The Genius of Beyonce’s LEMONADE
May 13, 2016 at 10:42 am
I’m not here to review LEMONADE. It’s an instant classic, 5 out of 5 crones, and deserves all the praise and mania that surrounds it. (If you’re looking for a good review, I would suggest The Needle Drop.) I’m here because after listening to LEMONADE nonstop since its release, I can’t stop thinking about the story of LEMONADE. I’m going to look at each song and try to nail down all the important bits of it. There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of articles about LEMONADE, but we’re going to journey throughout the entire album. We’ll run headfirst into Beyonce’s personal life filled with heartbreak and betrayal as well as her inner thoughts about racism and feminism. And, like a great author who devours every book they come across, part of Beyonce’s genius comes from her influences from other artists, both in style and in attitude. This album is more than just a confessional, more than just a peek into Beyonce’s private life, more than just Queen Bey. While the album is intensely personal, what makes it resonate is that it’s so relatable. So gather all your lemons because we are about to make some LEMONADE.
How you’re going to feel during the entire album
Author’s Note: Throughout the text, I refer to Beyonce’s lover, significant other, husband, etc. While I do know that Beyonce is probably referencing her real-life husband Jay-Z throughout the album, I don’t want to make any assumptions as Beyonce, as an artist, will probably take a lot of creative license with her writing and may not always be specifically referencing Jay-Z in every single line of every single song. That’s the reasoning behind my ambiguity.
PRAY YOU CATCH ME is the prelude to all of the badassery we are about to experience. This song has the same flavor as an early 90’s Janet Jackson jam with the same soft vocals and classic R&B beat. Thematically, it’s clear that Beyonce is looking to avoid a confrontation with her husband by hoping that she is caught acting suspicious. At the end of the song we hear a brokenhearted whisper: “What are you doing, my love?” But don’t misunderstand her tone: her whisper comes from the initial feeling of betrayal, but soon she will roar.
Janet Jackson also knows a thing or two about being a bad bitch
HOLD UP signals the beginning of Beyonce’s anger and pain in this album. Again, her vocals are sweet, but this time the music behind it is jaunty with a definite two-tone reggae influence, much like Lily Allen’s sound in her first album, Alright, Still (especially her sardonic hit single “Smile.”) The repetition of line, “They don’t love you like I love you,” is a clear reference to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s iconic “Maps.” Both songs tell a lover to stay home for true love, rather than falling for the “love” they feel from an audience (in the case of “Maps”) or from someone else (in the case of HOLD UP).
Goddamn, this makes me cry every time
HOLD UP has a small breakdown with a reggae-esque rap where she tells her lover that she would love him even if he was poor, which sounds like she’s answering Jay-Z’s questions in his 1998 single “Can I Get A…” (“Can I hit in the mornin’ without givin you half of my dough / And even worse if I was broke would you want me?”).
In the bridge, Beyonce asks “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” Here, Beyonce is looking at a very common issue that happens in relationships, especially to women in relationships with men. Often, when a woman has suspicions or issues with a man, she is gaslighted — made to feel like she’s acting crazy, and that there’s no merit to her feelings. Beyonce lets us know that the only thing worse than looking crazy is looking like a doormat, giving us a reason to not back down just because we’ve been called crazy.
Oh shit, girl
DON’T HURT YOURSELF shows us the full force of Beyonce’s anger. And she makes no apologies for her feelings, much like Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. This funk-rock “fuck you” anthem is produced by Jack White, whose influence is so strong you would know he had a hand in it before you heard his voice in the chorus. Beyonce’s voice has been distorted and sounds much like Kelis when she screams “I hate you so much right now” on her single “Caught Out There,” another song dedicated to an unfaithful man.
DON’T HURT YOURSELF reminds everyone that marriage is not just two people coming together, and it’s more than a partnership. A married couple is one entity and that’s why “when you hurt me, you hurt yourself.” The line that stands out the most for me in this single is, “when you love me, you love yourself — love God herself.” In the LEMONADE short film, Beyonce tries to distance herself from it, but this line is actually brilliant. God, across all religions, is first and foremost a creator. Traditionally, the idea of bringing new life into the world is seen as a woman’s — and especially, a mother’s — power. But not just in procreation — Beyonce also embraces her ability to revitalize her partner with the line, “You know I bring you life.” Her lover doesn’t have the same power of creation (“You can’t recreate her, no”), and Beyonce takes pride in this skill that he doesn’t share. In asserting her anger, Beyonce is also asserting herself in the role she had in the relationship: a god.
(Sarcastic Author Note: Beyonce is so powerful she could potentially, with this album save her husband’s business.)
You’re not fooling anyone, Beyonce. We all know you’re actually Nefertiti
You can’t stay angry forever, and Beyonce’s anger turns to apathy in SORRY. This song’s fun beat and sassy lyrics will shut down the club EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Beyonce gives her lover a taste of his own medicine by going out all night and partying with her girlfriends (“Now I’m the one that’s lying, and I don’t feel bad about it. It’s exactly what you get. Stop interrupting my grindin’… I ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout you.”). SORRY has the same feel to it as “Take a Bow” by Rihanna, another woman artist who has faced a very public relationship/breakup.
A school bus of your girl friends is the cure to a broken heart
SORRY also marks a section of LEMONADE where the tone shifts between the beginning of the song and the end of it. After telling us all about the fun she’s having without her husband, Beyonce takes us back to the nights where she was left alone at home (“Looking at my watch, he shoulda been home…”). Beyonce revisits her pain during that time and even hints to leaving (“I left a note in the hallway. By the time you read it, I’ll be far away.”). This is also the first, and only in LEMONADE, time she mentions her daughter (“Me and my baby, we gon’ be alright. We gon’ have a good life.”). So, in case you’ve forgotten while grinding to the first part of the song, this song represents the tearing apart of a marriage and a family. This isn’t the same breakup you had in college — there are real consequences to breaking up a family. This is the first time Beyonce acknowledges this, but not the last.
I’d also like to take a moment to look at what has become the most famous line of the song: “He better call Becky with the good hair.” Upon the album’s release, Beyonce fans became witch hunters trying to track down “Becky.” But Becky is not a “who,” but rather a “what.” By choosing the name Becky, a very stereotypical white girl name (thanks to Sir Mix-a-Lot and the infamous opening to his song “Baby Got Back”) and referencing her “good hair,” Beyonce is essentially creating a character that is everything she is not. Historically, society has treated women with fairer skin and finer hair as more beautiful than dark-skinned, kinky-haired women. This is a sore subject for women of color, especially black women, who have been made to feel inferior to women with more Eurocentric features. You can find a lot of articles on the subject, but I really enjoyed this one from MTV.
How the world is looking at every Becky
Beyonce moves onto a song that is less confessional than the previous four with 6 INCH, which tells the story of a woman, possibly an escort, who focuses solely on her work in order to save up for a good life. The beat to this song is all bass and it jingles the change I keep in my car door handle when I turn it up. The Weekend makes an appearance in this song, solidifying its place in the new alternative R&B genre the kids are listening to these days. Beyonce sings the hook in a deep, sultry voice that sounds a lot like T-Boz from TLC.
6 INCH is another woman-empowering Beyonce anthem. The fact that Beyonce chooses to celebrate a woman who chooses to make her money using her body means that Beyonce can see the worth in every single woman, even if society can’t. This can be a touchy subject for feminists and has caused a lot of debate. Personally, I think that Beyonce’s brand of feminism is very modern and don’t see anything wrong at all with how she chooses to express it.
Like SORRY, 6 INCH switches gears. After singing like Billie Holiday throughout the majority of the song, Beyonce belts out her inner Aretha Franklin when she sings, “Oh, gonna make you feel. You always come back to me.” For a moment, it sounds like Beyonce is reaffirming her power, but as she repeats the words “come back” over and over while her voice cracks, we hear the true story. Beyonce’s heart is breaking.
This ain’t your Daddy’s gentlemen’s club
The next track, DADDY LESSONS, is a very clear departure from the R&B Beyonce is normally associated with. The song begins with a gorgeous trumpet that comes straight from a New Orleans marching band. Once the twangy guitar makes its way into the song, Beyonce channels Dolly Parton and Shania Twain by embracing the country music that has certainly been a huge part of the music scene in her native Houston for a long time.
DADDY LESSONS shifts Beyonce’s focus from her current woes to the woes of her father. Beyonce’s father is as Southern as Southern can get. He’s a gun-toting, whiskey and tea drinking man who “made a soldier out of” Beyonce. It’s clear she has nothing but love for her daddy, but it’s also clear that Beyonce’s relationship issues may stem from her relationship with her father (“With his gun and his head held high, he told me not to cry. Oh my daddy said shoot.”). Though his methods are unconventional, his ultimate goal is to teach his daughter how to spot the good men from the bad (“When trouble comes to town and men like me come around, oh my daddy said shoot.”). By realizing that someone she has held in such high regard for so long is not as perfect as she once thought can open Beyonce’s mind to the possibility that the man she loves is human, and humans make mistakes. Just this small change in thought can pave the road to forgiveness.
In case you forgot where Beyonce reps
Beyonce’s tone shifts from feelings of anger and betrayal to vulnerability with LOVE DROUGHT. This is another alternative R&B song with a driving beat that’s reminiscent of Ciara. LOVE DROUGHT explores the power of Beyonce’s relationship when the two work together (“You and me could move a mountain. You and me could calm a war down.”). It becomes clear that because of the power of their relationship, Beyonce will need to call on that power again to help her heal.This concept is explored again in later tracks.
There are also moments in this song where Beyonce shows her self-doubt and vulnerability. She asks her husband, “I’ll always be committed, I been focused. I always paid attention, been devoted. Tell me what did I do wrong?” These kinds of questions can wreck a reconciliation before it even starts because the answer is: She didn’t do anything wrong. It’s easier to accept blame and try to fix yourself then count on someone else to fix their issues. Blame-placing won’t solve any problems so Beyonce ends with the line “You and me would stop this love drought.” Beyonce is turning to the power of intimacy to fix her relationship, something that she reiterates later in the album.
My idea of true love before LEMONADE
SANDCASTLES is a gorgeous piano ballad where you can easily picture Beyonce as Alicia Keys or Carole King. The piano line is very simple, leaving the listener to focus on the words as well as Beyonce’s voice. In this particular song, Beyonce’s vocals are just as important as the words she is singing. During the line, “What is it about you that I can’t erase?” Beyonce allows her voice to strangle and crack in order to convey the frustration and pain she’s feeling. It would be so much easier if she could walk away from the relationship, but her feelings make that impossible.
SANDCASTLES is by far the most emotional track on the album, almost to the point where you feel guilty listening in to something so personal. We also get a glimpse into what her partner is feeling with the lines, “Your heart is broken ‘cause I walked away.” This is also important to Beyonce as she needs to see that she’s not the only one in this relationship who is mourning its death (“Show me your scars and I won’t walk away.”). She needs to feel that the relationship is just as important to her partner as it is for her. Only then will she be able to heal.
My idea of true (and strong) love after LEMONADE
FORWARD is a very short track that uses the same piano from SANDCASTLES, but adds a bit of electronic instrumentation and is sung primarily by James Blake. In fact, the only line that Beyonce sings on the entire track is, “Go back to sleep in your favorite spot just next to me.” This line not only shows that she is opening her bed back to her husband but that she is also willing to treat this all like a terrible dream. She is ready to move forward.
FREEDOM is a gorgeous anthem that works in two ways for this album: it celebrates Beyonce’s freedom that has come from making a choice about her relationship as well as serving as an anthem for black Americans about the struggles of poverty, racism, classism, and police brutality. Beyonce channels black female artists such as Nina Simone who have mixed their politics with their music in the past. Aisha Harris writes a great article about Beyonce’s new political identity in her article “How Beyonce Mixed Traditionalism With Radicalism to Make LEMONADE.”
The most powerful image from the LEMONADE visual album
It would only make sense that a track like this would feature Kendrick Lamar, one of the most commercially successful, socially conscious rapper since Tupac. His verse begins with an homage to Beyonce’s song “Countdown”:
Ten Hail Marys, I meditate for practice
Channel 9 news tell me I’m movin’ backwards
Eight blocks left, death is around the corner
Seven misleadin’ statements ’bout my persona
Six headlights wavin’ in my direction
Five-O askin’ me what’s in my possession
Lamar explores a common feeling amongst Americans of color in his verse much like he does in his iconic album To Pimp a Butterfly. By working with Lamar, Beyonce is heavily aligning herself with the movement (as if her donations to various chapters of Black Lives Matter wasn’t enough of a hint). This is bold for Beyonce, as politics and social issues can be troubled waters for a successful artist to wade, especially one who has not built their career on social politics.
There is a place for social politics in music
There is also a continuation of the theme of baptism in this track. “I’mma wade, I’mma wave through the waters… Tell the deep I’m new.” This baptism not only represents Beyonce’s increasing activism, it also represents the change she has been through after the betrayal of an unfaithful husband. Beyonce acknowledges that she is different now and has been reborn as a more socially political artist.
Baptism is a common theme in LEMONADE
ALL NIGHT has a fun trumpet arrangement along with a funky bass line that makes it sound like a No Doubt track (like “Underneath It All” or “Simple Kind of Life”) and her confessional lyrics in this song definitely channel Gwen Stefani, the queen of singing about all the intimate details of her relationships. You’re going to hear the old Beyonce in this track: great R&B with a booming, perfect voice. It’s the perfect way to end the album.
Sometimes the rest of the band was just along the Gwen Stefani train
“End the album?” you ask. “But what about FORMATION?” Yes, technically the album does end with FORMATION. However, ALL NIGHT is a song about coming full circle from the initial betrayal. Beyonce returns to the idea of using intimacy to heal her relationship that she has been singing about throughout LEMONADE (“Give you some time to prove that I can trust you again. I’m gonna kiss up and rub up and feel up… on you all night long.”). If you were wondering what Beyonce’s love language was before this album, you don’t have to wonder any more (hint: it’s physical touch). Beyonce and her husband are rekindling their relationship (or ending their love drought, so to speak). What ultimately keeps her in the relationship is that she knows what she has is true love, and true love is the most powerful thing on the planet (“They say true love’s the greatest weapon to win the war caused by pain… Oh nothing real can be threatened. True love brings salvation back into me.”). Beyonce has also learned that, much like those who are hungover, you’re going to need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you in order to feel better (“My torturer became a remedy.”). And if you need more proof that this is the real last song on the album (and FORMATION is just an amazing bonus), the song ends with a callback to PRAY YOU CATCH ME does as Beyonce whispers, “Oh I missed you, my love.” Which, by the way, brings me to tears every time.
Giving hope to cynics everywhere, then taking it away, then giving it back again
If ALL NIGHT acts as a bookend to LEMONADE, then FORMATION is the huge, spectacular bow that holds the whole thing together. Beyonce has embraced everything about her identity as a black woman. And when she tell us that she’s “so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces,” it’s because her relationship recently took a hit that almost ended it. So, of course she’s going to be a bit possessive, she’s trying to hold onto the relationship she’s dedicated so much to. FORMATION is so much more than a banger, it’s the new Beyonce after her LEMONADE baptismal. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.
Until the next album bitches…