Albums of 2016 (#10): Beyoncé – Lemonade
For her sixth album, Beyoncé once again offered another way in, and this time around, the ambition of the accompanying visuals advanced the whole a league beyond the sum of its parts
Lemonade needs no annotation. Its various raging dialogues, tender confessionals, and endless questioning are all apparent and accessible immediately. There is much to explore but little to untangle. A literate and accomplished artwork, and a creative leap of some magnitude, only a fool would need it explaining.
The key to Lemonade’s success was The Formation Tour (announced to a worldwide audience during the Super Bowl 50), an outdoor spectacle that mixed traditional (an acapella Love On Top that routinely saw the audience take over each night), sharp reinvention (an all too brief Destiny’s Child medley) and provocative. For the latter: a stageshow that blitzed the droopy mechanics of stadium pop. Both unfashionably understated and mind-alteringly vast, over-cooked lighting and pyrotechnics were replaced by a huge hunk of weird: a gigantic revolving monolith onto which were projected live visuals and pre-filmed sequences. For once, really, you had to be there. And if you weren’t there, where were you?
The Formation Tour took its name from the song whose explosive debut performance at January’s Superbowl acted as jaw-dropping trailer for the album. Fashioned from, seemingly, little more than bleeps and twitches, Formation was an abrupt rug-pull, as alien and revelatory as Get Yr Freak On or When Doves Cry. And aside its musical ingenuity, it crammed into its four minutes a torrent of fiery discourse. A new kind of black power anthem, Beyoncé ferociously dismantled a multitude of embedded prejudices with no hint of apology (“I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”) For good measure, add a good dozen barbs for the haters, a punch-the-air declaration of parental love (“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros”), a frank affirmation of sexual independence and the year’s most arresting and empowering hook. “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”
Of course, this had been coming. But previous left-field excursions had, in hindsight, only hinted at where the world’s greatest pop star would go next. Not just a final sloughing of the constraints of R&B norms but, in how it so ruthlessly dismissed the mainstream’s demands and expectations, Lemonade was a staggering subversion of mode. A stinging rebuke to the societal and political apparatus that, still, is happier when people of colour – and women in particular – know their place. A tipping point. Beyoncé’s ‘what does this button do?’ album.
Lemonade saw Beyoncé emerge as a fearless creative, a fire-breathing protagonist, a feminist icon like no other. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”: Malcolm X’s words used as a linking passage act as foundation for a celebration of the women in Beyoncé’s life as she sets about shaming the weak and disloyal men. With unflinching candour, Lemonade documents a marriage in crisis and a father-daughter relationship beyond dysfunctional.
But sure not to pass over the accompanying DVD because those visuals really are essential. Lemonade’s dense narratives are interpreted with vision and daring. The spoken word sections that bridge between songs form a compelling soliloquy, and there is poetry in both the words (“Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk, knot after knot”) and the images. Musically, not even a hint of filler. Every song is a new kind of essential: the fragile elegy of Sandcastles; Freedom, where Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar brew up a storm; the working woman anthem 6 Inch, a collaboration with The Weeknd where an Isaac Hayes sample provides soulful backing. Prod for weak spots. There are none. The Voice is still finding her voice. Lemonade is unique and peerless. Listen and learn.