Eight months after its release, Lemonade deserves all of its hype.
You know Lemonade, the Beyoncé album that hasn’t left our lives since it arrived in late April. The album with that one country song that pissed off your alt-right cousin because they felt Beyoncé wasn’t necessarily a “country” artist. The album with that one song that drove cops and your co-workers crazy because of, but not limited to: hot sauce, Red Lobster, the word "slay," Big Freedia, Messy Mya and more. You recall the concerts. The tour. The year of Beyoncé.
I can remember the fanboys and girls who stretched from what normally are the sidelines of of NRG Stadium. I can remember the confetti falling down and some pocketing it as a means of good luck. I can recall people standing on chairs on the floor to capture feint video of Beyoncé. I recall the roars, the squeals and even the singing off-key by fans everywhere. To them, it didn’t matter how they sounded, so long as they were part of the event.
The difficulty of grading Beyoncé in 2016 is much different than 2011 or even 2008. There were figments then; pop chases with inviting, seductive statements and ownership. Ownership and Beyoncé are rather synonymous now. There are no interviews; all the statements she wants to make gets packaged and rolled out via her music, her videos and her tours. In a man’s world, Beyoncé is chief: a mononym with no peer in a world of mononymous people. The most powerful figure in music who could easily commandeer a television special and make the rest of it meaningless after she departs.
The CMA Awards roped her in for ratings. The Super Bowl Halftime Show effectively became a duet between her and Bruno Mars. HBO offered space for her second special, an at the time unknown piece of material that was called Lemonade. That was April. It’s December now. Lemonade as a television special, another event, is nominated for multiple Golden Globes. Lemonade, the album, is nominated for nine Grammy awards, including for Album, Record and Song of the Year. Beyoncé turned 2016 into an event, but the question is simple: have we finally figured a way to snatch away Lemonade from its TV special and simply grade it upon the music?
“If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” — Audre Lorde
Looking at Lemonade without that added filter would lead you to believe that it isn’t as strong. There are no blooming yellow dresses or Daughters of the Dust references. Without the now inimitable image of Beyoncé swinging a baseball bat at a camera, does “Hold Up” still seer in your brain with its Jamacian-fused bops and cheeky taunts? It wasn’t until hearing a large chunk of Lemonade dominate radio and other platforms, pulled away from the special, did I finally get to measure the album for what it was. In April, I hailed it as “her most unnerving, naked, personal and revealing work yet.”
It still remains as such almost a full eight months later. All of its Album of the Year victories on this or that year-end list are justified.
Three years ago, the self-titled Beyoncé album uncorked the bottle of Beyoncé, Woman In Control. It accelerated the idea of how we viewed Beyoncé. The gyrating thrusts and fun of “Single Ladies” was now replaced with come-hither glances and arched poses on love seats. “Drunk In Love” allowed her to throw on a mask, the mask of both happiness for herself and fantasy for the rest of the world. But then I thought about it a bit longer and noticed I had left something out of my original writing back in April. Beyoncé’s centering of self has always come in a reactionary form from a man. Her feminism and dance with personal ownership is rooted in what men have said and done and how she’s dealt with it. “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it?” A taunt to a man. “You must not know ‘bout me, I’ll have another you in a minute?” A Zsa Zsa Gabor pivot where a man should be under her heel, not the other way around. Beyoncé’s message throughout Lemonade was to discover herself following hurt and pain. Speaking that and telling the world to honor women came through rage, whether manufactured or genuine.
Unlike “Thriller,” whose entire motif of being an event space was ballooned thanks to its groundbreaking music video, records such as “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry” come off as both unforgettable and acceptably crass. Lemonade was the concept album that yielded a multitude of responses, and all of them could have either been right or wrong. Even bell hooks chimed in, discussing how the violence of dishonesty is just as cutting as a baseball bat to the face. Throughout Lemonade’s hour in length, we run the gamut of emotions from Beyoncé. Miscellany forms of hurt and reaction, ownership of grief while also calling for respite. Lemonade doesn’t fully stick the landing by the time we arrive to “Formation.” In the greater context, the song that brought us here is more of an end-credits sweep. As a stand-alone? It’s bawdy pop fun. Placed next to records like “Sandcastles” or “Daddy Lessons” within the context of the album? It doesn’t work.
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But as much as I wanted to think that it wasn’t (because the internal critic wants to believe he’s never satisfied with something), Lemonade was the strongest release of 2016. It dared its creator to dig into something she never fully conjured on prior albums. Cementing her status as a global pop phenomenon was one thing. Drawing us into a world where every relationship with any man who meant anything to her (daddy Mathew, husband Jay Z) was fractured and needed mending? A cold game we all bought into.
The tour is finally finished, but our remembrances of the Lemonade special are still fresh. Watching “Freedom” and the personification of Beyoncé moving through water to come clean still remains one of my favorite concert moments of 2016. But that album? That album? It was raw, it was fun and at times it was even messed up. Stalking your lover with a weapon originally conceived by Isaac Hayes; weaponizing Kendrick Lamar to detonate in the name of love and Blackness; keeping Jay Z’s voice far the hell away from all of this. That happened and mattered.
And Lemonade remains one of the few victories that this entire year decided to produce.