Note: This is a review of the MUSIC from the album, not the visuals or the intersection of the two.
If there is one complaint that I had about Beyoncé’s music is that, as she rose in fame and had to keep topping herself, is that she seemed to start losing herself in trends and trying to continually prove that she’s the best in game. This is not a complaint that I have this time around with Lemonade. With her latest opus, the singer has reassured me of something that I had begun to doubt; that she could give me growth even if it might not be commercially profitable (which, let’s not play, this will be).
Of course, the first thing to talk about are the vocals. Beyoncé has always been lauded for singing ability, and rightfully so, but many of her songs have felt very technical in their execution. On 4 she wanted to show out but overdid it, leading to her growling and doing runs long before the thrust of the songs called for it. Conversely, on Beyoncé, she underdid it for a more sing-songy, hip-hop feel that left many of the tracks feeling underwhelming after a few listens. Both mistakes seem to come from a place of giving the audience what she felt they wanted from her and less what she how she wanted to frame what she had to say. On Lemonade she finds the right balance and it doesn’t feel like she’s trying; it feels effortless. You’re not cringing because she’s blasting out or focusing more on the production because she seems detached. And, on a track like Sandcastles, if some of the notes are slightly off-pitch due to the emotion she’s giving, well then, damnit, they’re just off-pitch and she will let them be. It makes lyrics resonate all the more.
And the lyrics are what immediately jumped out at me from this set. They are strong, probably the strongest she has showcased in her nearly 20-year career. Beyoncé’s lyrics have always been a bit of mixed bag; a weird combination of catchphrases that sound good on their own but not in context and metaphors that can drag on way too long leading to songs that have good ideas but poor execution. There is non of that here. There is very little metaphor and there really doesn’t have to be because it is the honesty of the lyrics that makes all of these songs work. And, in the straightforward style, what we feel like we get is a more genuine picture of the artist as a woman. Anything that’s repeatable comes from a place of real connection to the words and not some market-tested hashtag. Lines like Ten time out of nine I know you’re lyin’/And nine times out of ten I know you’re ‘So I’m tryin’ to be fair will last way longer in your memory and are far more complex than anything you will feel when you see #Flawless. This is not Beyoncé the icon or Beyoncé the trendsetter or Beyoncé the brand; this Beyoncé the little girl from Texas who grew up and found out that life isn’t perfect for anyone and isn’t afraid to show it.
We had hints at the vulnerability on her albums before, in tracks like Halo, Jealous and the introduction to Mine, but it always felt like she pulled back; like she was afraid to let her guard down for fear of rejection from her audience. That we wouldn’t love her if she wasn’t sassy Bey with the perfect marriage who’s always in control. What we get from Lemonade is something that everyone, man or woman, can relate to; no matter how perfect she tries to be, there are things out there beyond her control. She can be hurt, she can be wounded, she can be angry without a filter, she can be unsure of her next step, and she can make a choice for her life that can run counter to everything that she believes herself to be and still be happy.
It’s this combination of these elements that makes the length of the album fly by. There is very little that drags, very little to skip, and more appealing overall. You come to the end feeling satisfied but wanting to just sneak one more bit from the meal. It is a self-centering album without being self-centered. Her words and experience, our understanding. Her emotions, our connection to them.
The album is not without its flaws, though. Because the primary (and likely first) medium this album is supposed to be experienced through is the visual one, there are gaps in emotional resonance on some of the tracks if you don’t have the mental images that the singer wanted in your head at the time when you listen alone (and I avoided the visuals like the plague for a day). These gaps are due to production and lyrical choices that are meant to dial back the thrust of the music in order to allow the visuals to make full impact. These choices are completely understandable but, from a strictly auditory standpoint, it is an issue. In the rating for this album, we deducted more from the production side than the lyrical side because the words still resonated without the other elements.
Also, The production is probably the least memorable thing about this album. It’s not that it’s bland or generic, it’s that it just is. It feels like a means to make many of the songs feel complete more than anything else and most of the resonance it could have had is completely overpowered by the emotional resonance in Beyoncé’s voice. It’s the first time I’ve come away from an album of hers wanting the acappellas for the tracks instead of the instrumentals. This doesn’t kill the album by any means, but it does make the memory of it feel a little lacking at times. What saves the beatwork from complete dismissal is the genre hopping. It gives the singer a lot more to play with vocally and in intonation and keeps everything from flowing together.
I’ve tagged my favorite tracks as Don’t Hurt Yourself, Daddy Lessons, Freedom, and All Night (and yes, that is the Flawless (Remix) horn loop you hear on the chorus). 6 Inch and Formation are the tracks the feels the most like filler and are the most skippable on the set with Formation connecting to the rest of the material the least in both tone and vocal style. Love Drought and Forward suffer the most from the medium gap, but are still worth a few listens. Beyoncé may not have created that classic album yet, but she has taken a monumental step towards it and I couldn’t be happier.
While the album is only streamable on TIDAL, it’s available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. The package includes the 65-minute short film and a digital booklet. Be aware that there is an anticipated deluxe edition expected to be released soon, so stay connected for details. Click the button below to be taken to iTunes.