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Beyonce's Lemonade, explained: an artistic triumph that's also an economic powerhouse

A scene from Lemonade.
A scene from Lemonade.

In a clip from Beyoncé’s new visual album Lemonade, the singer strides down a street in a yellow, ruffled dress. Elegant as always, she lights up the screen with her megawatt smile.

And then she pulls out a bat and starts smashing storefront windows and car windshields. It's nothing Michael Jackson didn't do 20 years ago in his "Black or White" video, but Beyoncé makes it classy, luring you in with her one-of-a-kind grace.

That's just one face of an album that proves to be an emotional tour de force. At other points during Lemonade, the singer appears simultaneously incensed, heartbroken, and devastated. With tight cornrows and a fitted gray outfit, she tosses a ring at the screen, making a stern proclamation: "You know I give you life / And if you try that shit again, you gon’ lose your wife."

We’re not used to hearing Beyoncé speak so acerbically. Following the one-hour world premiere of Lemonade — which aired Saturday, April 23, on HBO and features family photos and a cameo from tennis star Serena Williams, in addition to plenty of politically charged imagery — she released the 12-track album, and it's full of scornful tales and lyrics that seem to address her husband Jay Z’s long-rumored infidelity.

"He better call Becky with the good hair," Beyoncé scowls on "Sorry," one of several references to Hov’s cheating ways.

Unlike the pop superstar's previous surprise album, 2013’s Beyoncé, the music here is edgy, full of vitriol and R-rated real talk. It's equally aggressive and reflective, and Beyoncé — a bona fide cultural phenomenon — unveils yet another layer of her wide-ranging persona.

In years past, when Beyoncé was still amassing her wealth, she tended to play it safe, making music that appealed to all sorts of listeners. None of it was ever this harsh. Sure, she’d address "real" issues, but she’d focus more on big pop anthems that went down easy.

Lemonade is a tough listen, tinged in rock, hip-hop, R&B, and electro-soul. Beyoncé opens herself more, gets more personal. And, as with all of her recent work, she does it on her own terms, embracing the creative freedom that so few people enjoy.

Lemonade is the Beyoncé album that most overtly embraces her blackness

Beyoncé has often been seen as an example of black feminism, suggesting to women of color that it's best to set one's own course and buck societal conformity.

Yet her embrace of this image is also relatively new (though it's been growing for the last several years). Previously, Beyoncé often made pop music that catered to all listeners — single and taken ladies alike, fans of many different musical genres — but never before Lemonade has she offered anything tailored so directly to black, and specifically black female, listeners.

One (minor) example lies in the album's mentions of food. On "Formation," the first single off of Lemonade, released in February, Beyoncé trumpeted the hot sauce she totes in her bag, proclaiming her strong Texas roots. (Is that hot sauce actually hot sauce, or a bat? The Lemonade film suggests the latter.)

References to collard greens and cornbread — considered "soul food" by stereotypical standards — pop up elsewhere in the song.

But Beyoncé's embrace of her identity on "Formation" goes beyond food. In it, Bey also shouts out customarily black facial features: "I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils."

Perhaps tellingly, some observers criticized Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 50 halftime performance of the song, in which her backup dancers wore Black Panther-style outfits. The claim was that the performance was "anti-cop," because of its evocation of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the larger implication was that by embracing her blackness, Beyoncé was no longer trading in generic pop.

That's exactly what makes Lemonade such a bold artistic statement.

Beyoncé hinted that she was headed in this direction in 2013’s "Bow Down / I Been On": "I remember my baby hair with my dookie braids," she recalled. "You know we used to sneak and listen to that [Houston rap group] UGK."

Yet Lemonade goes further than these sorts of side references. Much like rapper Kendrick Lamar did on his landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyoncé proclaims her ethnicity with refreshing gusto, offering a raw stance on who she is and where she's from, beyond the hit songs and albums for which we already know her.

Without anything left to prove (and a lot more money in the bank), Beyoncé is taking her greatest creative risks yet — and seeing them pay off.

But speaking of money in the bank…

Beyoncé rewrites the music industry's rules with her every release

Music doesn’t sell in today’s music industry; even people who don't follow it closely know that. Illegal downloading and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have made it all but impossible to sell millions of records.

Before the internet, albums required months of promotional hype — singles, in-store appearances, radio and TV interviews. And most importantly, they required a release date, which heightened anticipation by giving fans a specific day to look forward to.

You can probably guess where this is going. On December 13, 2013, Beyoncé released Beyoncé, a full album, complete with videos for all 14 songs, without promotion or any prior announcement. Social media would take care of that for her.

Beyoncé sold more than 600,000 copies in three days, smashed iTunes sales records, and ushered in a new era of the "surprise release" from artists with similar gravitational pulls. Artists like Lamar, Drake, and Rihanna have since released albums without warning, and in late January, the practice even made the leap to television, when comedian Louis C.K. released a surprised comedy series, Horace and Pete, on his website.

"Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself," C.K. wrote in explaining the approach.

Lemonade didn't have the same benefit of surprise, at least not fully. Music fans knew Beyoncé was up to something, given the HBO special — which was announced a week prior to airing — and pending world tour, announced during the Super Bowl in February.

But Lemonade breaks industry rules in subtler ways. Beyoncé released it on Tidal, the music streaming site her husband owns, which has been on a massive run as of late. Kanye West's ever-changing latest album, The Life of Pablo, was launched as a Tidal exclusive, and Prince's discography is only available for streaming there — something many fans only realized in the wake of the music icon's death.

Lemonade was only a Tidal exclusive for about 24 hours — it's also on iTunes now — but Beyoncé is still making sure that music fans, or anybody wanting to be part of the cultural conversation, fork over their money for it, by making it the only platform where Lemonade is available to stream.

Tidal is one of the more expensive streaming services out there, with no free ad-supported tier. (The standard service is $9.99 per month; the premium service is $19.99 per month.) As such, it lags in subscribers, with only 3 million to Spotify's 30 million.

But Tidal isn't aimed at the everyman. Instead, it aggressively targets music fans. It boasts an all-star roster of supporters; its first commercial featured a who's who of musical talent — from Jack White and Daft Punk to Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj. Plus, it remains the best option for listeners who want music at a higher audio quality.

Thus, making Lemonade a Tidal-streaming exclusive is both an economic ploy and an attempted artistic statement. If you don't want to pay for a Tidal subscription, your only option for hearing and watching Lemonade is to purchase the album. The result is an insistence that this album has worth, has artistic value that can be measured monetarily, has merit beyond turning up at random in a playlist.

Of course, there's one ironic facet to this approach. Though Lemonade is built around Jay Z’s infidelity rumors, Beyoncé still released the album on his streaming service.

"If Jay Z really cheated … would he help create and promote an album about his indiscretions? … It's a little hard to believe," wrote Hollywood Take’s Robin Lempel. "Cheating rumors sell … would the Beyhive be quite as obsessed if the main theme was marital bliss? We'd venture to guess NO."

The visual half of Lemonade proved to be a game-changer in a different way. Forget MTV and YouTube, Beyoncé dropped her videos on friggin’ HBO — the cable network that, for decades, has given its Saturday night over to Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, the Saturday premiere of Jurassic World, which earned $1.6 billion at the worldwide box office, was bumped back an hour to make room for Lemonade.

That's who Beyoncé is right now. Whether via social media swarm or the delay of CGI dinosaurs, we adjust our lives for her. Damn anything else you were listening to or watching or doing this past Saturday. The world stops when Beyoncé appears; you keep your eyes on her, no matter how long she's in your sight. And she's only showing us exactly what she wants us to see.

Beyoncé is opening up more than ever before

Up to this point, we've only seen bits and pieces of Beyoncé's personal life. She rarely tweets and posts occasional pics on Instagram. Bey gives fans just enough to chew on, leaving them wanting more. You love her because you can't quite get a hold of her.

In 2013, Beyoncé released an autobiographical documentary called Life Is But a Dream, but critics derided it for being too controlled. She has always been a tough read, largely elusive. Sure, you'll see her at an NBA game or an awards show, but the pop goddess has this way of remaining out of sight, at a remove, shrouded in mystery. Beyoncé knows we want more music, more concerts, more media appearances. But in this era of instant gratification, she's a throwback to yesteryear, only showing up when the lights are brightest, when the stage is biggest, when the stakes are highest.

With Lemonade, Beyoncé makes herself the ultimate reality star, giving us gossip and fodder for news cycles and dinner party discussions, without cheapening her art. Instead, she's digging into issues to which we can all relate — love, pain, heartbreak, and family. The album allows Beyoncé's fans to connect with her on real levels.

"You can taste the dishonesty. It's all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier," Beyoncé groans on "Pray You Catch Me," Lemonade’s opening salvo. She's never been so nakedly emotional and angry. We've all been thrown by love, but most of us don't have the ability to hone it like this.

Of course, that's assuming that any of it is, y'know, real.

We don't know if Jay Z actually cheated

Beyonce Lemonade

Jay’s not talking. Look anywhere on the web, and you'll read rumors of his connection to fashion designer Rachel Roy, whom some whisper was also the reason Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, attacked Jay Z in an elevator in 2014. Some say the friendship between Jay and Roy had gotten too close at that point, and Lemonade (and Roy's social media posts in the immediate frenzy of its release) have given those folks plenty to discuss.

And yes, we get it: Beyoncé’s word is law. Her lyrics make front-page news. She's a star of the highest order, a beacon of light for us all. But building up her star power so much obscures her true artistry. She's also a creative writer with imagination. She'll likely never address the infidelity rumors directly, but on Lemonade, she artfully dances around them, leaving room for interpretation.

"You ain't married to no average bitch, boy," she exclaims on "Don't Hurt Yourself," a rock-infused number. "And keep yo' money, I got my own."

Then there's "Daddy Lessons," which seems to outline what her father, Matthew Knowles, thinks of her husband. "My daddy warned me 'bout men like you / He said, 'Baby girl, he’s playing you.'" Beyoncé and her dad are largely estranged, but in listening to Lemonade, you hear strong connections to family and her Southern upbringing.

As she presents herself on Lemonade, in her heart of hearts, Beyoncé is a low-key soul who craves simple things: lakefront views and bike rides in grand spaces. Given her otherwise lavish life, it seems the singer dreams of calmer surroundings.

Like most things Beyoncé, it's tough to tell what's real and what's fantasy. Are these real stories or nah? It's all grand theater, and Beyoncé remains the ultimate chameleon, leaving us guessing what she'll do next.


Here's what really matters: Lemonade is Beyoncé's most artistically successful album

Don't let gossip ruin the art. In the age of hot takes and clickbait headlines, it's easy to get caught in the hype surrounding Lemonade. It's easier to digest rumors and speculation, but Beyoncé has once again pushed herself forward.

Lemonade is a challenging listen that requires your undivided attention. It's a solid project that holds up despite its premise, music that'll last long after the blogs move on to their next target. Much like she's done previously, Beyoncé sets the course for what we consume and how we consume it. In this instance, though, she's offered something a little deeper, something rich and layered that proves, above all, that she's a musician in the truest sense, an artist with a strong perfectionist streak.

Beyoncé is still the ultimate performer, but on Lemonade, she's opened her personal diary for the world to see, and it doesn't really matter whether it's based in reality. Beyoncé is the sun of her own universe. Everyone else orbits around her.

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