Beyonce’s new album ‘Lemonade’ is vital, and maybe her best yet
If you're still thinking Beyonce is too pop or not authentic due to working with songwriters, you're boring and you're missing out on one of the most vital artists around. She made the jump from Singles Artist to Album Artist with 2011's retro-soul-inspired 4, she blew that album away and turned "alternative R&B" into "mainstream R&B" with 2013's self-titled LP, and it's quite possible that the newly-released Lemonade blows its predecessor away as well. All three albums are different, all three defy trends, and all three take the kind of risks that could alienate a lesser artist's fanbase, but only grow Beyonce's.
Lemonade starts off easy, welcoming you in with the kind of atmospheric R&B you already know and love from the self-titled LP with "Pray You Catch Me." It's got a co-writing credit from James Blake (and Kevin Garrett), whose 2011 debut is arguably the catalyst for this whole sound taking off on both an indie and mainstream level. It only makes sense that one of the bigger artists in this realm would eventually work with him, and Beyonce not only enlists him as a songwriter but gives him his own song later on in the album, "Forward." It's not the most necessary track for the flow of the album, but it's a triumphant win for James Blake and presumably a way of showing the pop world how important this guy is. The album's only real misstep comes right after "Pray You Catch Me" with the second track, "Hold Up." The chorus she lifts from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" just feels too obvious, especially on an album that otherwise feels very original (it's kind of the same complaint I have with Kanye's "Stronger"). (And speaking of obvious samples, you may have heard this album contains elements of such well-known songs as Animal Collective's "My Girls" and Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," but they are such minor parts that seem to be credited only to prevent being sued. Which is ironic since Led Zeppelin themselves didn't care about doing that. But anyway…)
The first "wow" moment is next: "Don't Hurt Yourself," which was co-written by Jack White and features him singing the hook. His influence is all over this one -- it's very clearly a soulful rock song, not really like anything else in Beyonce's catalog, but she still makes it sound like her own and makes it fit on an album with James Blake songs. If you've heard that Beyonce addresses unfaithful spouses on this album, this is the one where she takes no prisoners. Over huge live drums (there's the Bonham influence), she belts "Hey baby, who the fuck do you think I is?" before screaming "TONIGHT I'M FUCKING UP ALL YOUR SHIT BOY." And by the song's end, she warns in a speaking voice: "If you try this shit again, you gon lose your wife." Is she clear enough for you? No? Maybe "Sorry" will help: "Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him 'boy, bye.'"
The Jack White-featuring rock song isn't the only time she plays around with genre on this album. The Weeknd-featuring "6 Inch" is the kind of dark R&B that's perfect for a Weeknd feature, and she follows that with "Daddy Lessons," an acoustic song that veers close to country music (if not blues). For the album's best song, "Freedom," she takes on psychedelic soul with an organ and fuzzed out guitar lifted from Puerto Rican '60s psych band Kaleidoscope (not to be confused with LA '60s psych band Kaleidoscope or UK '60s psych band Kaleidoscope), a militant drum beat, the album's most soulful, almost-gospel chorus, and a verse from another popular artist bringing sounds like this back, Kendrick Lamar. You can hear true pain in this song, but Beyonce's not wallowing in it, she's overcoming it and sounding stronger than ever.
Much has been written about how much of this album is about black excellence, or more specifically black female excellence, and strongly rooted in Beyonce's Southern upbringing. As a white man from New York, I'm one of the last people who's fit to talk about that, but I encourage you to seek out the great writing from the people who are fit to talk about it. I also encourage you -- if you haven't already, that is -- to check out this powerful, boundary-pushing album that succeeds purely as great pop music.