Pop stars, especially female entertainers, are considered disposable. Their stays at the top tend to last about as long as NFL running backs. Look back to the charts of the early 2000s, the glory days of Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, and Ashanti, once rulers of the pop roost, now philanthropists and fading celebs. Beyoncé is one exception from that era, and with the release of Lemonade, she has taken her boldest step yet away from entertainer to true artist, American musical auteur. (She told us a looong time ago she was a survivor.)
One old-school definition of artistry was an album with cohesive themes, not mere collections of singles spackled together with enough filler to get to roughly an hour of music. With its themes of infidelity, self-doubt, family, and the sequenced personal journey through it all, Lemonade is a true concept album, as thematically cohesive as canonical classic rock albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or latter-day counterparts like Green Day’s American Idiot.
There’s plenty of speculation out there about what she’s singing about (Jay Z is a dog, mainly, but not exclusively), and who “Becky with the good hair” is, but the variety and depth of the music is a much more engaging topic.
“Pray You Catch Me” begins with a single warm electric piano chord that put immediately recalls Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto.” Moving on from that there’s the pizzicato strings underpinning “Hold Up,” which I vaguely recognized as coming from Andy Williams’s early sixties pop smash “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” composed by Brill Building pioneers Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman, two New York-born sons of Jewish immigrants enamored with the music of Harlem in the fifties.
If you played the Jack White collaboration “Don’t Hurt Yourself” for an oblivious listener they would never guess they were hearing Queen Bey. Who would think she could shred Zeppelin like that, her voice modulating from flat to full-throated Tina Turner roar? And nobody, least of all me, would have guessed that Beyoncé would have sampled the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax (my great-grandfather and great-uncle, respectively), as she did on “Freedom,” her blazing collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. (Full disclosure: as a descendant of John Avery Lomax, I will receive a portion of the royalties from that song.)
“Daddy Lessons” near-seamlessly blends raw, traditional New Orleans jazz with modern-day country and then a sort of harmonica/ sax Mardi Gras blues breakdown and makes it work. After the hand-clapping and guttural, Spanish-tinged trumpet and snare drum of the intro, I kept waiting for the big bass drum to come rumbling in and take us to St. Phillip Street all on a Mardi Gras day, but instead Bey exhales “Texas” on a bed of acoustic guitars and takes us to an H-Town trail ride, before the song returns to Louisiana. Has anyone tried that before? Taken you from the Treme to the Texas prairies and back in three minutes? And then she followed that with “Love Drought,” a sinsemilla-smoldering slow jam produced by Mike Dean, who as a beat man to the Geto Boys, Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, and UGK, was one of the prime architects of the Dirty South sound.
Some old-timers still tend to write off Bey as an overly produced fem-bot, but on both “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and especially “Sandcastles,” specifically when she practically strangles the words “And your face, what is it about you, that I can’t erase baby, when every promise don’t work out that way?” out of her own throat should put that notion firmly to bed.
Yes, you can argue that Beyonce did not write, compose, nor solely produce every line of Lemonade, the way Paul McCartney or Prince might have. Indeed, it seems like a cast of thousands went in to the making of her sixth solo album.
But then again, Gaudi didn’t climb up on a scaffolding; Scorsese doesn’t personally film or solely write the scripts for his films; that was not Beethoven himself on third-chair viola. What matters is that they were in charge of titanic artistic creations; what you see and hear from their work would not have been there without their approval, just as every note and image from the Lemonade album/film belong to Beyoncé.
Which is not to say that pop records and their accompanying films are eternal works of art. Nor, for that matter, that they are not. We just don’t know yet what people will think of Lemonade in two hundred years. The popular music concept album is only about fifty years old, so who is to say a work like this won’t stand the test of time?