Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Lemonade | Beyoncé

Beyoncé just out-Beyoncéd Beyoncé, the album that made the word "Beyoncé" a proper noun and a verb. How is that so? Well, mix that feminism with that #BlackLivesMatter movement and make a boldface visual album that acts as both a political statement and a personal exposé of your cheating husband -- after already causing a controversy a few months beforehand.

February's release of "Formation," a track lyrically dense enough to be dissected in a college-level literature course, turned her flirtation with social activism into a full-fledged, socially binding statement: her name is attached, for better or for worse, to #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality. Overnight, she became much more than the typical pop star she once was; she is now an advocate and an entertainer. British journalist Piers Morgan wasted no time in pointing this out: he published an editorial on April 25 criticizing the sudden onset of her activism for black visibility. The Queen B's fans (so essentially 98 percent of the world's population) have already ripped it to shreds, and while I agree that many of his statements are out of line (especially the parts in which he claims he liked her more when she didn't use her music to take stances on important issues -- because how dare popular artists be more than a voice and a body), my inner cynic wants to play devil's advocate.

Prior to her fourth album cycle, Beyoncé was just another singer, yearning the radio's admiration. Slowly but surely, she became an icon. One for whom people set aside time to digest an album as a full body of work, rather than give attention to only the singles that loom on Top 40 radio cycles, as proven with her fourth studio album, certified platinum without any bondafide mainstream smashes, and her eponymous fifth album, certified platinum after three weeks of sales (and before "Drunk in Love" soared on airplay and the Hot 100 charts). Not many people sit down to listen to an album in its entirety nowadays, especially fans of popular acts, but for her, apparently the possibilities are endless. And perhaps most importantly, this transition happened without anything out of the ordinary done on her part -- she had to simply be Beyoncé to become the one and only Beyoncé.

"Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "Run The World (Girls)" shoved her into the spotlight as a feminist icon, and she just kind of owned it. "***Flawless" concreted her status as Beyoncé, the poster child for feminism. Her next order of business? To latch onto another social cause and to exercise the feminism behind which she so proudly stands -- and what better way to do that than through an album inspired in part by rising above problems with a man? Sugar it with a coating of your new cause and release it in the midst of civil unrest (and ironically under a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment, infamously known for holding singer-songwriter Kesha in a contract with a producer who raped her), and the court of public opinion is sure to slap another social rights badge on your sash.

Even with all of this in mind, I would like to think that Beyoncé comes from a helpful place. After all, she has the power to take stances at this point in her career: she's built her empire and has the power to do what she wants without alienation. The fact this album came from someone as important as Beyoncé is part of its greatness, and regardless of intention, it still exposes wrongdoings (on both personal and systemic levels) on a platform to which not many people have access. Moreover, at the the end of the day, people want music they can relate to; they want someone to acknowledge and validate their feelings. Well over half of marriages in the United States end in divorce and African-Americans are begging to be heard again -- bingo, there's the target audiences who want, if not need, this album. It makes a statement, and that statement, whether intentionally or not, serves an altruistic purpose.

For the album's main event, Beyoncé asserts herself with reigning authority through her personal fable. She puts her husband, rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z, on blast for his infidelity (allegedly) while strutting pride in her roots. And although it took an army that outsizes the population of Wyoming to produce it and its accompanying film, the album reads like a book penned by a singular author, telling the story of discovery, forgiveness, and recovery through the scope of a strong, independent black woman. Despite a lack of sonic cohesion upon first listen -- the album is her most experimental endeavor, housing Southern-soaked acoustic twang on "Daddy Lessons," alt-rock amplification on the Jack White-featuring "Don't Hurt Yourself," and a fiery gospel sermon on "Freedom," among a slew of R&B influences -- it just makes sense as whole record, thanks in part to its story, where most of its power lies. In fact, it's undoubtedly her most enjoyable release as a whole.

Part of what makes this record great is the earnest execution. We hear Beyoncé go through every stage of coping with the realization of her husband's infidelity: denial, anger, sadness, and recovery. "Pray You Catch Me" opens her story, blooming into a melancholy melting pot of both vulnerability and vengeance. From there, we watch her pull out all of the stops. She delivers her lines of "Don't Hurt Yourself" with the aggression of a smoking gun, and she points, aims, and opens rapid fire on the Diplo-produced reggaeton track "Hold Up." By the time she reaches tracks like "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles," though, she's fragile and has adopted forgiveness; on the latter, her voice is at the rawest it's ever been, at one point sounding as if she's near tears in the recording booth. Then finally, the story arc resolves itself; on "All Night," she's back to her infamously dirty ways of Beyoncé's "Partition,"  and Jay-Z, granted her redemption, is back to being the object of her affection.

The Jay-Z chronicles take priority throughout the album, but some of Bey's most striking statements are the ones that advocate for change on a larger scope. As if "Formation" and its video didn't strike hard enough, "Freedom" makes a blatant cry for help within the African-American community. She rips through this track, crying, "Freedom, freedom, where are you? 'Cause I need freedom, too." Add Kendrick Lamar to the mix, and you've got yourself an unstoppable combination on a track that drives like a freight train. And on the album's obligatory anthem for hard working women, she's done the impossible: she got the Weeknd to put that voice of his to use on a track that doesn't veer directly into hazy sexcapades. A sultry track titled "6 Inch" with Abel Tesfaye as a credited songwriter and vocalist could be assumed to reference something six inches long -- not six inches high, as in the six-inch heels that an independent working-class woman wears as she stays on the grind and works to make a name for herself.

There are many reasons she slays, as she reaffirms many times throughout the album, and Lemonade provides roughly 90 new ones. A product of audience pandering or not, a good album is a good album. But this is not a good album; it's a great album. It feels like Beyoncé at her most sincere, her most exposed. And more importantly, it feels uninhibited. It showcases just how experimental a popular artist can get when she has unconditional support. The mainstream artist is an archetype that does not stray from the status quo in fear of draining her listener pool, but Beyoncé is not par for the course in stardom -- she's Beyoncé, in a class of her own. She just dropped an album that has set a new precedent for independent women without a third installment to the song of the same name. Life gave her lemons, and she did, indeed, make some of the world's finest Lemonade.

Lemonade is available digitally now under Columbia Records and Parkwood Entertainment. Physical copies will be released on May 6.

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