This isn’t your Grandma’s lemonade — it’s spiked with a complex brew of pride and nostalgia, anger and betrayal, defiance and resolution.
Or maybe it is Grandma’s, depending on who she is — history tends to repeat. Beyoncé’s sixth album, “Lemonade” (released online April 23 but in stores Friday, May 6) is a bold and relentlessly innovative fusion of ultra-modern R&B with strong undercurrents of classic soul and gospel slashed with elements spun from a staggeringly diverse sonic universe. It’s a deeply personal journey that chronicles a complex relationship riven by distrust, rage and anxiety that is echoed in the context of an America roiled by blazing social upheaval.
Coursing through the minimalist electro-beats and throbbing bass are samples and interpolations from sources as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Soulja Boy, Alan Lomax and others. There are few easily digestible pop hooks. Although detractors deride her as a vapid pop diva propped up by her songwriting and production team, Beyoncé is confident enough not to simply find the 12 catchiest songs her cadre of collaborators could write. “Lemonade” isn’t loaded with tracks that will burn up Top 40 radio — she’s beyond that — but it remains accessible and engaging.
The lyrics on “Lemonade” often read like the journal of a woman scarred by betrayal, unambiguous in how ripped asunder she is, but with a tenacious determination to rebuild. The haunting “Pray You Catch Me” sets the relationship dynamic that forms the core of the album immediately: “You can taste the dishonesty/it’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier/but even that’s a test/constantly aware of it all, my lonely ear pressed against the walls of your world.”
“Hold On” contrasts an almost jaunty musical vibe with lyrics seething with suspicion and acrimony. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a collaboration with Jack White, sears with razor shards of guitar and one of Beyoncé’s gutsiest vocals. The Weeknd brings a smooth, sexy sheen to the provocative “6 Inch,” an anthem of empowerment. “Daddy’s Lessons” is a surreal country stomper that finds Beyoncé gazing back at her childhood experiences and relating flaws and fissures that both men in her life have in common. “He told me when he’s gone/here’s what you do when trouble comes to town/and men like me come around/oh, my daddy said shoot.” Her aim proves dead-on true.
“Sandcastles” is a devastating ballad, Beyoncé’s heart laid bare with a stunning vocal performance. The hurt is there, but it’s also buoyed by the hope of a flame that may burn with rage and regret but still feeds on passion.
Kendrick Lamar joins her on the powerhouse “Freedom,” a blistering reflection on the resilience and strength of a woman as an individual as well as collective battles being fought every moment. “Lemonade” closes with the audacious strut “Formation,” in which Beyonce revels with pride in her personal heritage. It’s a remarkable bit of studio wizardry with a deeply pulsing bass and vocals that leap out of the speakers like knives in a 3-D movie.
Like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” before it, “Lemonade” captures the zeitgeist of an era that has seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement amidst broiling social tensions. A new world of omni-present video-capable smartphones has suddenly exposed what has been hidden in plain sight for years but was too often ignored because it wasn’t blaring across the internet and the 24-hour information enfilade that marks our current reality.
It’s clear that Beyoncé felt she needed to make a statement, and she does. It’s symbolized in the album’s stirring one-hour visual accompaniment which features appearances by the mothers of three young black men whose brutal murders became flashpoints and helped ignite a firestorm that shows no sign of abating: Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. These are names that will ring through history.
“Lemonade” is a soul-rending catharsis both intimate and vast that will be looked back upon as strongly evocative of an era of growing anger, tension and an absolute unwillingness to accept the status quo. Beyoncé wrings the sweetest juice from the bitterest lemons the world flings in her direction.