For anyone rooting for Beyonce to strut into the sunset middle fingers akimbo, SPOILER ALERT: she went back to her cheatin’ man. In real life and in Lemonade. And it was, after everything, pretty satisfying to see her conquer the world all aglow with the righteous power of true love and forgiveness. The power of the slighted woman may feel like righteousness, but it is bitter. Still, there’s hardly a better kiss-off to all the lying, failing, disappointing mens out there than Beyonce’s “Boy, bye!” If he lets you down, you roll out with your girls in a painted school bus. Anger in solidarity is your salve and your reward for your solitary and silent suffering. And it matters that this experience is a chapter among chapters. Breakup anthems don’t exist in a void. They’re what comes after the happy love chapters, and after the suspicious growing silences, the creeping distance, the denials, the excuses, the fighting, the revelations, the unveiled betrayal. And after, if you’re lucky, there follows the gathering of strength, rumination, soul-searching, healing, and hopefully, in the end, forgiving.
In the narrative of Beyonce’s Lemonade – and unlike most concept albums, it actually has a strong narrative – at this point the plot turns to redemption. It’s the chapter titled forgiveness. The heroine’s rage turns to pining for her cheatin’ man and we know she’s ready to heal her broken family. It’s also the record’s most deceptively sentimental moment. It comes oh so close to being a generic maudlin piano ballad, except for the way Beyonce’s voice cracks. She’ll probably never reveal just how much fiction she whisked into her lemonade to make the story more universal, but there’s a real story inside the universal story. We’ll probably never know that either. It’s enough that the superstar let her guard down enough to let us know that it’s there. And although up to that point we may have been rooting for the fictionalized Beyonce to keep on defiantly flipping her middle finger to that philandering Jay-Z, we know that in real life, families that stay together work very hard to do so, and that requires forgiving insurmountable things and sacrificing some amount of personal dignity and swallowing down a lot of pride, and we know that love doesn’t just magically win the day, not without one hell of a fight.
After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.
- ★ – David Bowie
David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.
2. Lemonade – Beyonce
Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.
3. Hopelessness – Anohni
Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.
4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.
5. This Is Acting – Sia
Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.
6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John
Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.
7. Joanne – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.
8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon
Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.
9. Super – Pet Shop Boys
How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.
10. AIM – M.I.A.
M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.
What is the significance of Beyonce’s Lemonade? It cannot be overstated.
Right up front; I never paid much attention to the artist known as Beyonce, until very recently. Oh, I knew who she was – she has been very, very famous for a long time. But I never really listened to what she had to say until…well, until Lemonade.
Who knew that Beyonce Giselle Knowles would grow up to be our foremost Intersectional Black Feminist? Destiny’s Child, her Supremes-modeled girl group, broke big in the mid 90’s, lovingly groomed by Bey’s designer mother and heavily controlled by her manager dad. It was solidly generic R’n’B/pop crossover music, smooth and upbeat. Beyonce was but a teenager, pretty and marketable. When the group fell apart and Beyonce started a solo career, her music remained unremarkable glossy pop, with just a touch of hip-hop but not much real edge. I didn’t pay attention, because at first, she didn’t command much attention. Yet, since her solo debut in 2003, Beyonce has slowly, steadily and inexorably grown in status from pop star to artist. She moved away from letting her image be controlled by her parents. She increasingly took control of the writing and production of her music. She became more and more outspoken in public about her beliefs. She wrote opinion pieces about women’s issues that were published in The New York Times. And it wasn’t just celebrity posturing – when Beyonce spoke about feminism, she was never less than articulate and thoroughly well informed. Slowly and steadily she established herself as an influential public figure who, hot pants be damned, would not be intellectually dismissed. Her music was only waiting to catch up…
Now, Beyonce has fully arrived as an artist. She has arrived in a way that can not be denied. Though empowerment and identity have always been themes for her, never before has she underlined her message with so much conviction. Lemonade is a concept album. A visual concept album accompanied by an hour long movie (without which the music, though undeniably fantastic, cannot be fully appreciated.) A visual concept album about her husband’s infidelity. Yah. Beyonce has been married to Jay-Z since 2008 and she has always maintained a graceful distance between her private life and her public one. But now she’s taken her most intimate experiences and made them public. The intimate is the political.
Beyonce has done what only the very best artists have been able to do; she’s taken the mundanely personal and made it universally relevant. Love, betrayal, jealousy, anger, sorrow, forgiveness…those things are universal. And in being universal, they are trivial. Anybody can sing about their poor broken heart. It is one of the easiest things to write about. In weak hands, it’s nothing more than selfish and whiny. It’s just, “whatever, bitch, who cares”. What Beyonce has done is take that boring, everyday, mundane selfish heartbreak and reframe it in a wider context. The context of what a woman’s experience means in a male dominated world, and more than than, the context of what a black woman’s experience means in a racist patriarchy. It’s an outspokenly feminist work, and it is an intersectional feminist work. The themes of the album transcend the merely personal, they transcend the merely female; they speak to the experience of black women in America. The album explores themes of sisterhood, marriage, family, self expression, intimacy, love, identity… It acknowledges how those things are all so much more difficult and fraught for African-Americans. African-American families who struggle with images that seek to degrade and devalue their experiences, African-American women who find themselves sexualized and exploited, African-American men who are demonized and slaughtered, children who come of age in a minefield of hostility. Beyonce shows how simple things that privileged people dismiss or take for granted are mightily significant for the oppressed. It is specifically a black woman’s voice, and it is universally the bruised and injured cuckold’s voice, and it is the angry outsider’s voice. It is the outward and the inward voice.
A woman’s emotional journey, as a topic, is so often often dismissed; self-awareness is conflated with self-absorption. But what does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a sexual being? What does it mean to be a wife? What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to exist within a community? What dotes it mean to be a female individual within society? How about all of those things plus Black? How about empowered, Black and proud? And a creative artist on top of it all? Beyonce asks all of those questions. She’s not alone; there are contributions from Warsan Shire, the poet responsible for the dramatic and intimate spoken-word interludes; musical collaborators like Jack White and Kendrick Lamar, culturally inspiring figures like Winnie Harlow, Serena Williams and Quvenzhane Wallis. In an especially heartrending moment, Bey gives a somber spotlight to Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McFadden, and Gwen Carr; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively.
Lemonade is a work by a popular artist, a popular artist who has awoke to the full capacity of her own power and importance. Beyonce is an artist who has come of age in the public eye and has been able to evolve from pop star to cultural figure. She’s had things to say for a long time, but now she’s finally pulled together all of the strands she has at her disposal; best-selling pop star, iconic public figure, deeply private wife and mother, empowered woman in a male dominated society, proud and empowered Black woman flourishing in a white supremacist patriarchy, flagrantly sexy babe, well spoken thinker, fashion plate, astute businesswoman, singer, dancer, songwriter, her own fabulous outspoken self. Never more intimate or relevant.
Lemonade can be streamed on Tidal, or downloaded on Amazon or iTunes.