You may have heard that Beyoncé put out an album about her husband, Jay Z. You heard wrong: Lemonade is about one person, and that person’s name is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. The famously guarded pop queen pours all of herself into her remarkable sixth album, a raw and intensely personal plunge into the heart of marital darkness. What happens when one of the world’s most powerful women feels invisible? She makes herself known.
Enter the baseball bat! Thanks to Lemonade’s visual component, the image of a bat-wielding Beyoncé in that ruffled yellow dress smashing cars will forever be linked to “Hold Up,” the album’s addictive second track. “What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?” she asks, pointing to the limited options women have. Then she answers herself: “I’d rather be crazy.”
She continues to channel that rage on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a bluesy Jack White-aided rocker that finds Bey howling, “Who the f— do you think I is?” And in case Jay Z didn’t get the message: “This is your final warning…. If you try this s— again, you gon’ lose your wife.” Anger turns into defiance on “Sorry,” a middle-fingers-up anthem that’s sure to be sung by spurned lovers for as long as there are Beckys with good hair.
Job well done, right? Don’t even think it.
Beyoncé isn’t one to work on a small scale. This is the woman who gave us “Run the World (Girls),” after all. Lemonade is more than just an album about a wronged wife—Beyoncé wants to take everyone with her. The album is a feminist blueprint, a tribute to women, African-Americans, and, especially, African-American women.
Like her “Formation” video, the visual album’s imagery—a mostly female and nonwhite affair—makes the point with haunting clarity. Black women in antebellum dresses populate eerie plantation tableaus; home videos of kids playing in the yard bleed into coffins and the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner holding portraits of their dead boys; Serena Williams, whose otherness has long been scrutinized by the very not-woke tennis world, dances with abandon. Her body belongs to herself—no small thing in the context of African-American history. “Did he bend your reflection?” Beyoncé whispers. “Did he make you forget your own name?”
For the magnetically spare emotional ballad “All Night,” we see footage of the women in Beyoncé’s own family and get a sense of how their pain links them through the generations: “Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind.” Lemons into lemonade, personal into universal.
And then there’s the album’s fiercest banger, “Freedom.” Beyoncé’s victorious voice combusts (“I break chains all by myself”) over a maximalist soul sample, while Kendrick Lamar, the game’s top rapper, explodes in a verse that cuts into our nation’s perpetual civil rights tragedies. “Freedom” is big. Could an anthemic Black Lives Matter jam become mainstream America’s song of the summer? If anyone can make it happen, it’s Beyoncé.
Other things she can do: rock, blues, country, avant-garde, whatever. Lemonade stands as Bey’s most diverse album to date. Sinister strip-club-in-the-future R&B (“6 Inch,” featuring none other than the Weeknd) sits right next to a slab of Texas twang (“Daddy Lessons”). Led Zeppelin and Soulja Boy become bedfellows; Andy Williams and Isaac Hayes both get sampled; and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, James Blake, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, and Animal Collective all get credits.
But inevitably, a lot of you are still wondering: What does all this mean for her husband? The guy who was the desired object of Bey’s other surprise visual album, the superb 2013 self-titled record that made married sex seem so hot while also introducting us to the “surfbort”? Fortunately for Jay Z, things look like they might be all right. After wrestling with herself throughout Lemonade, Bey begins to heal towards the back half, as evidenced by the sweet, vulnerable ballad “Sandcastles.” By the time we get to “All Night,” the last track before the Super Bowl-vetted “Formation” closes the album, Beyoncé’s soaring voice indicates that she’s found some peace, at least for now. “Our love was stronger than your pride,” she sings, and it sounds like she believes it.
Of course, many will still obsess over what it was Jay Z did and with whom. If you want to spend your time speculating, cool—that’s your deal. But Beyoncé’s not thinking about that. She’s too busy putting out her boldest, most ambitious, best album to date. Middle fingers up. A+