It takes an army to sell a Beyonce record these days.
And can you blame Mrs Carter and her management? In 2011, returning from a mid-career hiatus, her fourth album, was met with a lukewarm reception commercially. Of course lukewarm for Beyonce is the same thing as stratospheric for other artistes. Starting as the top selling album in its week of release with slightly over 300,000 copies, the relatively soft numbers for 4 were worsened by the disc’s failure to land a Top 10 hit single. It seemed after a threesome of dizzying heights withDangerously in love, B’day and I am…Sasha Fierce, Beyonce burnout was beginning to set in.
In December 2014, she dropped her self-titled fifth studio album like a thief in the night and the shock value of this, coupled with the album’s visual properties propelled it to her biggest first week sales numbers yet.
The queen was back.
But even on her best day out, Beyonce has been unable to meet up with stratospheric sales embodied by the duo of Adele and Taylor Swift of late. She may rock the culture and own the zeitgeist but to avoid embarrassing numbers sales wise, a new Beyonce record has to be marketed as an event, one worthy of her status as the final leg in the holy trinity of pop princesses (the other two being Adele and Swift).
For her 6th merry go round, the former Destiny Child’s lead singer pulls no stops and holds nothing back. Lemonade arrives dipped generously in salacious gossip, domestic drama, allegations of marital dysfunction, the poetry of Somali born Warsan Shire, Yoruba mythology, a battalion of songwriters, cross genre pollination and a television event designed to break HBO, the broadcast vessel bold enough to absorb all that supernova. Oh! and did we mention it is another visual album?
Lemonade is the most ambitious project Beyonce has set her considerable talents to and in many ways, it is her most cohesive record yet. Gone are the power pop anthems of Dangerously in loveand B’day and the saccharine sweetness of I am…Sasha fierce is MIA. Lemonade continues in the gritty, lived in tradition of her last record and zeroes in on such concepts as feminism, faithlessness and fear of the unknown.
For an artiste who spent the greater part of her career downplaying her Blackness by making cookie cutter pop ditties, submitting to white washed images in Pepsi ad campaigns and staying away from having any political opinion at all, Lemonade’s blatant aggressiveness and political awareness is a sharp detour for Beyonce.
The album’s lead single Formation, released just in time for the Super Bowl in February was only a shocking taste of things to come. In it, Beyonce pays homage to her negro roots, singing, My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama, and claims to rep the streets even after making all that money.
The accompanying visuals are as entertaining and subversive as anything you would expect from the singer who replaced Whitney Houston as America’s sweetheart. Images of Beyonce in all black, yet throwing her middle fingers in the air are juxtaposed with those of destruction caused by hurricane Katrina.
If Formation has a companion piece on Lemonade, then it has to be Freedom, the negro spiritual vocal showpiece that has Beyonce doing some of her strongest work. Even though the chorus recalls the noisy sass of 2003’s Crazy in love, Freedom wears its socio-political leanings and historical bent proudly.
Lemonade has received much of its publicity from the domestic implications of Beyonce’s lyrics. She aims for pure shocks as she drops bombs on her man (Today I regret the night I put the ring on) and casually promises more warfare (If you try that shit again/You gon’ lose your wife), drawing plenty to conclude that she has to be purging her soul. As usual, Beyonce will not come forward to agree that Lemonade is truly about her relationship with Jay Z but by God, does she fuel that fire.
On Hold up, the patois, dancehall traces do nothing to hide the pain of heartbreak brought on by her lover’s fecklessness. She sings, What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you before deciding she’d rather be jealous and crazy than walked over lately.
Beyonce’s church of feminism demands that she not roll over while her man walks all over her. No, she gives as good as she gets. In Don’t hurt yourself, perhaps her rawest, most exposed performance till date, Jack White assists in turning her into a mad rocker chick who bounces to the next d*** at the slightest provocation. And she’s (not) sorry for any of it.
Of her super squad of collaborators, only a handful of (male) voices make it to the finished product. Kendrick Lamar delivers a blistering verse on Freedom, The Weeknd stops by for the pro-feminist,Six inch and James Blake haunts the interlude, Forward. Of course, none of these voices is distinctive enough to upstage Beyonce on her own material, rather they complement her nicely.
The songw riting on Lemonade is a bit of a challenge. Easily relatable and of the moment, it bothers more with trending hashtags and pop culture significance than any lasting impressions. Thus while trendy lines like Tell him boy bye and He better call Becky with the good hair and resound sharply today, it is hard to see them matter 5 years from now.
All things considered, Lemonade is a triumph. One of calculated marketing, pop culture significance, personal catharsis, political commentary, celebration of sisterhood and good old music making. Isn’t that too much already for a pop record?