On the surface, it’s easy to assume that Lemonade is Beyoncé’s revenge against Jay-Z. That wrapping-up every detail of his sordid treachery in an outstanding album that’s the best of Beyoncé’s career so far, is the ‘lemonade’ from the lemons of Jay-Z’s philandering.
But – and this is the blessed complexity at the heart of Lemonade – it’s not just about one man’s mistake and the pain it has caused one woman.
To centre the achievement of Lemonade around ‘what one man did’ would be feckless and wrong. In fact Lemonade isn’t even just about the strength and undeniable resilience of Beyoncé herself, this is about all black women and how they’ve coped with the pain, the subjugation and the torrent of other shit delivered to them by the hands of men throughout all of human history.
Malcolm X’s damning indictment that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman” runs throughout Lemonade, but the strength and solidarity of black women is personified by Jay-Z’s 90 year-old grandmother, who declares, “I had my ups and downs but I always find the inner strength to cool myself off. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
Beyoncé is going through a similar journey here on Lemonade, an immensely satisfying concept album that sees Beyoncé finding the same reserves of strength to overcome her own anger – at her husband, at all men, at all of society – and come out the other side powerful, yet remarkably peaceful.
Of course the most headline-grabbing angle here is Jay-Z’s wandering dick and the ‘visual’ version of Lemonade really puts it into sharp focus (please excuse the imagery). Sadly missing from the audio version are various spoken word passages preceding each track; the most damning of which being the line, “You remind me of my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once.” And it’s this direct comparison with her cheating father that makes it clear this is the most public airing of dirty laundry since Bjork’s Vulnicura. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking line, layered with Beyoncé’s vulnerable delivery, and it creates an expectation that Lemonade will be all-out-war on Hova, and although there are plenty of moments of venom (“You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath, as you pass it off so cavalier”), it is primarily about forgiveness and hope.
‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ is a vicious, tightly-wound ‘fuck you’, filled with layers of rage; some directed at her own husband, some directed at the appalling treatment of black woman in the US. There’s also an intensely controlled sample from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ which twists into something you’d hear on Battles’ Mirrored. Plus there’s back-up from fellow Tidal family-member Jack White. In fact one of Lemonade‘s many many strengths is in its choice of guests; Kendrick Lamar delivers an exhiliarting verse in ‘Freedom’ and James Blake’s passage in ‘Forward’ – delivered over footage of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other relatives of innocent young black men murdered by white men with guns – is particularly heart-stopping.
In every facet – musically, vocally and lyrically – Beyoncé is at the top of her game. ‘Hold Up’ is a gorgeous, low-key jaunt, which takes Yeah Yeah Yeah’s most heart-wrenching line “they don’t love you like I love you” and turns it into self-affirming, cathartic joy. It helps too if you watch the video, where a freshly energised Beyoncé walks down the street smashing the crap out of various cars, fire-hydrants and CCTV cameras along the way.
Again, the spoken-word passages carry much of the emotional heavy lifting, and “If this is what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine” is the darkest territory Beyoncé has ever dwelt in. It’s a complicated image. At once desperately sad, but also violent and retributory. It’s a shame that much of this poetry is missing from the standard audio version, but it’s a good enough reason to get a free month’s trial of Tidal.
Similarly, the electrifying ‘Sorry’ is made even more triumphant by its video featuring Beyoncé and a bus full of women all sticking their middle fingers up to oppression that ends with Beyonce saying she will take their daughter away and that Hova can fuck off with “Becky with the good hair.”
‘6 Inch’ is the requisite The Weeknd guest appearance that must be a part of every artist’s album right now, but it helps usher a shift in tone to Lemonade; it’s dramatic sordidness can’t be topped, and what follows is a softening of Beyoncé’s timbre that mirrors her ebbing anger towards her husband. ‘Love Drought’ seeks understanding and calm, with its admission that “you and me could move a mountain” holding a world of bittersweetness at its centre. This is followed by ‘Sandcastles’, which is disappointingly dreary, despite the vicious attacks towards ‘the other woman’, and its video’s presence of a humbled, sheepish Jay-Z is perhaps too cloying.
Thankfully Lemonade ends with a thrilling triple-shot of Beyoncé’s best tracks to date. The aforementioned ‘Freedom’, which is addictively terrific, the gorgeous ‘All Night’ and of course ‘Formation’, which in the context of the album doesn’t quite gel, so has been tacked-on at the end as a bonus. However it sounds just as magnificent as it did when it tore up the world at the beginning of the year, so it matters not one bit.
Lemonade shows Beyoncé heroically coming out the other side of the shit completely restored, and it’s a majestic paean to love, pain, growth, family and forgiveness. Beyoncé’s willingness to heal is not a weakness. Beyoncé’s ability to parse through her pain for the sake of her family and forgive the person she loves is her ultimate strength.