If Beyoncé felt like a career defining peak for Beyoncé Knowles Carter, then Lemonade is the artist’s bronze statue, memorializing her career amongst the greatest in modern pop. While that sounds grossly hyperbolic, I’m hard pressed to think of another artist capable of creating such a complete visual and audible project, one that plays to an emotionally convincing arc filled with compelling musical moments.
During the course of Lemonade, the seemingly random title is given a loaded meaning. Near the end of the HBO-premiered visual album, Beyoncé draws a connection from her grandmother’s simple, everlasting lemonade recipe to her own perseverance, a literal manifestation of the saying “if life gives you lemons…” On Lemonade, the “lemons” appear to be the betrayals of the men closest to her, from her father’s publicized split from her mother to the rumored infidelity of Jay Z that appears to be confirmed on the blistering “Don’t Hurt Yourself” as well as the casual “Sorry.” Whatever the true inspiration for Lemonade was, it led to Beyoncé finding her strongest voice yet, an already powerful force becoming even more authoritative.
There’s perhaps no example better to showcase that than “Hold Up,” featuring a murderer’s row of songwriters, producers, and interpolations. Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars), Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend), Diplo (Major Lazer), and Father John Misty all receive writing credits, while the song graciously plucks the “wait, they don’t love you like I love you” part of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s seminal “Maps” for the chorus, and Bey riffs on Soulja Boy at the close. I never knew how great it would be to hear Yoncé sing “hop out the bed, turn my swag on / Look in the mirror, say what up.”
Elsewhere, Beyoncé takes moments that should be grating left turns and makes them feel like natural transitions. Following the Weeknd-assisted “6 Inch,” which finds Abel Tesfaye doing a serviceable job in hitting all the checkmarks of a Weeknd song, comes the country-tinged “Daddy Lessons.” Those two songs shouldn’t work being sequenced next to each other, but as “6 Inch” closes, Beyoncé achingly sings “come back to me” before repeatedly singing “come back” in falsetto. Considering “Daddy Lessons” directly follows this somber moment, with a much more upbeat disposition, Beyoncé is able to subtly push the narrative and emotional arc of Lemonade forward.
By the time we get to “Freedom,” her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, the album is in need of a jolt of energy. “Love Drought” is a downtempo, wispy R&B cut, while “Sandcastles” and the James Blake-featured “Forward” are both piano based ballads that field perhaps the two most affecting vocal performances on Lemonade. Those three slower tracks makes “Freedom” feel like a cathartic release of all the emotions that shape the visuals for the album. She’s giving up on denial, on grief, on anger and apathy. She’s left with herself, and her own perseverance. “Imma keep running cause women don’t quit on themselves,” she sings on “Freedom,” before the triumphant horns of OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” closes the album on “All Night.” The journey Beyoncé goes on in Lemonade is not a new one; Beyoncé herself makes it known via the album’s breathtaking visuals that this story is many women’s story. The only thing unique about it is the way it’s told. Lemonade is Beyoncé’s most candid, open album to date. It’s also her best, breaking down and adding to her legend.
Stream/watch Lemonade exclusively on TIDAL.