Listen to This: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is a poignant musical journey

Queen Bey’s sixth studio album is just as good a piece of social commentary as it is an album.
Courtesy of Claudio Mariotto

The last time Beyoncé dropped an album, it appeared on iTunes with no prior promotion, announcement or mention. In its first three days of release, the record sold 828,773 copies worldwide. Apple announced that it was the fastest-selling album ever on iTunes. She discussed themes of feminism, sex, married life, fame and motherhood through well-crafted R&B music.

It’s three years later. What did Beyoncé do?

She outdid herself.

Her new visual album “Lemonade” was released on iTunes early Monday morning. Previously, it was only available on Tidal or HBO, so there’s no solid numbers that will show if her sixth studio album will outsell her fifth. However, if you strip down commercial success and look at the music alone, “Lemonade” shows that Queen Bey can make the best R&B album — or, possibly, the best album, period — of 2013 and turn around and make an even better one in 2016.

A multitude of genres come together in “Lemonade” as Beyoncé says everything she’s wanted to say for years, from personal marital strife to commentary on the biggest social issues of our time. Despite the variety on the album, it still feels cohesive. The common link is its concept: “Lemonade” is “based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing,” according to an announcement from Tidal.

This journey begins with “Pray You Catch Me,” a piano- and vocal-focused piece that introduces the theme of infidelity that Beyoncé follows throughout “Lemonade.” Despite the subject matter’s harmful nature, the song itself is calm. This opener provides a steady introduction into both the album’s theme as well as reminding listeners that Beyoncé is an amazing vocalist.

“Hold Up” continues to elevate the conflict. It’s one of the most fun tracks on the album, with bouncy strings and a catchy chorus. It starts with a muffled, “Orinoco Flow”-esque sound, and the moment you know it’s going to be perfect is when you hear the blare of airhorns. Amid the fun, pop-style music, Beyoncé criticizes an assumed unfaithful partner with laid-back reprimands of “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you,” which comes from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.”

The subtlety of the call-outs stop there. The music’s tone is no longer fun and bouncy once “Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White)” hits with garage rock vibes at its start. You don’t need to look at the credits to know Jack White helped create this track; it is so similar to his album “Lazaretto,” one of the best alternative albums of 2014. This song is a highlight on an album of outstanding songs, from the experimental use of sounds to establish a backdrop to the fact that it reminds the listener they’re alive to hear a collaboration between Beyoncé and Jack White. It also has some of the best (and most hostile) lyrics on the album — “You ain’t married to no average bitch boy,” “Keep your money, I got my own” and “If you try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” to name a few.

This anger reaches its quintessential breakup song stage with “Sorry.” The best part of this song is arguably Serena Williams’ cameo in its video. But in a larger picture, “Sorry” is the perfect breakup anthem for “Lemonade.” In a world with cultural norms that place so much pressure on females to apologize for everything, “I ain’t sorry” is exactly what some women need to know they can say. Beyoncé makes it clear that women don’t have to say sorry to the men that hurt them and that they shouldn’t feel any remorse about it.

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Beyoncé takes an interlude from her arc of suspicion to anger to reformation in terms of married life to examine other aspects of femininity in “6 Inch (feat. The Weeknd)” and “Daddy Lessons.” The former uses 6-inch heels as a symbol of feminine strength donned by the woman in the song, who could be a stripper who “walk(s) in the club like nobody’s business” or a CEO “stacking money everywhere she goes.” The woman in “6 Inch” is described as “professional,” “worth every dollar,” ambitious with “stars in her eyes” and a workaholic who “loves the grind.” By using descriptors that could apply to both sex workers or successful businesswomen, Beyoncé argues that women can do any job and be worthy of respect. Musically, “6 Inch” is a darker-toned hit with a great groove. With a jazz lick in the background, electronically-altered vocals and big bass beats, the music itself reflects the feeling of a red-light district or the intimidating conference room in the penthouse of a company headquarters. Near the end of the track, bass hits and strings provide the backing for the lyric “You always come back to me,” for which the vocals have dramatic and orchestral power reminiscent of Adele’s “Skyfall.” “Daddy Lessons” starts strong with traditional New Orleans music for its introduction, which is a great touch. The song, which fits into the album’s larger context by touching on the importance of fathers in daughters’ lives, is one of the most interesting tracks on the album. It brings in a certain genre that you can’t find elsewhere on “Lemonade,” or in Beyoncé’s discography, for that matter: country. With twangy guitar strums, a simple beat and lyrics about rifles and Bibles, this song clearly has country influence. Yet it still feels like an accessible, folk version of the genre, not the overly-twangy, beer-and-truck-focused brand that makes modern country inspire such strong opinions in listeners. One of the greatest touches to this song is that it has the sounds of a crowd shouting and clapping throughout, creating the feel of a live track. “Love Drought” plummets us back into the storyline of Beyoncé’s love life as we reach the reconciliation stage. This song reinstates the feelings of love and companionship Beyoncé has with the lover who had wronged her. The calm, electronic R&B is a nice contrast to “Daddy Lessons” as Beyoncé realizes about her lover, “you and me could move a mountain.” However, “Sandcastles” is the track that really embraces the reunion. “Sandcastles” is most definitely one of the best tracks on the album. The instrumentation may be simple, but it’s the perfect song to share with someone who doesn’t know why people love Beyoncé. A reverb-heavy piano provides the accompaniment for Beyoncé’s beautiful vocals that prove she is one of the best vocalists alive. Beyoncé beats Adele at her own game of tear-inducing piano ballads with universally-felt lyrics like “Show me your scars and I won’t walk away.” Near the end of the song, multiple tracks of Beyoncé vocals are layered to create a choir-like sound. While there are many emotional piano ballads in the world, one that is incredibly well-done can make anyone stop and feel, and “Sandcastles” is one of those pieces. The song transitions seamlessly into the short interlude “Forward (feat. James Blake),” which marks the relationship beginning to move forward after all the strife. After the interlude comes one of the best songs on the record. “Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” is a blues rock anthem that is amazing both lyrically and musically. Beyoncé and Kendrick reference both the long history of black oppression and the Black Lives Matter movement to craft an empowering anthem. From the funky keys and bass line to the lyrics “I break my chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell” and “I’ma keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves,” this song is exceptional. “All Night” acts as the final conclusion to the saga of romantic strife, separation and reparation. While the song suggests she might need some time before her trust is entirely restored, the song is loving and welcoming. The echoing guitar and bass drum are a simple yet lovely introduction to the song. The funky bass line later on in the song is one of its best parts, along with brass accents during the chorus. While earlier tracks on the album emphasize suspicion, conflict and rage, in “All Night” Beyoncé sings, “True love breathes salvation back into me.” After “All Night,” all that’s left is the song we know and love, “Formation.” The song is a celebration of black culture that leaves listeners one last reminder that Beyoncé is a force to be reckoned with and most definitely not just someone’s wife (“I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she sings). It’s also a song that’s mastered the art of building up to a great drop at the chorus — you have to try to not dance along. An inspiration for “Lemonade”’s title is found in a sound bite at the end of “Freedom”: “I was served lemons, so I made lemonade,” Hattie White, Jay-Z’s grandmother, says in a speech at her 90th birthday. This saying reflects both the song “Freedom” and the album as a whole, as Beyoncé takes the horrible reality of oppression, racism, sexism and infidelity and turns them into fuel for an empowering, poignant visual album that unites its listeners. From start to finish, “Lemonade” excels. It has a fascinating concept that carries out wonderfully over well-written lyrics and poignant social commentary. Its music has variety, makes listeners want to dance (or cry) and never fails to entertain. All in all, my one problem with “Lemonade” is that I wish it were longer because I just can’t get enough of it. Some albums are great listens, but few make you feel truly glad that you’re around at this time in music to hear it, and that’s exactly what “Lemonade” is. _MOVE gives “Lemonade” 5 out of 5 stars._ _Edited by Katie Rosso | krosso@themaneater.com_

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