As a gather ’round! moment of living-room excitement, the premiere of Beyoncé’s Lemonade on HBO on Saturday evening was reminiscent of the 1980s debuts of the extended Michael Jackson video mini-dramas for “Thriller” and “Bad.” And as pop-music visual culture, Lemonade is of their rank—a beautiful and often disturbing kaleidoscope of poetry, feminism, racial politics, history, mythology, emotional upheaval, family, and romance that can be watched again and again and will be for years to come. The question now is whether Lemonade the album, which appeared on Tidal the same night, is equally remarkable as strictly music. It’s a difficult call.
Certainly the album needs more time to sink in, and it doesn’t do Bey any favors that many of us have spent the past several days immersed in Prince songs, next to which anyone’s are bound to sound less electrifying. Plus, having heard these songs bracketed with the lyricism of the young Somali-British writer Warsan Shire, and seen them woven in and out of the imagery and choreography and environments of the film, they become inevitably more generic as individual songs rather than chapters in a vast narrative hallucination.
There’s also the fact that this record was preceded by “Formation,” one of the most exciting songs and videos (and football halftime shows) of the decade, a work of black womanist psychogeography as well as a political rallying cry and series of oh-snap burns that left everyone wondering how an album could possibly match it. It’s not really a surprise that Lemonade mostly doesn’t try, but it’s still a letdown that “Formation” is relegated here to seeming like a bonus track at the end of the relationship song cycle that occupies the rest of the album. In the TV film it’s truncated to a remix that soundtracks the credits, even though the original video serves as a template for Lemonade’s visual style.
The other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z. The lyrics relate the tale of a straying, dissembling husband and a wounded and furious spouse who ultimately salvages the relationship by putting their love above her pride as well as both of their public images. There’s more to it, of course, particularly in video form, where it’s more evident that it is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender, represented here through the lineage of Jay Z’s granny (the one who got “served lemons,” as she says at her 90th birthday party, but still made lemonade) down to their daughter Blue Ivy.
Of course, the autobiographical references are an artistic device that links this broader theme to the audience’s personal attachment to and identification with Beyoncé and her family, heightening the drama. But I found it obtrusive when Jay himself began showing up late in the video sequence, in sync with the reconciliation arc. It felt like it tended to narrow the meaning to a matter of how much we’re expected to care about the literal private life of the celebrity couple. Obviously a lot of people care very much, as demonstrated by the avalanche of online reactions this weekend that indicate the title of the album may as well be Oh Damn, Did Jay Cheat on Bey? But despite the resonances I inevitably miss as a white, male listener, I do feel that the reality-show aspect partially interferes here.
I didn’t feel that way about the behind-the-curtain perspective of Beyoncé’s last full-length, the self-titled album that permanently rearranged both the music business and the discussion about her cultural significance. There, the details of the couple’s sex life, household luxuries, partying, and parenthood all served a number of original themes, including one about mature marital lust after childbirth and another about the situation of being an evenly matched pair of black American powerhouses in domestic partnership. These were stories the Knowles-Carter household was uniquely positioned to tell. The same is not quite so true of a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder, even with the more expansive representational meaning Beyoncé brings to it. It’s hard to say at this stage, but that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.
There are several obvious exceptions: the defiant “Sorry,” with its string-of-ringtones beats and gorgeous vocal lines co-written with singer Wynter Gordon, and its already famous closing stinger about “Becky with the good hair,” which reaps from meme culture just as it sows; “Freedom,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, with its samples from Alan Lomax and John Lomax Sr. field recordings, and a chorus that pays tribute to the great spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which is where the personal musically becomes most explicitly political in the song cycle (it happens all over the visual album); and most of all, the sizzling Texas campfire tune that is “Daddy Lessons.” It’s certainly the best country pastiche ever heard on a contemporary R&B album, and it could be the country song of the year, period. It’s reminiscent in theme and tone of classic Nashville mama/papa ballads by the likes of Dolly Parton or Tom T. Hall but, of course, from an utterly distinct vantage point. Its striking concept is Bey’s father wanting to teach her to shoot, to defend herself not only from wrongdoing guys like her husband but wrongdoing guys, it’s implied, like himself. And it’s self-assured enough to throw in an offhand-seeming joke about the Second Amendment that extends that idea along about six simultaneous tangents.
The song that loses most in the translation from video to album form might be “6 Inch,” featuring the Weeknd, which in the film, with Beyoncé miming in intense red light and being couriered from one mysterious location to another in black limousines, comes off as a 360-degree look at the status of women through the metaphor (and reality) of sex work—the wronged woman feeling used and undervalued by her partner, and so feeling like a commodity, but defending the emotional and performative work she does for the benefit of men through the image of a tough stripper who’s doing what she needs to do to get paid (“she don’t have to give it up/ ’cause she’s professional”), which might also be a fantasy about her sexual rival. On the album, it loses a dimension and feels more like a murked-up tribute to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” mixed with Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money,” but I think it could still become a favorite here, too.*
I’m also still unsure about the second track, “Hold Up.” The conceit of juxtaposing the sweet calypso lilt with words of agitation and suspicion—“How did it come to this/ Going through your call list?” and “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?”—is clever, but the island vibe flirts with cheesiness, summoning unwanted thoughts of Meghan Trainor.
Much of the rest for now is washing over my ears like transitional music, although often with some arresting vocal flourishes from Beyoncé—the signal example being the moment when her throat shreds with angry sorrow as she sings, “Bitch, I scratched out your name and your face,” in the otherwise-middling piano ballad “Sandcastles.” (The James Blake–led track that follows, “Forward,” is more absorbing but more like a brief coda or an extended sound effect than a complete song.)
To put all this in perspective: Counting “Formation,” that’s more than half the record that stands out right away, plus some memorable moments on lesser tracks, and that’s a pretty healthy ratio. If, as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé, so be it. The risk with a sustained storyline is that whenever a song sags it can feel as if the whole is sagging, at which points the personal content in particular can begin to seem more indulgent, especially with the extraordinary visual film always there to overshadow it. At least that’s how this white dude heard Lemonade in its first 24 hours of existence. Undoubtedly, many people will be gripped by every turn in Beyoncé’s battle to reclaim her own power and heal her family—and symbolically all women of color—regardless of whether I’m totally feeling it yet.
Correction, April 25, 2016: This article originally misstated that “She Works Hard for the Money” is a song by Tina Turner, who recorded “Private Dancer.” “She Works Hard for the Money” is by Donna Summer. (Return.)