Beyoncé’s latest project, “Lemonade” (Parkwood/Columbia), is no ordinary album. It’s an incredible masterwork of coordination and creativity — one where every piece isn’t just necessary, but feeds into the grand scheme.
Even its surprise delivery was orchestrated. “Lemonade” debuted as a one-hour special on HBO Saturday night (part of the premium channel’s free weekend, no less, to maximize its audience) so that fans would experience it as a single piece first, before dissecting it into its components. (It’s currently only available for streaming on Tidal.)
With “Lemonade,” Beyoncé tells the very specific story of a woman’s marriage rocked by a husband’s infidelity and how it survives, as well as a broader one about how women, especially black women, have suffered in their relationships and how they thrive. “I was served lemons,” Beyoncé’s grandmother says in a home movie. “But I made lemonade.”
Is “Lemonade” the story of her marriage to Jay Z, which was reportedly on the rocks a few years ago? Well, it has to be, at least in part.
Because no one outside of Beyoncé’s inner circle knew what to expect, it was easy to think that following the rage-filled rocker “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the icy dance number “Sorry” (which features Serena Williams dancing around suggestively in support) that “Lemonade” was going to end in the announcement of their divorce.
“Me and my baby we gonna be alright, we gon’ live a good life,” she sings at the end of “Sorry.” “Big Homie better grow up.”
When Jay Z makes his first appearance in “Lemonade” during the wrenching piano ballad “Sandcastles,” about broken promises, the hope for their personal story begins. By the finale, the bluesy “All Night,” the intimate videos of their wedding and of Jay lovingly playing with their daughter Blue Ivy suggest they have decided to move forward together.
It’s a tribute to “Lemonade” as a piece of art, though, that the ending was so unclear. And it’s a tribute to Beyoncé as an artist that she makes “All Night” about all couples’ struggles and not just her own.
There is no doubt about who is in control in “Lemonade.” There was no call put out for material to be cobbled together, the way most superstar albums are built these days. Instead, Beyoncé clearly called together a dream team of collaborators to make her vision a reality. She uses all of Jack White’s powers to magnify her fury in the rocking “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a withering attack on a cheater from intellectual, spiritual and visceral standpoints. On several tracks, she heightens the tension by using her warm voice to do battle with James Blake’s cold electronica. And in “Hold Up,” destined to be a summer smash, she takes the lilting, reggae-tinged indie rock of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and bits of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” and injects them with some soul as she wonders “What’s worse looking jealous or crazy?” (The video pairs this question with the indelible image of a bat-wielding Bey bashing cars and anything else in her way as she dances down the street.)
Not that Beyoncé really caters to traditional outlets like radio anymore, but “Lemonade” is packed with potential hits in all sorts of formats. The deceptively simple “Sorry,” with its playful synths and irresistible beat, is perfect for pop fans. “Freedom,” featuring a stunning verse from Kendrick Lamar, seems set for the hip-hop stations. She even tries her hand at country in “Daddy Lessons” and makes it work.
And what about “Formation,” the controversial first single that seemed to signal a more political bent for Beyoncé? Well, it closes the album (though the video is not in the HBO special), and it suggests that now that life inside her home seems more settled, she is focusing her attention outside of it.
While most artists build expectations for an album release for three months through singles, videos and interviews, Beyoncé simply put the album and its videos on sale all at once.