While the 20-time Grammy winner lets her creativity run riot, the scope is narrower and more personal. Taken literally, this is a concept album about a marriage in crisis. It documents, in painstaking detail, the initial sting of an affair, the lingering threat of divorce and, ultimately, forgiveness and reconciliation. More broadly, however, it’s an ode to the transformative power of pain. A testament to the strength derived from surviving trauma with your sense of self intact. As the old saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make Lemonade.
The rawness and intimacy of the subject matter is reflected by the music. Real instruments and rage permeate the 12-song set, which bounces effortlessly from ’70s rock to country and modern-day hip-hop. Beyonce also weaves multiple samples and featured artists into the surprisingly cohesive tapestry, which is nothing less than an act of alchemy. Lemonade is simultaneously the most experimental and restrained album of Queen Bey’s career. It’s an emotionally gripping snapshot of music’s very own Wonder Woman at her most confident and bold.
1. Pray You Catch Me
“You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier,” our heroine seethes on “Pray You Catch Me.” These are the first words we hear Beyonce sing on Lemonade, immediately escorting us into her inner-circle like a trusted friend. It’s also the perfect introduction to the organic, sophisticated sound that shapes the album. It’s clear that the mega-selling diva intends for this to stand the test of time. The production (courtesy of Kevin Garrett) is somehow era-less with its delicate piano arrangement, lush vocal layers and sublime strings.
2. Hold Up
The tempo and tone thaw out on “Hold Up,” a soulful, reggae-tinged number that sounds like a cross between Amy Winehouse circa Frank and Lady Saw. There’s an ease to the song, which boggles the mind when you consider that it contains not one but three samples (Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” and Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On”). Those disparate threads are masterfully woven together by Diplo, who even goes easy on his trademark air horn. I’m not sure if Beyonce is releasing singles this time around, but “Hold Up” would be as good a candidate as any with its sun-dappled beats and hugely relatable lyrics.
3. Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White)
After a flirtation with contemporary pop, Bey takes us on a journey to the 1970s with a biting rock experiment co-piloted by Jack White. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a fiery threat of a song built around a mean sample of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.” The inclusion of the 1971 anthem also works on a symbolic level. This is the part of the story where the emotional dam breaks and resentment bubbles over into anger. Think of this as the rougher, tougher older sister of “Ring The Alarm.” Or as the best track Lenny Kravitz never released. Either way it’s ball-gripping and revelatory.
Here’s an unpopular opinion. After the lightning bolt that is “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sorry” feels a little safe. It’s a bouncy, infinitely-quotable bop with an infectious, radio-friendly chorus, but the lyrics let it down. (The “suck on my balls” quip is equal parts awesome and embarrassing). However, what it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in bluster. Queen Bey threatens divorce over rubbery beats courtesy of Melo-X, while Becky With The Good Hair emerges from the ether to become an overnight pop culture phenomenon. I also suspect it’s intended to be the female response to Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You.” Pay attention to the phrasing, which is quite similar in parts.
5. 6 Inch (feat. The Weeknd)
“6 Inch” could have easily been a case of too many cooks. There are five producers, two samples (Animal Collective’s “My Girls” and Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”) and a cameo from The Weekend. However, it turns out to be the best example of the Destiny’s Child alum incorporating another artist’s sound into her own and absolutely devouring it. The druggy, retro vibe is quintessentially Abel, but the narrative is all Beyonce. It’s not as personal as other songs (unless she has a secret weekend job), but it’s so brilliantly executed that it feels like an essential piece of the Lemonade puzzle.
6. Daddy Lessons
Life and Beyonce are full of surprises. “Daddy Lessons” finds the superstar channeling Tammy Wynette on a gritty country detour that taps into the rich musical heritage of the South. Dabbling in country isn’t unheard of, but gripping the genre by the throat and making a powerful statement instead of resorting to gimmickry is a feat few have pulled off. She takes to bluegrass like she was born to it, reveling in the dark tale of fatherly advice. The production is impeccable here with jaunty horns blending it seamlessly into the bigger picture.
7. Love Drought
The Mike Dean-produced “Love Drought” plays like an extended interlude. The sleepy trap beats and harmonization set a mood as opposed to commanding your attention. The track, however, marks an important turning point in the narrative. Wounds are starting to heal and, for the first time, reconciliation seems possible. It exudes a quiet hopefulness that there could be a happy ending after all. But first there needs to be accountability, and that’s where the next song comes in.
We’ve seen Bey belt out a ballad with minimal accompaniment before. (The dressing room performance of “1 + 1” and Tidal exclusive “Die With You” spring to mind). But “Sandcastles” is the first time we’ve heard it on an album and, on the strength of this, it should be a legal requirement moving forward. The “Irreplaceable” icon sings about the distress of watching everything you’ve built together wash away. It’s the moment Beyonce rips the heart out of her chest and presents it to the world for inspection. Touchingly, there’s a glimmer of hope at the end when she pleads: “Show me your scars and I won’t walk away.” And we can only assume that’s what Jay Z did. “Sandcastles” is an emotional sucker punch.
9. Forward (feat. James Blake)
James Blake lends his haunting voice to this eerie, extended interlude. It captures the unease and uncertainty of trying to move forward instead of cutting ties. The track is tinged with sounds prevalent in religious music, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Religious themes that are sprinkled through the album. Beyonce clearly sees the dissolution of a marriage as a decision to be made between wife, man and God.
10. Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
While “Sandcastles” is the beating heart of the album and “Daddy Lessons” is the biggest revelation, “Freedom” stands out as a timely (and timeless) protest. Make no mistake, this is a career song for Beyonce. She goes to bat for Black Lives Matter and gender inequality within the context of a euphoric, passionate anthem with real hit potential. The production is key here. The ’60s rock vibe — complete with psychedelic twist (courtesy of a sample of Kaleidoscope’s “Let Me Try”) — presents a timeless framework. Meanwhile Just Blaze’s furious beats gives it a modern edge and a platform for Kendrick Lamar to deliver an epic verse. If this doesn’t end up with a bunch of Grammy nominations, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
11. All Night
Once you’ve decided on a course of forgiveness, the next step is rebuilding trust. That’s the scenario that unfolds on the glorious “All Night.” A reggae-tinged mid-tempo anthem that samples Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” this drowsy bop throbs with hope and rekindled passion. Producers R.City and Diplo show admirable restraint here. There are no signature flourishes, only sprinklings of horns and strings to bring the sound in line with the rest of the album. It’s a fever dream of a song that showcases Queen Bey’s light and airy vocal in a way that I haven’t heard before. She flutters over the arrangement high on the prospect of what’s to come. However, it’s the hint of hesitation in her voice that makes this so touching.
Within the context of Lemonade, “Formation” almost feels out of place. In the same way that “Run The World (Girls)” felt out of place on 4. However, the song takes on a slightly different meaning within the context of the album. After rebuilding your sense of identity, it’s the duty of any independent woman to spread to the word and inspire those around you. If there’s one thread that runs through the singer’s discography, from the days of Destiny’s Child to her visual albums, it’s female empowerment.
— Mike Wass