In a follow-up essay to his review of The Life of Pablo, Jon Caramanica of The New York Times wrote, of its unfinished nature and Kanye’s constant updates, that the album as a format “is no longer just a snapshot, but an unending data stream.” Beyoncé Knowles begs to differ. Her sixth and, by an order of magnitude, best album Lemonade represents the culmination of exacting thought and utmost care. It stands in stark contrast to the messiness of Pablo. From its brilliant rollout to its dazzling artistic statement, Lemonade arrives not still-in-progress, but utterly flawless.
The artful HBO debut of Beyoncé’s “visual album” on Saturday, which the network streamed on its apps for free, couldn’t have been more different than West’s confusing and amateurish Madison Square Garden event that doubled as a commercial for his clothing line (which fans like me paid to watch in movie theaters). After the HBO special concluded, Lemonade instantly appeared on Tidal. Kanye, on the other hand, continued to tinker with Pablo’s tracklist for days following its half-baked debut. Beginning with a fabulous performance of “Formation” that upstaged Coldplay at the Super Bowl, the seamlessness of Lemonade’s launch only speaks to Beyoncé’s increasing perfectionism. (Too bad Prince wasn’t around on Saturday. He would’ve been proud.) As The Weeknd sings on “6 Inch”, one of Lemonade’s many standouts: “She don’t gotta give it up, she professional.”
The record Beyoncé has delivered is as impressive as its over-the-top premiere would suggest. Her wonderful 2013 self-titled album was just a warmup for Lemonade, a streamlined and unified work that somehow manages to be more musically ambitious and confident. Since 2011’s 4, she’s eschewed mammoth radio singles for grander, cohesive statements. Lemonade completes that creative journey. Beyoncé has officially pivoted into an album artist of the top order, one who happens to be a ridiculously famous pop star, more so than Madonna at her early-90s peak. It’s not that she downplays the importance of expertly crafted songs—Lemonade contains twelve of them, and they’re as tuneful as Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits—but they’re mere components in her larger vision. The album is Beyoncé’s preferred canvas, tracks are her brushstrokes.
Naysayers will no doubt cite Lemonade’s voluminous contributor credits, which could match those that crawl at the end of a Hollywood picture, as proof that Beyoncé is less of an artist than the lonely singer-songwriter recording thoughtful music in a bedroom. Nonsense. She may not be DIY, but Knowles is no less the auteur than an actor-director who relies on the expertise of others to execute a commanding, self-determined vision. Lemonade is a career-defining record, like Thriller, Purple Rain, and Like a Prayer were for the pop giants of the 1980s. Time will tell how it endures, but no other pop singer has delivered an album worthy of being spoken in the same breath as that holy trinity until now.
If Beyoncé’s last LP was a celebration of marital bliss, Lemonade finds her recoiling from betrayal. Listening to its caustic lyrics, it’s a surprise a divorce filing didn’t coincide with the album’s release. Its first half explicitly references deception and adultery, and thus situates the listener into some dark thematic territory. Lemonade opens with “Pray You Catch Me”, a ballad of suspicion, which includes, as one example, such ominous lyrics: “I’m prayin’ you catch me listening/ I’m prayin’ to catch you whispering.” “Hold Up”, with its pizzicato-string bounce and tropical accents, quotes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” to devastating effect, though Beyoncé is still merely toying with her prey. On the ferocious Jack White collaboration “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she finally goes in for the kill, while “Sorry” and “6 Inch” are the equivalent of a post-bloodbath hair flip and door slam.
“Daddy Lessons”, a delirious (and strikingly pro-gun) bayou romp, is the album’s turning point. Amidst brass-band outbursts and joyous handclaps, Beyoncé finds power in her father’s wisdom. Lemonade then begins to build toward forgiveness, grace, and recovery. As she sings on the sultry “Love Drought”, the “only way to go is up.” And skyward is where she takes Lemonade. After the bitter and lovely piano ballad “Sandcastles”, Beyoncé reaches remarkable heights on the album’s remaining four tracks. “Forward” is a short, and haunting, James Blake showcase. “Freedom”, a towering anthem featuring Kendrick Lamar, is perhaps the finest song Beyoncé has ever recorded. “All Night” is a powerful mid-tempo torch song, punctuated with a fantastic Outkast horn sample. Lemonade closes, well into a victory lap, with “Formation”.
It seems as if Beyoncé approached Lemonade with a series of absurd goals, and then gleefully overshot them. Why not taunt that interloper Taylor Swift with a terrific country tune? “Daddy Lessons”—check. Why not take the part of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” everyone loves and build a phenomenal track around it? “Freedom”—check. Why not bring in a bevy of indie darlings, to spread the love around a bit? “Pray You Catch Me”, “Hold Up”, “6 Inch”, “Forward”—check, check, check, check. Why not write the angriest breakup song not on Blood on the Tracks? “Don’t Hurt Yourself”—bullseye.
Beyoncé, an extraordinary album in its own right, revealed Beyoncé hungered to leave her peers behind, to join the pantheon of all-time greats. Lemonade is her invitation into Olympus. It’s a rare album that sounds this warm, this easy, this melodic, this fierce, this startling, this unforgettable. They come once, maybe twice, in a career, and that career has to be exceptional to start with. To paraphrase Jack White on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, the time has come to worship God herself. Genuflect, bitches. A PLUS