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Beyoncé's Lemonade is a dazzling social drama with a decent soundtrack

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Is it fact or fiction? Does it matter?

The bulk of the popular conversation surrounding Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade has revolved around the specifics underpinning the record’s central drama. Is "Becky with the good hair" Rachel Roy, Rita Ora, or no one at all? (We know it’s not Rachael Ray.) When did her marriage fracture for good, and when was it put back together? Just how much black girl magic did she have to use to make Jack White interesting again? They’re salacious and puffy lines of inquiry — the unavoidable consequences of a public and celebrated life and marriage — and they’re obscuring the roots that snake through Beyoncé’s discography and hold Lemonade up.

The album’s seeming transparency and frankness aren’t revelatory or unexpected. They’re the culmination of a half-decade that Beyoncé has spent refining her skills as both a visual stylist and a storyteller, and it’s her interest in narrative heft that led her to fill Lemonade with the slightest and most insular music she’s ever recorded. The result is an album that feels closer to movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and The Kids Are All Right than traditional pop records. It’s a devastating relationship drama with a complicated resolution, one that just happens to use songs as vehicles for its story rather than dialogue, and its soundtrack was created by the biggest pop star in the world.

beyonce and jay z

Marital strife has been part of Beyoncé’s songwriting toolbox for almost a decade; it's become the dominant theme in her work just as she’s matured into the pop artist and quasi-religious figure that’s familiar to all of us today. Love has never come easy in Beyoncé’s world: it’s something you have to fight for, a flame you have to watch and feed to keep alive. It’s constantly in danger, and when you celebrate it you have to acknowledge the hard work it took to sustain it. And while Lemonade takes that idea and places it at the core of a single, harrowing narrative, it’s also asserted throughout 4 and Beyoncé, her other two major releases this decade.

Betrayal, distance, and love’s fragility stud many of the most memorable songs on those records, like seeds embedded within pieces of fruit. "I Care" is a roaring vocal showcase with a bridge that throws poison-tipped darts: "Boy, maybe if you cared enough / I wouldn’t have to care so much / What happened to our trust? / Now you’ve just given up." "Rather Die Young" and "Love On Top" are out-and-out love songs that strike the same sour note. (Consider the latter’s pre-chorus: "Nothing’s perfect, but it’s worth it / After fighting through my tears / Finally, you put me first!") Beyoncé went on to explore the same topics with greater specificity and personality. "No Angel" contains one of the most telling lines in Beyoncé’s pre-Lemonade discography: "No, I’m not an angel either, but at least I’m tryin’ / I know I drive you crazy, but would you rather that I be a machine who doesn’t notice when you late or when you lyin’?" "Jealous" is a masterful short story, one that moves from half-naked meals and gender inequality to vengeful flirting with an ex; "Mine" is the album’s interpersonal climax, framing a renewed expression of commitment in terms of near-separations and postpartum depression. All of these songs deliver the same message: love is something that flourishes in spite of imperfection, transgression, and repeated failure.

The music on 'Lemonade' wasn't meant to stand alone

What differentiates these songs and the ones that make up Lemonade? It’s a question of focus. The tracks mentioned above tell a story about Beyoncé’s perspective when they’re grouped together, but they’re just as effective in isolation; they remain compelling pieces of music even when stripped of her words and her presence. They’re rich and fully realized. The music on Lemonade was created with a different purpose. Its songs are more like scenes or devices than singles meant to stand alone. They value voice, mood, and plot over everything else. This isn’t an immediate problem when the voice in question is one of the most powerful and distinctive in the world, and sure enough, Lemonade contains some of the best singing of Beyoncé’s career. She’s never used this much of her emotional and dynamic range, whether she’s reaching the lowest notes of her career on the lilting "Hold Up" or snarling and howling through "Don’t Hurt Yourself." You can hear her starting to let her guard down note by note on "Love Drought," rediscovering her playfulness and searching for answers; one song later, she sounds earthy and raw on "Sandcastles."

The writing is just as impressive, which is important given the way the album pushes your ears toward every new word. It demands you acknowledge every bit of excoriation and subtlety, and it loops faith, family, and fidelity into a complicated and intimidating knot. The passive pleas and quiet contemplation of "Pray You Catch Me" only need a few songs to boil over into white-hot indignation. (By the time you reach "Sorry," the stakes can’t get any higher: "Suicide before you see these tears fall out my eyes," sings Beyoncé, leaving her marital home with her baby and a note on the countertop.) Even as the album starts to race toward a happy ending, it still bears scars. "All Night" is a lovers’ anthem, but you can hear the hesitation. It’s the sound of forgiving but not forgetting.

beyonce & jay z

Lemonade’s emphasis on character and narrative stability makes it an album whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can’t apply that statement to 4 or Beyoncé, but that doesn’t make it a value judgment. It just means Lemonade is a radically different proposition, an album on which sound is secondary. That fundamental difference helps to explain the public emphasis on whether or not the album is rooted in fact or fiction, on all of its little details. It’s a story first, and a story well told gives way to a natural impulse: we want to know where it comes from, what the author was thinking, how much of ourselves to invest.

Does the truth have the potential to change the way we interact with Lemonade and with its creator? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Lemonade is an entirely truthful account of a marriage that sounds tempestuous, to say the least. If that’s the case, then the album stands as a remarkable act of bravery and reflection. It becomes a triumph of the personal rendered political, Beyoncé’s ordeal having been used to frame the systemic devaluation of black women’s lives by both their country and the people they love. Finally, it renders the reconciliation that closes the album one of the most interesting and complicated developments in a public relationship in recent memory.

This is Schrödinger's marriage

Let’s move to the other end of the spectrum and imagine that Lemonade is a complete fiction. It’s the result of a decade Beyoncé’s spent experimenting with detail and interpersonal drama in her songwriting, and it’s an incredible act of writing and performance; "Becky with the good hair" is a ghost, an imagined other that threw us all for a loop. It’s also a remarkable piece of calculation, a piece of pop art that successfully leverages public fascination with private lives and the celebrity media complex to sell albums and Tidal subscriptions. It retains all of its power as a sociopolitical statement about black womanhood.

This is the most remarkable thing about Lemonade: the way it occupies the liminal space between true and false. It’s fact and fiction. The relationship at its core is Schrödinger’s marriage, stuck existing as both a fractured bond and a potent business partnership. Any attempt to divine the truth compromises the story. It’s the infamous elevator incident blown up to a whole new order of magnitude: just as the silence on the tape giving you the space to reach your own conclusion, the album lets you decide for yourself what’s real and fake.

I hear Lemonade and think about the people I know and love whose relationships have followed a similar path, each with their own complicated ending. But I can also read this and find it truthful: "Lemonade is not an album about cheating," writes Britt Julious in a track review at Pitchfork. "No, it is a work about the cultural violence (emotional, verbal, spiritual) toward women, black women in particular, and about dismantling its seemingly systemic power." Lemonade may not be as musically robust as Beyoncé’s other work, but it has the narrative depth to sustain an infinite number of interpretations, and within lies the greatness of the album’s achievement.


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