Monday, April 25, 2016

album review: 'lemonade' by beyoncé

There's no easy way to talk about Beyoncé, especially nowadays when her status as a 'icon' has easily become bigger than just the music. And while you could tag some of it as the outgrowth of celebrity culture to where it becomes hyper-focused online, I can't argue that Beyoncé has defied expectations when it comes to how art and music is consumed in the modern age, most of which culminated with the surprise release of her self-titled record in 2013 after most critics had already assembled their lists of albums for the year. And the fact that it sold so damn well is all the more indicative that Beyoncé cannot be stopped at this point...

And I just wished I liked more of the music. Again, I will not deny that Beyoncé  has talent, but more often than not I've found her an incredibly frustrating performer and songwriter. I'll admit right out of the gate that I was never a Destiny's Child fan, and while Beyoncé has had a fair few songs I liked when she inevitably went solo, I can easily assemble a longer list of Beyoncé songs I just can't stand. And the issues are all over the place: sometimes Beyoncé has lacked the finesse or subtlety as a singer, though she has shown a lot of improvement here; sometimes the writing has fallen short or not delivered the nuance she needs; many times her guest stars have let her down. But more than ever what I've found frustrating about many Beyoncé tracks is the instrumentation: you'd think that for as many people work on Beyoncé songs, more of them would have a recognizable melody or tune! That was the biggest factor holding me back from liking her 2013 release when I covered it, along with the fact that it ran long and had much better intentions than execution.

So when Beyoncé surprise-released her newest record Lemonade through TIDAL and accompanied with an hour-long short film on HBO - you know, two services that just drip with populist appeal - look, I wasn't even surprised at this point. I was intrigued, though, because digging through the liner notes there were a fair few surprises: of course Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd were bound to show up, but Jack White and James Blake? Production and cowriting credits from Ezra Koenig and Josh Tillman? Interpolations of Animal Collective and Led Zeppelin? That, combined with a much tighter running time gave me a feeling that maybe the music and her costars won't let her down this time, so how's Lemonade?

Well, I can say this: even though, as I said, I have never been a Beyoncé fan, this record went further than I could have possibly expected in helping me get there, because Lemonade caught me completely off-guard. Not only is it easily her best record since 4 and shows Beyoncé taking risks in her sound and style that I never would have expected, it also might be some of the most personal and emotive work she's ever created. And especially coming after her self-titled release, Lemonade is the sort of artistic progression I never expected, but I'm definitely thrilled to hear.

So before we deal with the massive lion in the room that is the themes and subject matter, let's start with Beyoncé herself. Now as I've said, my issues with much of her 2000s work is that it lacked subtlety beyond the 'fuck you, I'm awesome' template, but 2013 saw her take a big step forward in tapping into more subtle vocal inflections and tones, and that progression definitely continues here. This is a record walking a very tight emotional balance: mistrust and grief, mingled feelings of relief and anxiety balanced against a potent sexual swagger, trying to find her own security and place of stability while still willing to be nurturing, and all the while some of the most raw, explosive rage I've ever heard from Beyoncé on record. This is a record that demands she gets righteously pissed, the sort of fury that claws at her voice, or bring a militant edge that should scare people who are unprepared and prefer their R&B unthreatening. And while Beyoncé has gotten angry before on record, the raw intensity of the rage here is far more compelling, because you can tell it's personal. And unlike her self-titled album, her male costars can balance off of it far better. Take Jack White, who has no problem anchoring the hook, warning the target to stay away from Beyoncé's fury with the same cautious distance he cultivated on Lazaretto. Or take The Weeknd, who has always been at his best playing off women who can overpower or overwhelm his nihilistic sexuality, and when '6 Inch' has him take the first verse serving as the hype man, it's the perfect setup. And then there's Kendrick Lamar, who infuses 'Freedom' with the sort of layered metaphor that has run through both To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled unmastered., showing the deeper freedom that must be achieved in the mind to move past internalized grief and depression to find a sense of worth in one's self. Really, the only player who doesn't impress me is James Blake on 'Forward', but that's more because the track is barely an interlude and doesn't give him much space for anything - and really, he still sounds good here, it's a minor gripe.

Of course, part of that is the production and instrumentation - and while I've always expected Beyoncé's production to have the depth and opulence you'd expect from the best producers money can buy, what caught me off-guard was the instrumental choices. The opening tracks might seem in line with what you'd expect from her: rubbery low synths and pianos playing off rich cushions of strings and female backing vocals, the sort of elegance that has plenty of restraint and poise, but when we get to 'Don't Hurt Yourself', which piles in the symphonic vocals to play off the seedy organ and darker creep of the bass, driven by a Led Zeppelin sample and razor-sharp guitars, it's clear Beyoncé is stepping into rougher territory unlike never before, balancing poise and real fire with incredible ease. And it comes through again on the smoky filters and warped sampling of '6 Inch' with the sleazier horn line and great Animal Collective interpolation on the bridge, and especially on the layered sampling, fuzzed out organ, and downright militant fire of 'Freedom', riding one of Just Blaze's best beats of his career with the stomping beat and distortion that makes the song feel absolutely massive. And that's not saying there isn't cleaner production here: the heartbreaking piano ballad of 'Sandcastles', the staccato guitar on 'All Night' that picks up heavenly swell as it grows with the strings, horns, and a bassline sampled from OutKast, and especially that buzzing synth against the high flutters of what might be a theremin on 'Love Drought' - and what's important to emphasize is that there are real melodies here driving the hooks. Hell, the one track where that's not quite the case is 'Formation' - the horns are good and it's definitely one of Mike Will Made It's better beats, but the odd rubbery synth tone doesn't quite hit the balance of opulent class and raw passion that so much of the rest of the album does - I see the anthemic potential, but it doesn't quite fit as well. 'Sorry' is a similar case, but I think the bubbly nature of the song lands better. However, I can imagine you're all expecting me to talk about the country song on this album 'Daddy Lessons', and for me, it sparked two thoughts. One, it looks like Beyoncé has been paying attention to the same Muscle Shoals sound that Dave Cobb and Sturgill Simpson have, because those horns are coming from the same inspiration; and two, I really want to hear Beyoncé make more country songs, because her voice is a great fit and it seems like she gets the genre fairly well.

But that's the music: what's Beyoncé trying to say with this album? Well as I said, there's a narrative arc to this record - and to the shock of pretty much everyone, the arc is focusing on the alleged cheating of her husband Jay-Z. And I think it's important to note the audacity of this, because while Jay-Z never shows up on this record, he has to have known the lyrical content and accusations that were leveled, because Beyonce does not hold back in the slightest, even on tracks like 'Sorry' where she damn near names the woman Jay-Z supposedly cheated with! And yet while so many people are probably saying that Lemonade could double as Beyoncé's divorce papers, this record gets significantly more complex than that, both in portraying Beyoncé's state of mind and her choice of actions. This, incidentally, is where real nuance comes into the writing, and while I might find points like Beyoncé grabbing lyrics from Soulja Boy for the outro of 'Hold Up' pretty ridiculous, it also does plenty to highlight Beyoncé's reaction. She initially wishes that Jay-Z would know or admit that she knows the truth, instead of barreling over her concerns with naked lies, and she questions why he would bother chasing other women or compromise their love, willing to show insecurity even if it does make her look jealous or crazy. And then the rage and the walk-out happens and while the catharsis is potent as hell, it also shows Beyoncé is still very much in love with Jay-Z, which she then draws the parallel to her own cheating father on 'Daddy Lessons'.

And then this album does something unexpected: Beyoncé goes back to Jay-Z. By God she doesn't want to - 'Sandcastles' shows that she promised not to come back to him, but not only does she know their love is stronger together than apart, but Jay-Z actually did break down, showing the humanity to her that is so rarely glimpsed anymore to anyone else. And Beyoncé wants to move forward and keep trying to make it work, and that's why 'Freedom' is quintessential at this point of the record, as the final line on the chorus says, 'cause a winner don't quit on themselves', as she needs to purge out the negative emotions that would chain her back from moving forward and trying. She is more than willing to admit their relationship is far from perfect, one of many flawed diamonds, and that it's going to take time for her to really forgive him, but she's willing to try and put in the effort, considering their love and relationship worth it. That sort of conclusion is not one you'd usually expect, especially based on a surface impression of Beyoncé, but it implies a maturity of their relationship that doesn't feel idealistic - the sort of real power couple that feels grounded in both reason and passion, and I can definitely respect that.

In short, this is probably the closest Beyoncé has ever come to winning me over - there is a passion and intensity to this record that feels personal and yet done with the sort of righteous and nuanced presentation that can aim bigger. And considering the massive step forward this feels from her self-titled album, I'm strongly inclined to give this a light 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. As I said, I've never been a Beyoncé fan, but if Lemonade is a sign of the experimentation, delivery, and writing to come, she might just win me over yet.

1 comment:

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