Beyonce is not even just a person anymore – she’s a cultural icon, a shared common experience; hell, she’s even a verb (to Beyonce; to drop something unexpected on a global level). Therefore, the idea of a brand new Beyonce record was astonishing and intoxicating to many – particularly after the surprise release of the album’s lead single ‘Formation’ one day before she took to the stage as a guest of Coldplay for the half time show at the 2016 Super Bowl.
Lemonade, therefore, had a lot to live up to, and the minute it was released, it became the most important cultural entity for the next two weeks. Every song choice analysed, each lyric examined, and soon a narrative emerged – one of Jay-Z cheating on Beyonce with an unknown woman or women, and Beyonce’s fallout to the affair. Whether or not this is true, Lemonade was born from this narrative, and it blooms with passion, pain, and explosive rage like we’ve never seen before from Ms Knowles-Carter.
The rage blooms in full force on songs like the glitchy, West-Indian ‘Hold Up’ which bounces along a slowly simmering undercurrent of anger, before it comes to a head on fan favourite ‘Sorry’, a midtempo banger of epic proportions that embodies the social media sentiment of ‘sorry not sorry’ in a nutshell, all the while inspiring a new Internet mystery (just who is Becky with the good hair?). The album transforms as it continues, pushing through songs of pain and betrayal, (the haunting opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’), to reaching rock bottom and the acceptance there (the breath of fresh air ‘Love Drought’ is at times both sad and hopeful).
From then on, the album hits its recovery stride with Beyonce channeling her rage and pain and sadness at the betrayal into a more positive frame of mind – ‘Forward’, her James Blake collaboration, is short and sweet, with Beyonce opting to move for solace and support, while ‘Sandcastles’ strips Beyonce’s bravado bare and gives her the space she needs to decide on her own terms how to move forward with her marriage. Fortunately,these songs lead into one of the album’s best songs, the gloriously anthemic ‘Freedom’ which moves along heavy drumbeats to propel the listener into confidence and newfound strength.
The album’s final track, ‘Formation’, the Super Bowl-rattling lead single, doesn’t sound like it belongs on Lemonade, but maybe that’s the point – its Beyonce at her most political, most next-level, with a song that doesn’t concern itself with being a Top 40 pop hit. It swerves around its component parts (the hip-hop swagger, the R&B vocals, the sweet pop harmonies) and makes something incredible and which closes the 12-track album on an ebullient, self-assured note.
Ultimately, Lemonade is more than an album – it’s a work of art, a chronicle of pain and betrayal that changes from rage to sorrow to serenity to recovery, and finally to hope and confidence. Far from being a simple breakup record or a ‘troubled relationship’ record, the album and the accompanying video are a testament to black female culture and a celebration of that, in a medium that marginalises women of colour to the extreme. This is Beyonce at her most culturally-defining best; there’s no wonder why this has been such a recent cultural touchstone, and deserves to be.