Why “Lemonade” is the #1 Album of 2016

14 mins read

In the months after Lemonade, we count our casualties. Ja­­y Z found his masculinity squandered in his Twitter mentions (or, as I like to think of them, the dark alleyway behind his music career). Rachel Roy went under, taking confused civilian and cooking goddess Rachel Ray with her. The Beyhive, once again, was told “Jump” by their Queen B, and they responded with a dedicated, “How high? On who? With Instagram?”

As 2016 ends, the Beyhive can rejoice knowing that their queen is getting much deserved recognition for her art. Lemonade lands in some formidable spots on a variety of top-ten-albums lists, including snagging number one on Rolling Stone’s top 50 list.

Beyoncé has broken a ton of ground in the past few years—pioneering the brand of the feminist pop star and unflinchingly bringing race to the biggest stage in the country—and none of that should be ignored. But one crucial theme that helps to propel Lemonade to the top of the charts is the way she writes about the most basic, ubiquitous topic for musicians in her genre: Love.

There are few other pop artists in this day and age who succeed in writing material about love that’s as complete and three-dimensional as Beyoncé’s latest in-depth look at marriage. This isn’t for lack of trying: decades of pop have given us a Venn diagram of terrible poetry and excellent classics with a strong crossover. But despite 2016’s genre-infusing musical trends, most pop stars continue to tout basic hooks about “giving it all up” (whatever “it” actually is) and “dancing until we die” (in the klerb, we all existential). Most songs–let alone albums–fail to find nuance and authenticity. Instead they rely on lyrical clichés that have been well vetted when it comes to making songs hit number one.

Let me clarify what I mean by “nuance and authenticity,” because, if we’re not careful, disparaging the Love Poetry Of The Club can start to veer into dangerously misogynistic territory. There is of course nothing wrong with finding the sexually charged, alcohol-infused party scene that dominates the top 40 kind of romantic. Certainly beer ballads can be as honest as anything else. But truly great music, like truly great art, literature, television, and film, tells a story with specificity. There are multiple different ways to look at the story and its characters, as opposed to the one-track approach to “love”—pun intended—that most lyricists infuse into their singles. Generic, this-could-be-about-literally-anybody storytelling does not good art make.

Unabashedly writing about a specific, decade-long marriage, Beyoncé pulls no punches about life in the trenches of love on Lemonade. The album follows a journey through betrayal, hatred, and forgiveness. These emotions can be felt on every single track, even the ones that seem more one-sided. She does this all while creating a visual spectacle (considered for multiple Emmy nominations) and still managing to make every single song an absolute hit, just in case anybody wanted to question if she could still be the sparkling pop diva she was back when she made 4.

As someone who has been in a relationship for about four years—and whose previous relationship was just as long—art like this is quite literally music to my ears. It’s tiring listening to the simple, straightforward love songs or cheating anecdotes, and even more tiring when, for some reason, love is lyrically equated with a fun night out with a total stranger. This fast-paced world of frivolity uses the word “love” in places “sex” should be; but a sexy encounter isn’t what love looks like to most of us. Relationships outside of the three-minute radio hit are a balancing act between selfishness and selflessness.

Lemonade toes all of these lines and more. Beyoncé begins the album with what seems to be a classic narrative that cheating songs often follow, which she basically built her career on (anyone else have “Irreplaceable” stuck in their head right now?). However, the tone of the songs change throughout, showing a depth and sadness at her betrayal that the 2006 Beyoncé—and most 2016 pop stars—wouldn’t think to include.

“Sorry”’s music changes from disassociated callousness to reveal a wounded tigress in the singer, who previously paraded her own cruelty as a fun game until she deepens the vocals, bloats the melodies, and contemplates running away with her daughter to finally have a good life without her husband. The implications of that decision are thick and gruesome. The opening track, “Pray You Catch Me,” contains one of the most powerful lyrics on the album—“I pray to catch you whisperin’/I pray you catch me listenin’”—which encompasses the insanity that follows being gaslighted by your partner, wondering of whether or not the cheating mirage is real or in your head, and being desperate for honest conversation while being too embarrassed and angry to actually start it yourself.

Though Lemonade throws the listener deep into the depths of love’s pain, it brings us back up, too. The organization of the album is critical to painting the picture of this complicated relationship. The first five songs push us into the caverns, culminating in the end of “6 Inch,” a song depicting a stripper who Beyoncé anthropomorphizes at the end when she sings only the desperate lyric “come back” over and over again, allegorically referencing and the emotional abandonment felt at a lover’s absence. No matter how deeply he betrayed her, she misses him afterwards. She needs him even though she hates him. Although she spends the first portion of the album using marriage as a punching bag, the very act of throwing the other person under the bus hurt. That’s a sensitive note to fit into a banger, but she does it anyways.

Then in “Love Drought” she acknowledges both partners’ shortcomings and begs her husband to recognize what she’s trying to do for them all while reiterating that she believes in the strength of their connection. “Sandcastles,” a traditional ballad that she punches through like the God damn professional she is, carries “Love Drought”’s theme but narrows in on forgiveness for both her husband and for herself. These two paired together—along with Beyoncé’s raw vocals—encourages a self-reflection that most art about relationships hesitates to reach for. It’s hard to admit that you demonized your lover on purpose. It’s hard to come back from that. And yet, Beyoncé insists that their love can move mountains, and that her lover can show his scars and feel safe despite what they put each other through.

By the time we get to “Daddy Lessons,” we have been beaten up by how much love can hurt; by the time we get to the surprise James Blake feature “Forward,” we are reminded how much love can heal, and what an absolutely necessary force of good it is in our lives.

It would be hard to give Lemonade its due without acknowledging what came before it, because in many ways Beyoncé’s self-titled album acted as a prelude to the journey we were about to take with her. Lemonade echoes Beyoncé in dozens of places. After lamenting that she’s bored and closed off in the hidden track “Ghost,” she sings on “Haunted”: “I know if you’re haunting me I must be haunting you,” a lyric that has hits closest to home in long relationships where the juxtaposition of boredom and sex can lead to a dizzying obsession with gaining power. The standout track, “Mine,” sounds like a battle cry but reads like a last-ditch appeal to not let the strain of belonging to each other destroy them (“Are we gonna even make it? Oh/ Cause if we are we’re taking this a little too far”) while also taking into account Beyoncé’s postpartum depression. Talk about nuanced and specific.

Although Beyoncé was the first visual album, Lemonade’s accompanying film necessitates a reading of the album that is holistic. With the combination of visuals, interludes of poetry by writer Warsan Shire, and smooth transitions, Yoncé demands acceptance of the album—and thereby the relationship—as a whole. This is already a different modus operandi from fellow pop stars, whose album construction is usually secondary to singles, and whose singles have overly simplistic storylines themselves to ensure mass appeal. Lemonade’s title cards—Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, and Hope and Redemption—break down a story about the twists and turns that make up relationships, from the paranoia over cheating to the punishing absence of love that can corrode a partnership from both sides.

Everywhere on this album, Beyoncé succeeds in reading the room and knowing exactly what emotion her audience needs to feel next. Beyoncé’s genius album organization becomes fully realized by the time she leads us to “Freedom.” A common breakdown of the song is it’s deliberate reference to black empowerment. This reading is pretty convincing—the careful placement of rap’s social justice spokesperson Kendrick Lamar on this track is only added proof to the already-exhilarating vocals and music.

But unlike most power anthems on previous Beyoncé albums, we earn “Freedom.” She knows relationships gain added meaning for their journey through the storm. Her power is contextualized, and is more powerful for it. “Freedom,” blessed with a beat that keeps on giving, provides a relief from the darkness and encourages us to recognize the ferocity of character the singer has after she was forced to make lemonade out of lemons.

And with the drop of Lemonade, another visual spectacle that the world took to be a public declaration of her husband’s infidelity, we see a Beyoncé at her peak, who is beyond the casual (though expertly constructed) pop ballads that decorated B’Day, Sasha Fierce, and 4. We get a fully realized Beyoncé who looks at love in the most complicated way there is to look at love, acknowledging the lowest lows and the highest highs and everything in between.

In a world that ritually deems love poetry a cheap game when it comes from (or for) a woman’s heart, Beyoncé refuses to back down from pop’s staple subject and instead reveals a complicated vision of relationships that is sorely lacking from her genre.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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