This summer I’ve been writing about the music I love beyond the classical bubble. Since its release in April 2016, I’ve been mildly obsessed with one album: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’.
‘Lemonade’ is a deeply personal testament describing Queen Bey’s discovery that her husband – the rapper Jay-Z – had been unfaithful. During its twelve songs we accompany Beyoncé on her journey from denial and anger to emptiness and apathy, forgiveness and redemption. It’s also a manifesto of personal creativity. After several albums in which the musical content was largely driven by record companies’ desires to promote a sellable pop artist, Beyoncé emerges as a powerful narrator on her own terms: a web of unforgettable lyrics and a deliberately broad range of musical styles expressing unmediated pain and emotion. We hear all of this, of course, via her voice, one of the most beautiful before the public today, at once fiercely powerful, tender and authentic.
In ‘Pray You Catch Me’, we start inside Beyoncé’s head, literally, as she sings to her own backing vocals. It’s a lonely, claustrophobic space as she begins to suspect something is going on. Over a sumptuous string orchestra, she wonders: ‘What are you doing, my love?’
‘Hold Up’ and ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ move through denial to anger, just like the stages of grief. The first is a kind of bargaining with her absent husband – ‘they don’t love you like I do’– whereas the second is blind rage from the first scream: ‘Who the f**k do you think I am? You ain’t married to no average bi**h, boy.’ The fury in Beyoncé’s voice is terrifying.
Next are two stylized musical pictures, separate from the main narrative but related. ‘6 Inch Heels’ describes a strong working woman getting on with her life just fine without a man. The drawling hip hop beat conjures up the dark underworld of strip clubs in which she works, accompanied by the chilling, high-pitched voice of the singer The Weeknd. ‘Daddy Lessons’ is Beyoncé’s brilliant debut in country music drawing on her southern heritage. It’s as if we’ve stepped into the French Quarter of New Orleans and find a street band, complete with sousaphone. The lyrics are a semi-autobiographical memory of Beyoncé’s Texan childhood, describing how ‘daddy made me dance, daddy held my hand, and daddy liked his whiskey with his tea.’ There’s an infectious joy in the music making, despite the apt line: ‘My daddy warned me about men like you.’
As the album progresses, we feel a kernel of optimism creep in. ‘Love Drought’ sounds like background music in a club’s chill-out room. Beautiful electronic arpeggios accompany Beyoncé in a mood of child-like hope: ‘You and me could move a mountain.’ But reality returns with a jolt in the ballad ‘Sandcastles’. This three-minute masterpiece is the emotional heart of the whole album and the catalyst through which reconciliation is possible. Over simple repeated chords on the piano, Beyoncé sings long melismas of heartbreaking words:
We built sandcastles that washed away. I made you cry when I walked away.
And although I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby, every promise don’t work out that way.
She’s going to stay even though he broke his promise to her, but not without horrible pain. I can’t think of another instance in recent pop music when an artist allows herself to be so completely exposed and vulnerable. As her voice breaks under the weight of anguish, Beyoncé cries out:
Dishes smashed on the counter from our last encounter,
Pictures snatched out the frame, bi**h I scratched out your name, and your face,
What is about you that I can’t erase, when every promise don’t work out that way?’
‘Lemonade’ is about female empowerment, but it’s also about Beyoncé’s experience of being black in America. Through its wide range of musical styles and collaborations with guest artists, the album is a determined celebration of black culture. We hear Beyoncé refusing to tone down her lyrics or apologize for her identity. Instead, she revels in an exhilarating display of self-acceptance. You may have seen her performance of the album’s final track, ‘Formation’, at the half-time show of the Superbowl in 2016. The dancers evoked the Black Panthers, causing a news storm that revealed little about Beyoncé’s intentions and a lot about the precarious cultural insecurity of some white Americans.
‘Lemonade’s next song, ‘Freedom’ is strategically placed after ‘Sandcastles’. Beyoncé uses slave songs as a reminder that slavery’s insidious legacy continues today. In an interview explaining the concept behind the album, she is reported to have said: ‘I wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family, and black men and women—how we’re almost socialized not to be together.’ As if to underscore the continuing challenge of overcoming this legacy, the song ends with a recording of Jay-Z’s mother on her 90thbirthday: ‘I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.’
There’s an immediate sense of relief and hope as the penultimate song, ‘All Night’, begins. The music creates a beautiful sense of coming home into loving arms, bruised but stronger. We realize that we’re listening to a song about forgiveness. Forgiveness after infidelity: the same theme Mozart championed in ‘Le nozze di Figaro’. Just as the Countess displays almost-unfathomable generosity to the Count, Beyoncé sings to her husband:
My love was stronger than your pride…
True love breathes salvation into me…
My torturer became my remedy.
‘Lemonade’ ends with its greatest hit, ‘Formation’. The inexorable Beyoncé is back: empowered and fierce. She sings about her work ethic, her belief in herself, her womanhood, and her refusal to be diminished by her naysayers. When I hear it, I’m filled with happiness by the pleasure she takes in her own success – something many of us are bad at – but I’m also moved by the resilience of the human spirit. In many ways ‘Lemonade’ is a traditional kind of record: a complete artistic object start to finish, not just a collection of unrelated songs like so many pop albums today. I’ve even heard it described as a song cycle, akin to those by Schubert and Schumann. But what makes it so great is that it rises above the specifics of its creator’s circumstances to proclaim a message to which everyone can relate: ‘true love is the greatest weapon to win the war waged by pain.’ Only the greatest art rises to such universal truth, and ‘Lemonade’ is right up there.
By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony