BEYONCE: LEMONADE (2016)
1) Pray You Catch Me; 2) Hold Up; 3) Don't Hurt Yourself; 4) Sorry; 5) 6 Inch; 6) Daddy Lessons; 7) Love Drought; 8) Sandcastles; 9) Forward; 10) Freedom; 11) All Night; 12) Formation.
Look, I really do not want to Queen Bey in this «damned if you do, damned if you don't» position, particularly not when her latest album almost sounds as if she were personally responding to all of my criticisms for the previous one — well, not mine, obviously, but clearly her goal is to find that one perfect spot where she could have her legions of fans and the small, but demanding, detachment of elitist critics all roll together. There's no stone cold reason why the consummate hitmaker, the glitzy fashion icon, the fight-for-your-rights symbol could never grow into a real artist, even with all the difficulties brought on by fame and fortune. Well... come to think of it, maybe there is: at least, I'd hypothesize that if you were not a real artist before the onset of fame and fortune, the chances of your, let's say, «spiritual transformation» after you have been caught up in the cogs and wheels are pretty slim.
But still, at the very least Lemonade has a clear edge over Beyoncé in that here, it is at least interesting to see her take on the challenge — the record is much more turbulent, dynamic, and diverse. It's got some unpredictable collaborators, too: I mean, Kendrick Lamar could probably be expected at some point, sooner or later, but Jack White? (There's also some pseudo-crediting: ʽ6 Inchʼ, for instance, lists The Animal Collective as co-writers, apparently because one of the lines in the song somewhat reminded the production team of a line in ʽMy Girlsʼ — the result is an extra credit for Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, formally as a safeguard against lawsuits, but I'm pretty sure the lady thought it cool to have some respectable indie names included in the liner notes. I mean, some people might actually think that way that she got The Animal Collective to work for her, you know? And everybody's happy — the guys will probably make more money off ʽ6 Inchʼ than they made off all their records put together, anyway).
Like Beyoncé, the record is all about herself, yes, but now that her daughter has grown up a bit, intimate family matters take a small step back, whereas her iconic status makes an advance. The very first single, which preceded the album by a couple months, was ʽFormationʼ, which, for all I know, could just as well have come from Nicki Minaj — people made a stupid fuss out of it because it, like, celebrated Beyoncé's black heritage and all ("I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils" — first time I ever heard about the Jackson family as a metaphor for all Afro-American people), but actually, it's more about celebrating Beyoncé's bitchiness: "I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress" sounds just about right to me. She might slay all right, but the song itself is a mediocre piece of very routine hip-hop — and, in the context of the album, one of its weakest tracks, perhaps not incidentally delegated to the very end of the record, almost as if it were a bonus track after the much more logical conclusion of ʽAll Nightʼ.
Although it is somewhat atypical of the album in general, ʽFormationʼ still ties in with a whole set of other songs that focus on strength, power, independence, and various ball-breaking activities — at least she's honest about it, because a whole album of whining by one of the world's biggest superstars would be worse than pathetic. And I have to admit, I really like some of these. ʽDon't Hurt Yourselfʼ has a thick, dark, thrashing groove (not surprising for a song that samples ʽWhen The Levee Breaksʼ — as done by Led Zep, not Memphis Minnie), a cool arrangement of backing vocal harmonies that sound like they're appropriately and shitlessly scared of the lead singer, and enough metallic effects on Beyoncé's vocals to make Jay-Z run for cover ("you ain't married to no average bitch boy"). ʽDaddy Lessonsʼ is a mix of New Orleanian jazz and neo-country-pop (Bey going Taylor Swift on us now?) that unexpectedly turns out to be the catchiest number on the album (even as it formally defends the 2nd amendment, much to the delight of Uncle Ted Nugent — then again, isn't a country song supposed to?..).
Best of the bunch is probably ʽFreedomʼ, which was written in line with the Black Lives Matter campaign but avoids any direct lyrical references and could therefore qualify as just a general, abstract anthem to the nice F-word. Kendrick Lamar adds one of his intelligent poetic raps in the middle, but the song's primary point of attraction is still the chorus. Like most choruses for most songs called ʽFreedomʼ, it is lyrically clumsy ("freedom, freedom, where are you? cause I need freedom too") and clichéd ("I break chains all by myself"), but the bombastic ascent all the way to the epic resolution how "a winner don't quit on themselves" is totally believable. Even a rich superstar, you know, should be allowed to flex some muscle every now and then, and she's flexing it just about right on this tune.
Of course, a Beyoncé album consisting of nothing but kick-ass empowering statements would be unthinkable, and there are plenty of lyrical moments scattered throughout — some of them quite melodic and emotional, like the album opener ʽPray You Catch Meʼ (gorgeous harmony arrangements, classy «deconstruction-style» minimalistic atmosphere, non-cloying sentimentality) or ʽLove Droughtʼ with its nice falsetto chorus; also, ʽAll Night Longʼ has a beautifully vocalized title, but drags on for a little too long. ʽSandcastlesʼ is a really bland piano ballad, though, that should probably belong on an Alicia Keyes album instead.
Overall, the album is still absolutely not my cup of tea — all that hot-electrifying-sexxxy aesthetics of songs like ʽ6 Inchʼ (is it about a podium model or a stripper? who cares, anyway) is ultimately just stupid, and although, thankfully, the album is not so thoroughly obsessed with the whole «self-empowering through sex» ideology that was at the core of Beyoncé, it still retains that angle; let, I dunno, Rolling Stone and the NME sing praises of it rather than the grumpy conservative Only Solitaire. But I was pleasantly surprised, this time, at how many of these songs actually stuck around, enough to suspect that from a purely musical angle, Lemonade may indeed be Beyoncé's (or, rather, The Beyoncé Concern's) greatest achievement so far. Strip away all the ideological elements for sociological gender-based analysis, forget the English language (most people outside of the US will probably not get most of the references anyway, and who cares what Red Lobster really means to a starving Afro-American family of three, worth no more than a measly 600 million bucks?), and you're left with a bunch of perfectly crafted vocal hooks, accompanied with elegant arrangements that meld together live playing, electronic programming, and sampling in an undeniably «artsy» style.
So yes, this is even better than B'Day, and so here comes another thumbs up. If she keeps it up this way, who knows, maybe the next album will feature Tom Waits as special guest and a fully credited sample from Can's ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ — I guess that she's now pretty much earned the right to do anything, and she'd be a fool not to use it to her advantage.