As I watched the premiere of the LEMONADE short film on HBO this past Saturday, every aural and visual clue prompted me—and most of Twitter—to think, “Yo…is Bey gonna divorce Jay Z in public on this shit?” And then, “HOLY SHIT, she’s totally gonna do that.” And then, “But wait, he’s appearing onscreen in his own public humiliation?” And finally, “Oh…it’s credited to ‘Beyonce Knowles-Carter,’ so they’re still together. For now.”
Even accounting for the natural hyperbole of Twitter, so many people had the “holy shit is she gonna do this via public art” reaction because it seemed possible. While Beyonce says little about her private life in interviews to uphold her ubiquitous image-curation efforts, her music has grown more bold, honest and risk-taking. So it was logical to assume that the confrontational, fuck-you-and-your-sidepiece material had basis in reality.
LEMONADE, by far Beyonce’s best work to date, is the logical progression of the artistic development begun on her self-titled 2013 record. By no conventional measure—aside from obvious facts such as “Beyonce is massively popular” and “I mean, it’s not fucking Schoenberg, there are melodies and stuff”—is it a “pop” album. There are no traditional singles: “Formation” is by default, but not because of how it sounds. (This is a very good thing, because “Formation” is what singles should sound like, in spirit if not always literally.)
If Future albums where he sings as much as raps are hip-hop, then so is LEMONADE, certainly for its first half. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear mixtape freestyles over “6 Inch,” “Hold Up” and perhaps “Sorry” in the near future. But beyond that the record adopts whatever sound Beyonce deems appropriate for a given song’s mood even if it’s wildly different from whatever precedes or follows it, be that country blues (the welcome surprise of “Daddy Lessons”), Sly Stone-indebted political hip-hop (“Freedom”), languid, reverb-laden and essentially hookless balladry (the cryfest one-two punch of “Sandcastles” and “Forward”) or pure R&B heaven (“All Night”). And even within that sonically consistent first half, the distorted rage of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” jaunty-but-joyless bounce of “Hold Up” and clangorous horror-flick beats of “6 Inch” aren’t necessarily going to hang together in the wrong artist’s hands. But Yonce makes it all work.
If this album is fictional or drawn from a life not her own, then Beyonce has jumped miles ahead as a songwriter and performer. If it’s autobiographical, then she’s done what the greatest artists do and torn phenomenal work out of her heartbreak. The specific origin doesn’t matter. What does is how effectively that emotional arc plays out. As noted via title cards in the accompanying film, it follows a modified version of Kubler-Ross’s relationship grief stages (adding terms such as “Intuition” and “Apathy”). Beyonce’s narrator realizes she’s being cheated on, attempts to deny it, wonders what she’s done to inspire her husband’s infidelities, spews rage at him and his other woman, reflects on other men in her life past and present and then considers kicking husband’s ass to the curb.
The narrative doesn’t make this woman’s reasons for not ditching her partner entirely clear, but there are many possibilities. Perhaps it’s the need to focus on things of greater importance than her personal life, like the sociopolitical realities of black American life addressed on “Freedom.” Perhaps it’s about viewing the marriage as something too great to surrender. It’s apparent that attempts at reconciliation will be made by the end of “All Night,” even if the ultimate future of the relationship is indeterminate.
The anger and pain of the album’s first two thirds bring out the best in Beyonce’s singing and delivery. Her voice has never cracked up the way it does on “Sandcastles”—the way she sings “and your face” in that song, my my—or become an instrument of violence as on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” when she screams “Who the fuck do you think I is?!” (Whatever concerns she has about perception clearly don’t pertain to her choice of language anymore, thankfully. That directness informs all the lyrics, from fiery kiss-offs like “You can watch my fat ass twist, boy” to the naked emotion of “Trade your broken wings for mine/I’ve seen your scars and kissed your crimes” on “All Night.”) She eschews the “Halo”-style melisma aspect of her voice to instead explore its widest possible range—smoky-low, forceful and quiet as necessary.
For very fucking obvious reasons I’m not qualified to judge LEMONADE’s specific qualifications as a work of feminist or black art. But I can tell you how clear the importance of those sociocultural elements is to Beyonce. They inform every note on this album and every frame of its filmic twin in one way or another. I can tell you that I found them inspiring, and I know they’ll mean even more to those who they’re most directly intended to reach. (Including the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the “Freedom” portion of the film is an act of boldness beyond even Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary “Alright” video.) I can tell you the overall emotional potency of LEMONADE is universal, and that its social meaning only enriches its value. I can tell you that its beauty brought me to tears. And I can tell you that this is one of the best albums of the year.