When was the last time the album of the year was made by the biggest pop star on the planet?
‘Thriller’ in 1982? ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ in 1967?
Give it six months and there will be another name to add to the list.
‘Lemonade’, Beyonce’s sixth studio album is a breathtaking piece of work in which production, author, subject and songs all contribute, all are bound together inextricably and yet all are worn so very lightly. This is no portentous, overbearing statement double album, it’s a breezy 45 minutes that manages to be uplifting, inspiring and sharp as whilst diving deep into dark and difficult personal and political issues. Again, again, again, I can’t stress enough how, despite the rawness on display, the execution of the 12 songs here is so deft as to be giddily exhilarating.
And let’s remind ourselves once more, this is the Biggest Pop Star on the planet pulling all of this off.
What’s more, she’s pulling it off amidst the meteorology of the interstellar forces between her and her husband, one Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z. Not only is this a remarkable record by the world’s biggest star, it’s one which is laced with implied criticism and public admonishment for one of the other top 5 stars in pop. Who she lives with.
It must have been some first listen in the Knowles-Carter house.
And so what do we have?
A record full of beautiful detail and flourishes. The bingo hall organ that rills through ‘Pray You Catch Me’, is incongrous, and just a bit weird, and deliciously fleeting. It’s gone before you realilse it’s happened, leaving a background echo and a sense that not everything is going to be okay on this fairground ride.
Elsewhere there’s the horn riff that emerges from the middle of ‘All Night’. It’s the hookiest thing I’ve heard in ages and it’s used so delicately that it becomes genuinely nagging and moreish.
It’s a record packed with moments too.
Like when the air horn cuts through the phasing sample from Andy Williams ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’. It’s subtly amazing, an act of low-key genius. The sound of a sweeping clash of cultures, and it’s a throwaway in the first 10 seconds of what becomes ‘Hold Up’, an exquisite track.
It’s also a record packed with startling, revealing, insightful and nuanced words. Take ‘Hold Up’. It’s no simple ‘you done me wrong’ diss track for a disloyal partner. Here is introspection, guilt, self blame, defensiveness, possessiveness, confusion, anxiety. This is a song written from the perspective of a woman who feels completely isolated by her jealously and, ultimately, by her husbands infidelity. It holds its tension until the very end and the repeated refrain “I look in the mirror, say ‘what’s up’?” a hopelessly defiant cry of loneliness.
The ambiguity and self-relexive power of these lyrics, even when plumbing the dark recesses of the heart, is a pure joy. “What’s worse, to be jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?” And earlier, the psychological insight that delivers the line “I’m praying you catch me”, the protagonist yearning to be found running through her partner’s call list just so the suffocating suspicion and the dread she is writhing in can be brought out into the open.
The suspicion and self-doubt boils over in the next track, don’t hurt yourself a writhing, seething, excoriating smack down of a track. Underscored by thrashing barbed-wire guitar from Jack White, she bellows:
WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I AM?…
(You can here her rage splattering against the mic here)
I am the dragon breathing fire
Beautiful mane I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying
You ain’t trying hard enough
You ain’t loving hard enough
You don’t love me deep enough
We not reaching peaks enough
Uh, this is your final warning
You know I give you life
If you try this shit again
You gon lose your wife
Cards on the table, all I know about Beyonce’s marriage to Jay-Z I know through listening to this record. I have no idea whether this record alludes to true events or is an elaborately imagined and constructed fiction. It doesn’t matter.
It’s either a staggeringly frank statement from the most popular powerful performer in pop music, a performer who could have made an album of sugar kisses and butterflies and sold just as many copies, or it’s a work of astonishing authorial vision. If she’s putting herself into a character’s head, then it’s a different, but no less astonishing achievement.
And you shudder for the man who may have unleashed this avenging angel. And then you think, you go, you go, go give him what he deserves.
Elsewhere, there are wonders, from the country stomp of ‘Daddy Lessons’, again more complex than first apparent, and perhaps not quite so autobiographical, to
‘Formation’ which closes it off, with her rallying cry to black women to form up and slay in the struggle for gender and race power and equality. It’s no meek call for philosophical egalitariansim, it’s a red raw assertion of life, love, sex, money, greed, determination and power, inabashed and undeniable.
And once again, to close, all of this is in a set of 12 exquisitely constructed pop songs.
I’m going to stop now. Perhaps you have ‘Lemonade’ in which case you don’t have to take if from me, but here it comes anyway: This is quite something.
Tom listened: I wish we hadn’t had Lemonade with curry on the night, not because of any ensuing issues with my digestive system but because our physical removal from Graham’s living room to his dining table, coupled with his children’s bedtime meant that it was almost impossible to discern. I definitely felt the album suffered as a result and, occasionally found myself tuning in to something that sounded as if it was probably amazing, only for it to fade away just as rapidly in a melange of coriander and chit chat. A shame as I am sure I would have been impressed (and have been mightily by the stuff I have heard on the radio) and am very keen to acquire the album once it gets released on a decent format. I wish I could say more about it!