The Earbuddy Staff sits down together with a pitcher of Lemonade.Columbia, 2016
9.0 / 10
Welcome to another Earbuddy Roundtable Review. To explain, Earbuddy assembles three or more writers to discuss a new album with each writer giving his/her thoughts on the release and their own personal score. Then an average score is determined for the album overall. For our latest Roundtable, Earbuddy writers Madeline, Tom Alexander, JEDowney, and NK will be reviewing Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Much like her 2013 self-titled visual album, Beyoncé surprised listeners again with a new album, Lemonade. Much like her 2013 album, Lemonade‘s music also came bundled with a film and first appeared on TIDAL (where it didn’t thankfully stay exclusive). However, more surprising than the album’s release is the album itself — an unlocked diary exposing husband Jay-Z’s infidelity and all the pain, anger, resentment, sadness, and hope that was born from it. Many critics have hailed it as the year’s best album so far, and some have even gone as far to say that Beyoncé is now on the same level as Michael Jackson and Prince. How could the Earbuddy staff not pass up an opportunity to sit down and share some Lemonade together?
Lemonade is an album that comes around just once every few years. It’s managed both massive critical and commercial success, a groundbreaking debut on HBO for the accompanying “extended music video/film” and perhaps most crucially has broken through the noise and truly engaged a large mass of people. At age 34 (which let’s be honest is quite old for a female pop star to still be relevant), Beyoncé just dropped an album that is very now. It’s sparked conversations regarding Black Lives Matter, female self-worth, infidelity and music streaming (thanks to its exclusivity of one day on Tidal). And let’s not forget that it’s a musical tour de force. Blues, big band, folk, R&B and even a bit of rock n roll all make an appearance to create what is undoubtedly Beyoncé’s most musically diverse and rich album.
And I’m unable to put on my music critic hat and review it as just another album. It means too much to too many people. I saw a list Buzzfeed compiled of prominent Black women who have reviewed and all adored the album. As a white female I cannot speak to it’s impact or importance regarding race, but I appreciate that a whole lot of people feel very strongly about this. I feel I can speak to other aspects of the album though, and I do strongly believe that critical evaluation is important of even things that have a net positive karma.
I respect Beyoncé’s right to privacy. However, when the content of the album is deeply personal, it’s impossible to remove Beyoncé the human from Beyoncé the pop superstar. The home footage of her wedding and other pivotal personal moments in her life that made it into the extended “music video” and lyrics show that Beyoncé is also not separating the two. In fact, this gets into a squicky ethical point for me. Just because someone cares to share a piece of their life does not mean they are giving you the right to all of it. A kiss is not a promise of sex etc. However, in this instance Beyoncé’s personal life is literally one of the main selling points of the album. And she knows it. And her husband who has sunk a tremendous amount of money into Tidal also knows it.
Without writing a dissertation, herein lies my fundamental problem with the album. It feels inauthentic. From both an emotional as well as money perspective, it makes me cringe. The emotional content regarding her husband’s allegedly widely known philandering comes off as the classy version of Kanye’s batshit craziness when trying to generate buzz for Life of Pablo. The politics, though important, seem as if Beyoncé is merely hopping onto a current bandwagon with the plus side of this one actually being deeply personal to her and a good part of her core fan base.
Though heavily racially political which I can only sympathize with, the female empowerment themes should have hit home for me. A few years ago when artists like Taylor Swift and others refused to label themselves a feminist, Beyoncé put out the fucking banger of the year in “***Flawless” that had an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredibly powerful speech “We Should All Be Feminists.” Her powerhouse 2014 VMA performance literally ended with her silhouette in front of blazing sign that said “Feminist.” No matter how contrived or cheesy it was, that shit mattered. It brought the conversation of what it meant to be a feminist to the masses which was important and profound no matter the intention behind the act. And perhaps I’m just not as willing to overlook the intention behind the spectacle this time around.
Everyone keeps mentioning words like “female empowerment/self-worth/unapologetic femininity” etc… for a reason. With songs like “Hold Up”, “Sorry” and “Formation” these messages are not merely an hors d’oeuvre, they are the main appetizer. If I thought these songs were musically genius or really gutting, the messages would likely mean more to me. But they’re just not that memorable. Musically and lyrically my favorite songs on the album are actually “Daddy Lessons” and “6 Inch” which are sort of odd ducks on the album that are more akin to a good Irish murder ballad than contemporary R&B. When she sings stories, especially when she hits that sweet spot of soul and folk—it’s truly a thing of beauty.
Frankly, if Beyoncé had ended Lemonade with serving her husband divorce papers, I would have “bought” the album (I did in fact literally buy it though). Instead she tries to spin the final songs as about “healing” and “forgiveness” –messages that are also important. But instead of feeling cathartic, it feels like a letdown instead. The album builds up with so much righteousness indignation, rage and self-love, that to then cave and essentially shrug the shoulders at the end feels false.
And now we’re back to the grey area for me. As part owners in Tidal, Jay and Beyoncé needed this album to make a big splash as quickly as possible. It couldn’t be a grower, it needed to generate immediate buzz and get people on that Tidal subscription as quick as possible (literally only exclusive to Tidal for one day) to help boost the struggling service. Jay in fact recently brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the previous owners of the company that boiled down to him alleging that they misrepresented the number of subscribers that they had. This is a big deal with a lot of money on the line. Basically, Tidal needed a big boost in a bad way. And Beyoncé’s album was it. And for all of the accolades this album is receiving, I can’t believe that no one is mentioning that bedazzled flaming elephant in the room. Back in 2014, when Jay and Beyoncé were out on their joint “On the Run Tour,” the rumors about their imminent divorce reached a fever pitch–and sold about 1 million tickets grossing over $100 million plus an HBO exclusive live concert. This is not an isolated instance, this is a trend.
Maybe it’s terribly crass to speculate, but I can’t help but think that Beyoncé has an open marriage and doesn’t care. Not only that but was willing to use her husband’s much documented alleged cheating (look up his disgusting habit of passing girls around the office with ex-business partner Damon Dash) to generate immediate hype. One thing this album makes crystal clear is that Beyoncé isn’t stupid. But that picture of Beyoncé as a proud, powerful, and happy mother, sister, wife, business owner, feminist, social crusader, human of the year etc… is an ideal which I just can’t swallow.
But maybe the intent behind the lyrics doesn’t matter. Maybe the music can stand on its own. Maybe this is simply not something meant for me. But I can’t shake the feeling of being lied to. And that really pisses me off. “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch…There’s something that I’m missing, maybe my head for one.”
Madeline’s Score: N/A
I don’t disagree with Madeline. I think the anger, the sorrow, or whatever other emotion is being broadcast in Lemonade is part of the show, though. It’s as much part of the production as the drum machine ticking away, track after track. After this album, I’ve thought about Jay Z’s infidelities about as much as I’ve thought about baseball, which is to say, almost not at all. I don’t care who “Becky” is, and I don’t care much about the identity politics that comes along with that discussion. It’s easy to do that when you’re working with songs of this caliber — they’re not just good, they’re great. When “Becky” comes up on Lemonade, it’s in the outro of “Sorry”, which is one of the best parts on an album full of best parts.
Music bloggers had a great time talking about Jay Z and Beyoncé’s appearance at a Grizzly Bear concert (which always puzzled me, because would there be news coverage if Thom Yorke decided to check out a Danny Brown concert? Is it surprising that an influential rapper and R&B singer would be into something other than their home genres?). People joked about their new albums sounding like Veckatimest, Wilco, or any of your other college rock standards. One of the surprises of Lemonade is that these jokes hinted at some amount of truth. “Hold Up” sounds like a Fiona Apple track from Extraordinary Machine; “Freedom” sounds like a The Heavy track; with a different vocal track, “All Night” might even sound like a Shields-era Grizzly Bear. And there’s even guest spots from Jack White and James Blake. Of course, in the moment, none of this sounds unconventional for Beyoncé, which is a testament to her abilities as a songwriter and performer — she’s taken great features from other artists and integrated into something that is unmistakably her own. Even if you don’t think you like this “kind of music”, you need to give it a listen.
Tom Alexander’s Score: 9.0
Only killers here
Gorgeous pop masterpiece
Took her long enough
JEDowney’s Score: 9.5
Let’s get this out of the way immediately — Lemonade is a great album. Best album of the year? Possibly…but this has kind of been a year of meh, which is thankfully turning around thanks to excellent “surprise” albums — looking at you Radiohead, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar and of course, Beyoncé. Now, as to what kind of album this is, autobiographical…maybe or maybe it’s better considered a concept album with some fact attached to it. Apparently the story is that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé with a woman allegedly identified as Rachel Roy. This is Beyoncé’s story, but with any story, there are always three sides to it — her story, his story (Jay-Z is apparently working on a rebuttal album), and then there’s the TRUTH. So what’s the truth? Who knows, but it sure is fun to speculate and a lot of what Madeline touched on certainly could be true, like an open marriage. After all, we’re talking about a power couple, and it’s hard to imagine a guy like Jay-Z being monogamous. It’s easier to believe Beyoncé is monogamous because she puts on such a “nice” personality to the public as a lovable pop star, one who brings Taylor Swift back on stage after she’s been rudely interrupted. Her charm buys her credibility. But with Lemonade, I think she inadvertently destroys some of that credibility.
At times she tries to play the down-to-earth Beyoncé we know from all of her public appearances. She’s just the nice girl, who happened to achieve all of this success and be a huge pop star, but she still feels approachable. Then other times she plays a different side, and it’s one that’s more believable for a person of her stature. She comes off as a bit megalomaniacal. On the excellent Jack White assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she sings, “Who the fuck do you think I is?/ You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” No one disagrees; I mean she is Beyoncé, but it feels somewhat unexpected for her to be so obvious about it when she’s always played somewhat “oblivious” to her star status. Then on “Formation” she sings, “I go hard, I go hard/ Take what’s mine, take what’s mine/ I’m a star, I’m a star/ ‘Cause I slay, slay.” No one is denying this either, but when Beyoncé portrays herself this way, it feels as though her ego has been damaged more than her emotions. Beyoncé hits back hard at Jay-Z too by alluding to him crying over their marital issues (“Sandcastles”). The image of Jay-Z sobbing paints a different picture than the gangster turned rapper turned businessman we all know and probably damages his street cred with some of his buddies.
Although Beyoncé plays two parts on Lemonade, she solidifies her superstar persona on album closer “Formation”. Whereas her emotions and feelings on previous songs like “Sorry” and “Sandcastles” were more relatable to any listener, “Formation” makes it clear that she has more money and power than any of us, even if she is still slumming it up at Red Lobster. “Formation” finds Beyoncé turning from a jilted woman to a Jay-Z herself by fucking who she wants and promising them keys to their own kingdoms. She’s a maneater, and while Lemonade suggests she’s capable of having the same emotions as the rest of us, she knows she has power most people will never have. Perhaps she’s not as sweet as she’s always seemed but a little sour like a glass of lemonade.
NK’s Score: 8.8
When you’re a multimillionaire and arguably one of the most powerful people in the industry, what is there left to write music about? I can only take so many songs about “brushing off the haters” or “how I went from rags to riches”, etc. Meanwhile, a successful artist comes off as bullshit if they write about how hard their lives are; they’re rich, they’re beloved, end of song. So for me when an artist takes a risk, like Beyonce has in Lemonade, by writing about something deeply personal — something that doesn’t fit her “branded package” in a convenient way — it deserves some praise. Plus it is kind of fun thinking imagining Jay-Z deep in the doghouse (please, please check out The Lemons).
Musically, Lemonade is a killer. Beyonce shakes all conventions with grimy rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), New Orleans jazz-plus-country-stompers (“Daddy Lessons”), voice-straining piano ballads (“Sandcastles”), and raw-ass-power (“Freedom”, “Formation”). This is a genre-spanning album that doesn’t try to be A Genre Spanning Album. Lemonade doesn’t come off like an artist lamely trying to cater to a bigger audience.
Beyonce’s done her homework on this one (and her producers, I suppose). She brings enough outside influence to get my attention and hold it, but leaves enough of her fingerprints on the album to make it still completely hers. The guests on the guest tracks are just that: guests. The (minimally appropriate) amount of influence they wield on the music is yet another example of Beyonce’s wielded strength. And let’s be honest, this entire album is about strength. (Yes, I know the end is about forgiveness, but isn’t forgiveness a sign a of strength?).
This was probably a tough album for Beyonce to write — and even tougher for Jay-Z to hear, I’m sure — but she proves the rule that great art often comes from great pain. Here Beyonce bares her business and cranks out some incredibly well-crafted, incredibly diverse music.
Chris Foster’s Score: 8.5