Beyoncé’s mystery project Lemonade aired on HBO Saturday night, and it turned out to be a visual album. To be more precise, it turned out to be a phenomenal visual album, fascinating both visually and musically. And, rare in this age of buying single tracks online, it’s an album, with a real structure: 11 chapters tracing Beyoncé’s extended version of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Denial and anger show up, and depression and acceptance appear under different names, but, Beyoncé being Beyoncé, there’s no bargaining stage at all, unless this creepy introduction to the “Anger” chapter counts:
If it’s what you truly want … I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap. Her sternum my bedazzled cane. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us. Immortalized … you and your perfect girl.
Sounds like a pretty bad deal for everyone, honestly. Although some of the tracks seem pointedly targeted at Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z (“You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy,” she sings in “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) it’s clear that her concerns are also generational. (“Am I talking about your husband or your father?” another introduction asks.) The poetry that introduces the tracks is by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. The amazing thing about the structure is it works: It builds toward an extraordinarily moving catharsis in the finale, “All Night.”
The accompanying film—although sound and image are so well-integrated that “accompanying” may the wrong word—jumps from one aspect ratio and film stock to another while visiting Creole-tinged locations from a Civil War era–fort (Fort Macomb?) to a plantation and its slave quarters. (Its widest images are about 3.5:1, which means Beyoncé’s working with the widest frame since roughly 1927). Seven directors are credited, including Beyoncé herself, and there are guest appearances from everyone from Quvenzhané Wallis to Serena Williams. Plus Beyoncé crushes a bunch of cars with a monster truck.
Musically, Lemonade is equally surprising: No one was expecting a country track, but that’s what “Daddy Lessons” is; other tracks are equally all over the map, from the upbeat “Hold Up” to the soulful “Sandcastles.” The entire album is available exclusively on Tidal, so if you canceled the service when The Life of Pablo arrived on iTunes, it’s time to resubscribe. If you can’t afford Tidal, Beyoncé will still help you make lemonade from lemons, literally; here’s the recipe featured in Lemonade:
Take one pint of water, add a half pound of sugar, the juice of eight lemons, the zest of half a lemon. Pour the water from one jug, then into the other several times. Strain through a clean napkin.