Nearly a year after the launch of Jay Z’s Tidal, listeners are finally reaping the benefits of its artist-owned premise. The streaming platform is the only place online to binge on Prince’s catalog, and it’s also allowed superstars such as Kanye West, Rihanna, and Beyoncé to untether themselves from a label-driven system and release genre-redefining music. In the case of Beyoncé, that record is Lemonade, a visual album that arrived with a high-profile rollout. The collection premiered via a mini-movie on HBO on Saturday night, and initially was streamed exclusively via Tidal.
Lemonade deserves such attention: Like 2013’s Beyoncé, the album’s themes are enhanced and informed by the accompanying visuals. However, Lemonade’s music is also yet another seismic step forward for Beyoncé as a musician. Songs encompass and interpolate the entire continuum of R&B, rock, soul, hip-hop, pop, and blues, blurring eras and references with determined impunity. On top of that, the album is a stark, frequently moving chronicle of an unraveling marriage. Unsurprisingly, the widely held assumption is that its references to a cheating spouse, wedding regrets, a breakup, and then reconciliation are specifically pointing to Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marriage. (That the tabloids are full of gossip about the allegedly precarious state of their union—and the film Lemonade features explicit imagery spelling out trouble in paradise—does nothing to dispel this notion.)
Yet this specter of imperfection opens up Lemonade’s music in surprising and exciting ways. The gorgeous, sparse “Sandcastles,” driven by just a piano and a gospel-influenced backing harmonies, finds Beyoncé sounding ragged and wrecked by the marital breakdown. “Daddy Lessons” is a funky, country-tinged number on which she shouts out her home state of Texas and underscores that she’s not afraid to fight back against (or take shit from) her unworthy ex—just like her daddy taught her. And on “Hold Up,” in between references to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” and Soulja Boy, she says, “I’m not too perfect / To ever feel this worthless.” The subtle devastation of this sentiment cuts to the quick.
Elsewhere, Lemonade skillfully uses a variety of male vocalists to support its emotional nuances. Jack White portrays an arrogant guy who needs to be taken down a peg on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a scratchy, soul-blues strut with a prominent sample of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.” In a patronizing tone, he utters lyrics such as “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself,” which cues a fiery Beyoncé response: distorted vocal snarls consumed by unbridled fury. The Weeknd functions as the omniscient narrator of “6 Inch,” which celebrates powerful women who work hard 9 to 5 and slay on the weekends. And James Blake is a conciliatory figure on the too-brief “Forward,” his tender, breathy vocals personifying a romantic reunion.
This song segues directly into the stunning “Freedom,” which stitches together an organ-heavy sample of the garage-psych cult act Kaleidoscope’s “Let Me Try” with a Kendrick Lamar feature criticizing the current state of U.S. racial politics. That “Freedom” ends with Hattie White (a.k.a. Jay Z’s grandma) saying, “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to cool myself off. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,” is also fitting. Beyoncé’s reverence for the strong women in her life has always informed her approach. In fact, she’s spent much of her career crafting a bulletproof image predicated on female empowerment, a quality she once again harnesses on Lemonade.
But Beyoncé also recognizes the immense power women wield when expressing vulnerability, especially after conquering personal struggles. “True love breathes salvation back into me,” she sings on the retro-tinged “All Night.” The horn line from Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” serves as a tasteful celebratory backdrop for this song, as the record’s previously fractured relationship takes tentative steps toward wholeness. All over Lemonade, Beyoncé is describing her own personal reality, on her terms and informed by her worldview. That the album simultaneously pushes mainstream music into smarter, deeper places is simply a reminder of why she remains pop’s queen.