Beyoncé is a clever lady. And seemingly, an angry and hurt one. She’s also rather good at surprises; something she proved in December 2013 with the release of her eponymous fifth album, which showed as a star who's very much the CEO of her own damn self.
Beyoncé has always been very guarded, saying very little, if anything - even when lil' sis Solange aggressively tried to pedal-push Jay-Z’s head with her louboutins in 'elevator-gate'. Then along comes Lemonade
, arguably her strongest surprise yet. Led by politically-driven single 'Formation', the song isn’t entirely indicative of the album that bends genres, defies rules & sees the former Destiny's Child star re-write her own rulebook - or does she?
She admitted during a making of ‘Run The World (Girls)’ behind the scenes documentary back in 2011 that she constantly worries about how to remain relevant. And let’s get one thing clear, there is no ‘Single Ladies’, ‘Crazy In Love’ or even a ‘Love On Top’ on here. Mrs. Knowles-Carter, (as the visual film for the album credits her), has been rebranded as an artist with 'something to say', and it's rightly making everyone sit up and pay attention. One of the most famous musical artists in the world has served up a game-changing curveball of a concoction to popular music.
This is not, certainly initially, an album solely to be listened to in order to appreciate the entire picture. Better thought of as a musical movie-meets-baptism-of-creative-fire, watching the visual for Lemonade
provides a powerful and sometimes eerie emotional and political punch. This is Beyoncé uncensored and unleashed; having the musical equivalent of a public meltdown in Sainsbury’s after a heavy weekend in Vauxhall with the other half (only with style) as she tackles the issue of infidelity, while the theme of black female empowerment is quickly being cemented as her own artistic war cry.
She also shows us that no love, no matter what your status or fortune, is perfect, but that true love can triumph against the odds - something she displays in the visual for the beautiful penultimate number ‘All Night’ featuring couples of various orientation and gender. This is undeniably her most complex, intricate, layered, daring and angry piece of work. Beyoncé wants us to talk about her, one way or the other. 'You know your that bitch when you cause all this conversation' she drawls on 'Formation'. Well Bey, mission accomplished.
Did Jay-Z really cheat? Is it all a metaphor? Or is this spectacular businesswoman excelling herself in marketing, when perhaps nothing is or ever was wrong whatsoever between one of Planet Earth's most influential power couples. The jury’s out, and valid debates for and against are flying around social media. But what's certain is that it’s not like her husband didn’t know about the content of the work, (he even appears in the visual) before they put it onto his
own streaming service in which Beyoncé also owns a share, TIDAL. And let's not forget, for a woman who is building an untouchable aura by eschewing traditional lanes promotion, dropping a few apparent relationship bombs before withdrawing once again seems a pretty concrete way to guarantee the column-inches.
Personally though, there does feel like a wave of authenticity here. Whatever incident's she's face during her incredible 20 years of superstardom, Beyoncé has never been this real, revealing and raw in her art. Furthermore, when it comes to branding, if she is pulling the wool on us and Jay-Z is perfectly innocent, why hang a question mark over the strength one of the most dependably bankable marriages the world has ever seen?
Whatever your take, the resulting aftershocks have seen Beyoncé's crown welded firmly onto her head. This is a star in firm legacy-building mode. Critics are loving it, early sales figure predictions are looking colossal and all from a woman who has done barely anything in terms of press interviews to push her last two albums. How many other artists can get away with that?
Watch the visual once you’ll love it. Watch it twice; you’ll see the masterpiece. By then, the vast majority of the songs will have already buried themselves deeply into your memory. The people who will be divided or disappointed over this album? The people who solely love the Beyoncé they can drunkenly attempt the ‘Single Ladies’ dance to at weddings.
*is* to be taken on face value, Jay-Z best watch himself as Queen B takes him to the cleaners and starts an uprising and war of representation for her fellow women. She hasn’t ever been this edgy and exciting, and this diverse offering, dare I say it, may be a career best. Where she'll go from here in years to come is anyone’s guess. And frankly, whether she meant to or not, props to Bey for making a record so acerbic that if you had the choice between the two, you’d happily opt to share the lift with a pissed-off Solange.
It’s pretty early to be calling this, but if I hear a stronger, bolder more interesting album in 2016, I’ll be very surprised.
Words: Paul Culshaw
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