The credits on Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade read like an oddly-selected history of pop, R&B, and rock music, with modern indie names like Ezra Koenig and Animal Collective sitting alongside titanic legends like OutKast, Led Zeppelin, and Isaac Hayes. The varied cast of writers, producers, and sampled works was certainly a surprise, even after Bey assembled a murder’s row of talent for her last album, because of the stylistic breadth of everyone involved. Beyoncé’s main strength was bringing the worlds of modern pop, R&B, and rap into the star’s orbit, but now it feels like she’s left her comfortable seat in the stylistic house she’s been assembling since Destiny’s Child, and skillfully injected herself into genres that are much more far-flung. That she manages to do this and still sound so singular, like no one else in their right minds could even try this, is insanely impressive, but at this point in her hugely successful career, it isn’t surprising.
Beyoncé makes songs work that totally wouldn’t fly without her presence. If Jack White attempted to sample a Led Zeppelin song on his next solo album, I’m sure it would sound hokier, but harnessing the power of that combo for the fiery barnburner “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé leaves zero trace of predictability or classic rock boredom. Diplo’s done faux-Jamaican music for almost his entire career, but just when you thought the well was running dry, Bey steps up and makes “Hold Up” into something that makes recent Major Lazer albums sound like dribble in comparison. Of course, she also manages to oversee unlikely tracks that would work in any situation but probably wouldn’t come about without her behest, and that’s just another one of the strengths of her vision.
In a way, Lemonade feels like an even more souped-up, ambitious version of Rihanna‘s recent ANTI, and album that saw her making forays into genres such as classic soul and alt rock in ways that were unprecedented in her career. Rih’s album was impressive and a great display of her varied talents, but as I said in my review, it often felt like she was walking around a summer music festival and flitting around between styles with little concern for cohesiveness. Beyoncé, on the other hand, fully inhabits every stylistic decision she makes, whether it’s a duet with James Blake or a country-fried stomper like “Daddy Lessons.” Both women proved that they can do nearly any sound they like, but there’s a greater sense of purpose and attention to detail in Bey’s case.
Of course, the main unifying aspect of Lemonade is an overarching story of infidelity, mistrust, and ultimately, a decision to stay. It’s the most linearly-narrated album Beyoncé’s ever made, and one that prompted a shitstorm of fan theories about the actual identity of “Becky with the good hair” and which exact bitch Bey is going to “fuck up.” Beyond that surface-level gossip though, the album’s visual component presents a deeper arc about black womanhood that’s certainly less immediate, but ultimately much more significant than the (admittedly brutally awesome) disses of Jay Z‘s alleged affairs. As a white dude, I’m far from the best person to discuss this integral part of the album with any sort of authority, but there are many great pieces that have shone through the murky thinkpiece overload of the past week to explore Lemonade‘s central themes of blackness and reclamation of culture. Especially in the wake of the “Formation” video and her Super Bowl halftime performance, Beyoncé has been the epicenter of a discussion about race in a way that’s unprecedented in her career, and this album proves that it goes much deeper than visual signifiers and convenient activism for her.
Lemonade is a bold move, one that’ll alienate some listeners and force many people to rethink how they view Beyoncé. Because of its eclecticism, it’ll also make some non-fans see the light, because even if you don’t listen to modern R&B and hip hop, you’d have a hard time denying the timeless power of vintage cuts like “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Freedom.” Similar to her innovative move of releasing Beyoncé with no promotion, Bey’s new album only seems risky until it sinks in that this is still Beyoncé at the reigns. Everything she touches turns to commercially-viable gold, but what’s amazing about the progression of her career is that seems less and less like an aim that she’s pursuing, and more of a natural occurrence.