Album Review: Beyoncé - Lemonade

In the wake of the untimely and unexpected passing of Prince, one thing that has been made clear by reading up on his life and his career, and going back through his canon of work, is that he was an “Artist.” And during his late 1980s and 1990s run—well into when he got weird and was churning out album after album in an attempt to free himself from his record contract, he wasn’t so much concerned with accessibility as he was with making some kind of “Artistic Statement.”

Rarely do you see that in today’s modern pop landscape, and when a performer decides to make an “Artistic Statement,” it’s a gamble if people will get it, will appreciate it, and if they’ll stick with you in the end.

Beyoncé’s first “Artistic Statement,” and her desire to be looked at as an “Artist” rather than a performer, arrived at the tail end of 2013, in the form of her self-titled album—a package that included both music, as well as visuals to accompany each song on the album. It arrived without warning—showing up as an unannounced iTunes exclusive, and thus sending the internet into a tizzy over its mysterious release.

Sure there were moments of accessibility, but as a whole, you could tell that Beyoncé was becoming less concerned with being a pop singer, and wanted to do something much more serious than that with her career.

That desire to do something bigger—to make “Artistic Statements” as an “Artist” continues with her new release—another “visual album.” Lemonade arrived with little to no warning on Saturday evening, sliding in as a TIDAL exclusive while the world watched the HBO special of the same name.

And as expected, the internet reacted accordingly to both the special, as well as its accompanying album.

In its press release, Lemonade is apparently a concept album about an African American woman’s journey through self knowledge and healing—so, you know, pretty heavy handed stuff. Taken in one sitting, rarely is it concerned with accessibility, but rather, exploring the boundaries and genres of pop music all while being connected by an overarching series of ideas that run throughout the album’s lyrics.

So what are the themes present on Lemonade?

At first glance, it comes off like a divorce announcement—the most prevalent idea that runs throughout the album is ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ Beyoncé’s anger and rage at a philandering husband (I hope her and Jigga are okay) are channeled through her lyrics, as well as her delivery: on Lemonade, she gives some of the most raw, visceral, and aggressive vocal performances of her career.

Stylistically, Lemonade is all over the place—but I suppose that’s what happens when you work with myriad producers throughout the course of the album. Opening with a slow burning, somber piano ballad—the album slowly slides into the airy, world-influenced “Hold Up,” which then runs into the harder edged, rock stomp of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a song that features a guest appearance from Jack White of all people.

White’s guest spot is not the most surprising or perplexing thing about the album—“Hold Up” interpolates material from “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as a song by Soulja Boy, and boasts production from a member of Vampire weekend.

Stranger still is “Daddy Lessons”—which is a straight up country song, right down to its shuffling acoustic guitar, Beyoncé’s vocal inflections, and the stark imagery within the song itself.

Pacing wise, Beyoncé front loads Lemonade with not its strongest material per se, but for the most part, the album’s energy all arrives before the halfway point—intentionally slowing things down with “Love Drought,” and then the impressive, show stopping one-two punch of “Sand Castles” and its epilogue featuring James Blake, “Forward.”

As it careens toward its conclusion, it has one final burst of bombast—I guess really the only real burst of bombast, in the form of the electric anthem “Freedom,” featuring a breathless and breakneck guest verse from Kendrick Lamar.

Lemonade closes out with “Formation,” the controversial single Beyoncé released in February prior to her appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Tacked on at the end, the song feels like more of a bonus track than it does a part of the album as a whole—and according to The New York Times review of the album, the even more controversial video for “Formation” is not included in the Lemonade visual package.

I don’t have HBO, and I’m not dedicated enough to this whole “visual album” concept to sit at my computer for an hour and watch an illegally downloaded copy of the Lemonade film—so as I write this, it feels like, to some extent, that I am only reviewing half of something. Can these songs exist outside part of their context and still be a fulfilling listening experience?

In the end, I am not sure that I believe that Lemonade is strong enough to stand on its own with out at least some working context of what the accompanying film is about. I have some idea, but I feel like I would appreciate the music more if I understood the visuals meant to go with them.

Despite the difficulty to separate the project into two pieces, as an idea, Lemonade is admirable—from the entire concept behind a “visual album” right down to its secret roll out (a relief given the botched TIDAL roll out of Beyonce’s peers earlier this year.) It’s a difficult and dense album. Even its straight forward tracks that are less experimental in nature aren’t, like, all that radio friendly. But then again, an album released exclusively through a music streaming service is probably not that concerned about radio airplay to drive numbers.

A longtime household name, Beyoncé has reached a point in her solo career that she can afford to take interesting risks with her musical output, and in the execution, her audience is smart enough, and has grown with her enough, to understand the “Artistic Statement” she is trying to make.

Lemonade is available now via Parkwood/Columbia as a TIDAL exclusive for 'the foreseeable future.'