internet with Lemonade Release,” “Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Is a Revelation of Spirit,” and a thousand other breathless headlines.
She’s good. An amazing performance artist. But is she everybody’s everything? What is the meaning of these hyperbolic reactions? Which reminds me that The New York Times piece suggests that “Lemonade” is a cultural rebuke on behalf of “aching women” such as Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton. I am not joking.
5) A Particular View of Female Empowerment
Hilton Als wrote about Prince’s “genuine female empowerment based not on suffering but on a love of the body.” The comment came to mind as I watched “Lemonade,” with visuals of female empowerment. There are very few men featured in the visual album, much less prominently. Women of all ages are in nearly every shot, providing support and sisterhood as Beyoncé deals with betrayal.
The female empowerment featured in the visual “Lemonade” is real and impressive, but it’s built around suffering, and it’s all in response to a man. Usually the man in question is the spouse, sometimes the father. If women are mentioned, they’re mentioned in the context of abuses suffered at the hands of still other men. Poor treatment of women by men is a cause of much suffering, but it is somewhat deflating to see a feminist empowerment built exclusively around the man. There’s a line in one song where Beyoncé pleads with her spouse, “Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” It’s as if Beyoncé is nothing more than an object of desire for her spouse or for others, but not a woman with dignity on her own because of her relationship to God, or her sense of self, or her vocations outside of spouse.
Perhaps that’s just because this is a narrowly focused concept album, but it does speak to how our current conversations about women are so negative. So much of the conversation about the relationship between the sexes puts us in hostility to one another, emphasizing the suffering we cause rather than the joy each of the sexes brings to the world, much less the joy that comes when the sexes value each other and working together to accomplish great things.