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'Beyoncé is not a woman to be messed with' – Lemonade review



'Beyoncé is not a woman to be messed with' – Lemonade review

Beyoncé’s imperious sixth album sees her turn her attention to her marriage, with witheringly powerful results

Alexis Petridis

Mon 25 Apr 2016 14.46 BST


ishearteningly billed as “a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self knowledge and healing” – a description that makes it sound like something agonisingly earnest you’d go out of your way to avoid at the Edinburgh Fringe – Beyoncé’s sixth solo album touches on a lot of potent topics. Quite aside from the presence of her much-discussed single Formation, a meditation on race that originally appeared in the middle of Black History Month, there are lyrical references to slavery, rioting and Malcolm X and a ferocious guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar that jabs at Fox News and police brutality and ends with something approaching a call to arms.

In an era when pop doesn’t tend to say a great deal, there’s obviously something hugely cheering about an artist of Beyonce’s stature doing this: she increasingly seems to view her success and celebrity as a means to an end rather than something to be maintained at all costs. Nevertheless, Lemonade is an album less about politics than something more personal. It’s more preoccupied with the state of her marriage than it the state of the world, overshadowed by her husband Jay Z’s alleged infidelity. If you want to compare her to an old soul legend, it’s more Here, My Dear than What’s Going On: for all its brilliance, Formation feels oddly tacked-on at album’s end, arriving after All Night, a track that sounds remarkably like a grand finale.

Given the amount of lurid media speculation about the Knowles-Carter union, you could have reasonably expected Beyonce to step discreetly around the subject of what you might call Hova’s legova, for fear of giving the gossip mags further fuel: perhaps a knowing allusion here and there, the odd bitter reference to the press intruding on her personal life. But no: in the film that accompanies the album, premiered last night on HBO, she does everything to express her displeasure at her husband’s behaviour short of appearing holding aloft a pair of scissors in one hand and Jay Z’s severed testicles in the other.

She’s seen tearfully committing suicide, smashing things up with a baseball bat, destroying cars by driving over them in a monster truck and throwing her wedding ring at the camera, as well as reciting the alarmingly visceral poetry of Warsan Shire – best known as the author of that oft-quoted line about how no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark – much of which sounds less like the words you usually hear issuing from an R&B divas mouth than something the late Richey Edwards would have come up with around the time the Manic Street Preachers made The Holy Bible: “till the blood spills in and out of uterus, wakes up smelling of zinc, grief sedated by orgasm”.

The album itself is no less bracing in its approach than the film. “Suck on my balls, I’ve had enough,” she sings on Sorry, shortly before threatening to leave and take their daughter with her. “Big homie better grow up”, she adds, a direct allusion to the title that Jay Z gave himself during his guest appearance on her 2003 single Crazy in Love. The music, too, slowly works itself up into a righteous frenzy of anger, shifting from the becalmed misery of opener Pray You Catch Me via via the sparse simmer of Hold Up – which rather wittily borrows its chorus from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s paean to undying devotion, Maps, and its hook from Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You – before finally boiling over on the fantastic Don’t Hurt Yourself: a ferocious, distorted vocal as commanding as anything she’s recorded, wrapped around samples from Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks and a guest appearance from Jack White. Indeed, without wishing to encourage someone towards the divorce courts, she’s so good at the hell-hath-no-fury stuff that it’s almost disappointing when the mood eventually lightens and she declares everything well in her marriage once more.

Not everything here works as well as that, or the weird, affecting mixture of defiance and vulnerability found on 6 Inch, a track on which she slurs and snarls about how rich, hard-working and desirable she is over ominous electronics, before her voice appears to crack as sings “come back, come back, come back”. Daddy Lessons’ curious blend of New Orleans jazz and country sounds uncomfortably like pastiche, while there’s something of a lull at the centre of the album, ironically the moment where the mood changes from bitterness and fury to something more forgiving and redemptive. The piano ballad Sandcastles isn’t a bad song as such, and it boasts a startlingly raw vocal that occasionally threatens to turn into a distraught howl, but it sounds a bit commonplace compared to what’s going on around it, not least the flatly astonishing Freedom, a dense swirl of sound containing everything from old Alan Lomax field recordings to 60s psychedelia from Mexico.

On Freedom, and indeed for much of Lemonade, Beyonce sounds genuinely imperious. She’s obviously not the only major pop star willing to experiment and push at the boundaries of her sound: that’s clearly what Rihanna and Kanye West were attempting to do on Anti and The Life of Pablo respectively. The difference is that those albums were at best a bold and intriguing mess: the sense that the artists behind them were having trouble marshalling their ideas was hard to escape. Lemonade, however, feels like a success, made by someone very much in control. “This is your final warning,” she scowls on Don’t Hurt Yourself, “if you try this shit again, you lose your wife.” You rather get the feeling Jay Z should heed those words: on Lemonade, Beyonce sounds very much like a woman not to be messed with.


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