Beyoncé has been noticeably transitioning into a more ambitious, album-oriented artist ever since the release of 4. Her self-titled album, which she surprise released in 2013 showed huge growth, expanding her sonic palette, and diving headfirst into a deep, feminist narrative, but not even that album can prepare one for the huge leap in ambition and quality that Lemonade brings.
Beyoncé and Jay Z’s relationship has been relayed through tabloid-baiting songs since its inception (Crazy In Love and 99 Problems both caused quite a stir). On Beyoncé, she invited her audience to immerse themselves in the complexities and sensuality of her marriage, and on Lemonade she takes that concept to its logical extreme. The album functions as an exorcism for years of tension surrounding her husband’s apparent infidelities, and she is extremely blunt about her feelings. Over the course of twelve songs, Beyoncé questions Jay Z’s commitment, rages against his failings, finds it in herself to forgive him, then realises she’s just the latest in a long line of black women to be mistreated by men, themes Lemonade’s accompanying visual album makes explicit.
The opening track of the album – Pray You Catch Me – sets the tone for the album, as Beyoncé sings over James Blake’s sombre piano – “I can taste the dishonesty / it’s all over your breath”. It’s a painfully intimate portrait of mistrust, and the swelling instrumentation lends impact to Beyoncé’s growing realisation of her husband’s infidelity. The next four tracks (Hold Up through 6 Inch) see her anger and defiance exploding into the most thrilling run of songs she has ever recorded. The Jack White featuring Don’t Hurt Yourself is particularly striking, as Beyoncé sings in a garage-rock style, with more edge and aggression than she ever has before. She completely sells lines like “you ain’t married to no average b***h boy”, with swagger and confidence, and it demonstrates her astonishing growth as an artist.
Even more experimental is the sixth track Daddy Lessons. Over a country(!) backing, Beyoncé expands Lemonade’s scope from simple vengeance, and she considers her relationship with her father, especially in comparison to her husband – “when trouble comes to town / and men like me come around / oh, my daddy said shoot”. She evidently has a fondness for her father throughout the track, and in spite of his reported transgressions (being unfaithful to her mother) she has forgiven him, so why can’t she forgive her husband? Most of the second half of Lemonade is spent on reconciliation and contemplation, as Beyoncé considers her own lineage and cultural history. Freedom, the best song Beyoncé has ever recorded (with a bombastic Just Blaze beat), sees her declaring herself over her problems – “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / tell the sweet I’m new” – and rallies her fellow black women to escape their own confinements – “I break chains all by myself / won’t let my freedom rot in hell”. It’s a stirring climax to the emotional ark of the album, as Beyoncé casts off her personal concerns and renders them universal.
Lemonade is a stunning piece of work, the best record yet from an artist who has been on an amazing hot streak. Whilst her previous albums felt like she was experimenting, and finding her feet as a self-directed artist, this one feels confident and fully-formed, with not a word or note out of place. Beyoncé holds a special, much-adored place in pop-culture, but with Lemonade she has become one of the most ambitious and successful artists in the world, leveraging her unique recourses to create an album no one else possibly could. It is a masterpiece.