As the recording industry continues to get hacked into splinters by a rapidly changing media environment the powers that be resolutely refuse to understand, it’s reassuring to discover that an album can still arrive and truly, deeply matter. Granted, it would be myopic understatement to term Beyoncé’s Lemonade as simply an album. It is a full-on cross-media event, complete with an HBO special, an enormous world tour, and an expertly catalyzed supporting campaign of gossipy chatter and rash reaction think pieces. Delivered as a surprise, as Beyoncé is wont to do, the album is cunningly designed to capture attention, filled as it is with the sort of juicy revelations about her personal life that are usually the province of TMZ and other sleazy intruders upon celebrity. With remarkable speed, the album’s vivid shorthand of a thwarted woman’s anger, retribution, empowerment, and perseverance has already locked into the culture. The audience is the orchestra, and Beyoncé conducts wearing a grin both sly and joyful.
All of this would amount to little more than a passing curiosity, an intriguing meld of performance act and modern marketing, if not for one simple detail: the album, judged strictly on its own merits, is fantastic. From the opening tones of “Pray You Catch Me,” which sound like the album gradually coming to after an exhausted collapse, Lemonade excels at building intrigue. The track somehow carries both unbowed authority and the tentativeness of someone whose well-nursed wounds still smart, and that’s even before Beyoncé delivers the lyrics “You can taste the dishonesty/ It’s all over your breath/ As you pass it off so cavalier.” It’s a pointed but gentle beginning, deceptive in the nestling safety of its lush electronics. That shifts into “Hold Up,” which moves with the sort of hiccuping, jazz-inflected rhythms favored by Fiona Apple, all the better to reflect the mental tumult of a person wrestling with self-doubt in the face of her partner’s infidelity, reduced to asking, “What’s worst?/ Looking Jealous or crazy/ Jealous or crazy?” And yet there’s a stabilizing pragmatism inherent to the song’s psyche, typified by the refrain “They don’t love you like I love you,” which recalls the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” but makes the line flatly truthful rather than pleading. In the fraught, complex terrain of the song, Beyoncé wins by being both right and in the right.
The confessional lyrics have snarfed up most of the attention thus far, but the album’s most revelatory aspect is the range of sounds it delivers. While recognizably grounding everything in modern R&B and pop, Beyoncé moves widely from track to track, as if the aching specificity of the words needs a certain amount of sonic sprawl to carry them safely into the world. Many artists opt for the insular as they plumb the personal for material, as Beyoncé-bester Beck did with Sea Change and Morning Phase. Beyoncé goes the opposite direction, operating with a thrilling expansiveness, which instills a quality of endless discovery on the album. At times, the restless questing of the music reminds me of the most energizing efforts of Grimes. There are stealthy musical exaltations to be found darting around within the roiling waters of every song, ranging from the robotic insistence of “Sorry” to the more naturalistic wonders of “Daddy Lessons,” on which a New Orleans jazz intro drifts away to reveal a country-western stomper which could find a happy home on a Dolly Parton record.
Her willingness to explore also stands Lemonade up as an argument for the value of concerted collaboration. Curmudgeonly purists like me sometimes dismiss albums with credit lists that rival the closing spool of names at the end of a CGI-bolstered summer blockbuster movie, trained as we are to genuflect before the performers who, at least according to creaky rock ‘n’ roll myth-making, can claim full ownership of every last note and word (Bob Dylan didn’t need a co-writer, we cry!). But Beyoncé demonstrates that extra cooks can lead to more challenging flavors, mostly through clearly approaching the process with a welcome sense of generosity, and not just because Josh Tillman will probably earn more as one-fifteenth of the team credited with composing “Hold Up” than than from the entire Father John Misty discography. That shared control manifests as tracks that are unmistakably expressions of Beyoncé’s voice but also exhibit the shadings of the varied contributors, effectively making influence and originality overlap. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” reverberates with Jack White’s anxious modernized blues, and “Forward” is drenched in James Blake’s trademark melting oxygen. The pinnacle is reached with “Freedom,” which Beyoncé meets with a thrilling ferocity that matches and enhances the effortless dynamics of guest Kendrick Lamar.
If there was any doubt left, Lemonade solidifies Beyoncé as the defining popular artist of her age, one who has the command and capability to transform the landscape with a flick of her unerring instinct. The album argues that she is more worthy to sit on that gold and platinum throne than most. Where Madonna’s provocations of reinvention a generation ago were about little more than the constant bolstering of her own brand, Beyoncé is engaged in an ongoing act of fearless creativity, one that twists the personal and the political into a tight knot. Unlike most others who rampage across the pop charts, Beyoncé is anti-emptiness, filling up every nook of her music with something interesting, unpredictable, or challenging (or, often, all three at the same time). If that leads to staggered confusion among some and protests that mostly reinforce her point, then so be it. She’ll find a way to take charge of that, too. Sure, keep trucking in all that sour fruit. Beyoncé knows what to do with it.