How Beyoncé out-Beyoncé’d herself: a Daily conversation about ‘Lemonade’

Screenshot via Youtube

On April 23, the queen of the world-stopping digital drop, Beyoncé, released her sixth studio album, “Lemonade.” The 12-track record, which dropped on the music streaming service Tidal during the HBO broadcast of an accompanying hour-long visual experience. The album surprised fans, just as her self-titled “Beyoncé” did in 2013. Pop music aficionado and Daily arts editor Justin Krakoff sat down with Daily assistant arts editor Cassidy Olsen to discuss their reactions and the album’s samplings, politics and place in the history of Beyoncé and the greater pop landscape.

Justin Krakoff (JK): Cassidy, how are you doing? It’s been a couple weeks now … How are we feeling about “Lemonade?”

Cassidy Olsen (CO): Honestly, I’m not fully recovered. I’ve been listening to “Sorry” on repeat — I can’t get it out of my head, and I’m sure it’s going to be playing at every party I attend for the next two years. How are you?

JK: I’ve seen the error of my ways. Originally, I liked the back half better than the first, but now I can’t stop listening to “Hold Up” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The first few tracks are arguably the most consistent run on a Beyoncé album in her entire career.

CO: I didn’t think about it like that, but I feel the same way. While I was writing my “Lemonade” visual album commentary, I watched the first third nonstop because my new favorite Beyoncé is angsty, introspective Beyoncé.

JK: I think the fact that all of the opening songs are mid-tempo in nature is an interesting choice on her part. It suits her intent to make a full album statement and not just a few hit singles. Compared to [Kanye West’s] “The Life of Pablo” (2016), which was this big, disjointed mess, “Lemonade” is a cohesive artistic statement and a big middle finger to everyone who thinks the album as an art form is dead.

CO: I just wasn’t expecting this. After the surprise drop of “Beyoncé” in 2013, she became an entirely different figure, way more than this major pop artist. I feel as though the jump from “4” (2011) to her self-titled album was much bigger than this jump to “Lemonade,” despite the politics she’s bringing in now. I’m still trying to reconcile how I feel. As far as I can tell at this point, this album doesn’t feature a “Heaven” (2013) that will bring me to tears while cleaning the bathroom floor. Or anywhere, really.

JK: I disagree. I think “Lemonade” as a whole presents the trajectory of actual heartbreak and resentment. I found it easier to connect with some of these tracks than I did on the self-titled album, which I just view as a great pop album. Nothing is more powerful than when she sings “If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife” on “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” I’ve definitely been there before, metaphorically speaking.

CO: I was surprised to see “Sorry,” this trap-influenced club song about ignoring your no-good cheating husband, in the middle of her narrative.

JK: I think that’s the point though. She wants the listener to think she doesn’t care about this situation, but why else would she make an album out of it? However, it says a lot that many, including ourselves, are assuming that this is about her relationship with Jay Z. We’re projecting our own image of what her life looks like onto the tracks.

CO: She’s always been so guarded with her personal life and extremely private as a celebrity. We have to remember that, as a pop artist, she has the ability to craft and sell a narrative that isn’t necessarily her own. Beyoncé is a persona, even more so a brand. Since she’s working with so many songwriters and other collaborators, does it even matter if her songs are about herself?

JK: I don’t think so. The fact that she can collaborate with so many people and still sell this story as her own proves she’s doing something right. That is what pop music is.

CO: Is it truly a pop album? There’s nothing like “Single Ladies” (2008) or “Drunk in Love” (2013), or the hits that made her last albums. Don’t get me wrong; I think “Lemonade” is beautiful, but where does it fall in the greater pop landscape?

JK: Well, I don’t think Beyoncé is interested in making big radio singles anymore, after “Run the World (Girls)” (2011) flopped. She’s at a point in her career where she has the resources and artistic drive to put out the best albums she’s ever made. Both “Beyoncé” and “Lemonade” draw upon many influences but still manage to be cohesive artistic statements. “Lemonade” begins as a breakup album but ultimately reveals itself to be redemptive.

CO: Well, I feel that the whole redemption [aspect] undermines what makes the rest of the album so strong, [and the] frustrations [Beyoncé conveys] are incredibly powerful.

First we get to see behind the iconic, goddess-like facade of Beyoncé into something really dark. But the minute the album hits the “Dreamgirls” (2006)-esque “Sandcastles” is where it begins to lose me. I don’t want to deny her narrative but, when Jay Z quite literally comes back into the frame, something shifts. It feels wrong to me. And it [continues with] “All Night, which looks like the end of “Love Actually” (2003) with a happy couples sequence. It’s hopeful and beautiful, but something feels false.

JK: Well, nowhere on “All Night” does she forgive him.

CO: Doesn’t she?

JK: No! She never says “I forgive you.” If anything, the story isn’t complete. It’s a transition forward, about once more finding your voice in the world. To me, this juxtaposition of both themes is nuanced, and it’s a credit to Beyoncé that she pulls it off so well.

CO: Well then how do you explain the “All Night” lyric, “Found the truth beneath your lies / But true love never has to hide.” Why was it hiding, Justin?

JK: Well… it has to do with this idea from the film, when a title card flashes, “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT.”

CO: Oh, my jaw dropped.

JK: I threw my phone when I first saw it. But I think it’s her response to the reverence she receives as this unblemished icon. She’s not preaching flawless anymore — she’s just human.

CO: I can see that. The self-titled was a celebration of her marriage as this fully-formed, sexual, adult relationship, and “Lemonade” is a definite shift towards something more vulnerable. Beyoncé has never struggled to resonate with her fans, but I think they expect something ultimately positive out of her, which is what we end up getting here. The general public doesn’t want or expect angry, pessimistic Beyoncé, even if she has every right to produce that music. Although they don’t make up the whole album, her moody songs are what resonated best with me. I bop along to “Hold Up,” but “Love Drought” is next-level emotional.

JK: “Hold Up” is a continuation of what she’s been doing since “Say My Name” (1999). That fast-paced syncopation still sounds thrilling almost two decades later. It’s a real testament to her talents that she can be keeping that fresh while sounding better than Jay Z has in a while.

CO: While she’s able to maintain some of those sounds, we see her being political in her music in a way we haven’t in the past. Of course, as an incredibly powerful Black female artist, she’s always been making a political statement, but her support of the Black Lives Matter movement has now been incorporated into her art. This is more clear in the visual album than in the lyrics of the tracks themselves, but, with the poetry of a young Somali-British writer Warsan Shire capping each section, the visual album brings Black female bodies and voices to the forefront. We also saw this type of declaration in “Formation” when it was released in February. It’s one of just a few explicitly political songs on the album. How do you feel about it being tacked on at the end as the last track, post-reconciliation?

JK: In the context of this album, “Formation” is about coming through this struggle of marital strife and reasserting yourself in the world. It means something more now in the context of the album than it did out of context when it was originally released. Coming from Beyoncé, the assertion of agency in a three-and-a-half minute pop song is her unapologetic declaration of what it means to be a Black woman in America, which speaks to her use of the quote from Malcolm X in the visual album that, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.”

CO: She seems to both celebrate Black female experience in the U.S. and point to a history of degradation. And on “Lemonade,” she samples work from poets and these figures like Malcolm X almost as much as she does from other musicians.

JK: Yeah, let’s talk about her samples. On “Hold Up,” she interpolates Soulja Boy and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs while sampling from Andy Williams’ 1962 hit “I Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

CO: Oh my God, I didn’t pick up on the ones besides Soulja Boy. And Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) wrote it, so that’s why [there are so many references]. All Vampire Weekend songs are packed with lyrics from old songs, literary and historical references and interpolations from so many genres. So Ezra is partially responsible for that.

JK: Even “Freedom” has this really obscure sampling from Kaleidoscope, a Puerto Rican rock band from the ‘60s. In addition to all these samples, Beyoncé worked with over 100 collaborators on the album, from songwriters to producers. Beyoncé is not interested in being a true singer-songwriter and has never shied away from collaboration with other artists that have their own experiences to bring to the table, creating a balance between the personal and the collective in the music.

CO: Agreed. Okay, I think we’ve talked enough. Are you ready to give it a rating? We disagree on “4” (I’m a much bigger fan than you are), so I feel like we might disagree on this.

JK: I’m giving it 4.5. I know it’s not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination. But compared to previous releases this year from Rihanna and Kanye West, Beyoncé is not only more successful in implementing her vision, but she’s also demanding we pay attention to uncomfortable issues like infidelity and the marginalization of Black female experiences. To me, that is the hallmark of a living legend at this point.

CO: I wanted to give this a 4 because my initial reaction was caught up in the visual and not the music itself. However, I’ve never cared so much about something and given it a 4. Beyoncé’s got me questioning myself and our society in a major way, and so much of “Lemonade” is incredibly vulnerable while still technically flawless. This is a 4.5.

Rating: 4.5/5

Top Picks:

Best at a party: “Sorry,” “Formation”

Best for ugly crying: “Pray You Catch Me,” “Sandcastles”

Best for wielding a bat in anger:Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself”


Summary

Both vulnerable and masterfully crafted, "Lemonade" is a cohesive artistic statement from Beyoncé that further establishes her as a musical and pop cultural icon.

4.5 stars
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