Beyonce's 'Lemonade' turns life's lemons into furious pop

By Chris Richards

However many senses you have, Beyoncé wanted all of them working overtime on Saturday night with the presto-release of her sixth album, Lemonade.

You could stream it as a dozen songs on Tidal, or you could watch it as an elongated music video on HBO. If you spent any time pondering the album's title, your tongue might have tingled. And if you sang along, you definitely caught a whiff of something foul.

Beyonce swims underwater in one scene from her Lemonade music video. Photo / HBO
Beyonce swims underwater in one scene from her Lemonade music video. Photo / HBO

That's because Lemonade is a surprisingly furious song-cycle about infidelity and revenge - and its indignation becomes clear the moment Beyoncé sings, "I smell your secret, and I'm not too perfect to ever feel this worthless." The song is called Hold Up, and despite all its rage, it sounds like Enya's Orinoco Flowreincarnated as reggae.

Which is to say it's the kind of highly disjunctive pop tune that continues to make Beyoncé such a vexing superstar. She's singing about nasty personal wounds with a carefree confidence, revealing something huge as if she isn't revealing anything at all.

This distance feels weird, but it's always been there. Go back to her 2003 breakup anthem, Me, Myself and I, and you can hear the woman unplug herself from the universe with a vow of self-reliance: "From now on, I'ma be my own best friend." Was she warning the world that it would never truly know her? Nearly 13 years later, we still don't.

So yeah, it's still impossible to figure out where Beyoncé stands, but with Lemonade, she has never been clearer about what she stands for. She might be a cloistered superstar, but she's still a black woman navigating a country toxic with hatred for blackness and womanhood.

Her stardom in and of itself becomes a form of opposition. Through her music, she projects an invincibility that makes less-invincible listeners feel more like her. She makes the hardness of life feel less indomitable. That was a David Bowie thing, it was a Prince thing, it's always been a hip-hop thing, and it's very much a Beyoncé thing.

Throughout Lemonade, she voices her politics most explicitly in lyrical fragments - a tactic that feels artfully appropriate for these shattered songs. On Hold Up, she asks why women aren't entitled to their anger: "What's worse: Looking jealous or crazy?"

On "Formation," that rhythmic weather-system she performed at the Super Bowl, she touts her own work ethic: "I dream it, I work hard, I grind till I own it." And over the blustery march of "Freedom," she makes a resolution: "I'ma keep running 'cause a winner don't quit on themselves." (Lyrics aside, her singing has never sounded more agile or more exploratory.)

Of course, these sparkling shards of protest are given umpteen extra layers of context in the "visual album" version of Lemonade, an hour-long film that collides dreamlike vignettes with harsh American realities. The film's most powerful moment arrives when the camera lands on the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, each clutching a framed portrait of her slain son.

It's a lot to take in, and it'll be impossible to get your arms around it after just a few spins. Absorbent listening - and looking - still takes time. "Lemonade" deserves that kind of time.

And, hey, speaking of time, look how far along we got without mentioning that elephant over there in the corner. Yep, the one in the Yankees cap. His name is Jay Z, and he's Beyoncé's husband. For now, at least.

As gross and tawdry as it feels to ask, it's impossible not to: Has Beyoncé set her divorce papers to melody? Or is this album simply aimed at the cheating slimeballs of the universe on behalf of scorned partners everywhere?

It becomes difficult to believe the latter on Don't Hurt Yourself, a thunder-and-lightning collaboration with Jack White, where Beyoncé snarls, "You ain't married to no average b****, boy!" Or on the swaggy flicker of "Sorry," when she sings, "I regret the night I put that ring on," and then, "Big homie better grow up" - a direct reference to her spouse's nickname.

Beyonce emerges through a wall of water pouring out of a door way in a still from Beyonce's "Lemonade" video.
Beyonce emerges through a wall of water pouring out of a door way in a still from Beyonce's "Lemonade" video.

(You'll have to look up the jaw-dislocating insult Beyoncé drops in the song's first verse. It's unprintable here.) Autobiographical or not, people are going to lose their minds parsing this stuff.

So go forth and gossip your face off. Just don't let it drag your eardrums too far away from the sounds Beyoncé has made for you. There's a serious encounter to be had with this music alone, and you'll want to throw your entire sensorium into it.

If anything, Lemonade proves that all of our over-dazzled senses are still plenty responsive, especially to the sound of a singular human voice.

A photo posted by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on


- Washington Post

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