At this point, surprise Beyonce album releases are like deaths, natural disasters and other acts of God: They’re inevitable. We prepare for them, but we’re never quite ready when they come. When we look back, the story is often about what we were doing and where we were when we first heard about them — walking the dog, chilling at the club, sleeping in. But the physical context is just a placeholder we use to process the feelings inside. And Lemonade — Beyonce’s sixth studio album, released as an hour-long visual album on Tidal after premiering on HBO — is all about the feels. Strikingly direct and damn-near transparent, it’s by far her most personal work — and also her best and most focused.
The album is about the very private tribulations of a very public marriage in the wake of infidelity. It’s the chronicle of what happens when the unbreakable is broken, but refuses to shatter to pieces irreparably. Her last album, 2013’s Beyoncé, was about being drunk in love; Lemonade is the bittersweet love hangover. Beyoncé asks herself the question wandering men have made women ask themselves since the invention of monogamy: “What did I do wrong?” It also poses bigger-picture questions for the rest of us: If Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the most glamorous women on the planet and its pre-eminent pop star, can’t keep her man from allegedly straying, who can? If Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, biggest rapper in the history of the world and uber-successful business mogul, feels unfulfilled enough to seemingly cheat on Beyoncé, what hope is there for the rest of us?
There’s a magnetic emotional heft to this album, as is to be expected when a public persona that’s as curated and controlled as Beyoncé’s airs the dirty matrimonial laundry about her husband, an equally shrewd manager of selective sharing. In just the first few moments of the visual album, she kneels in front of exposed light bulbs that allude to open flame, wears a nose ring that intimates tears, and steps off the roof of a building in a move that telegraphs as despair and escape but reveals itself to be her plunging deep into submerged rituals of introspection. It’s incredibly mystical and surreal, but also wholly tangible and infinitely relatable. Beyonce is almost always either alone or surrounded by black women of all shades; there are shadows of Africa and echoes of community everywhere; none of the guest vocalists are shown. Stringing these visual vignettes into a whole tale are the words of Warsan Shire, the Somalian-born British poet whose work Beyoncé recites like private journal entries.
But this isn’t a project that works just on a sentimental basis — because that would be boring. “6 Inch” is the best in a long line of Beyoncé feminist resiliency anthems, and it coasts on a masterful sample of Isaac Hayes‘ “Walk On By.” It’s also the first-ever track featuring The Weeknd in which he doesn’t steal the show. “Sorry” features Serena Williams dipping it low while Bey literally throws middle fingers high, says “boy, bye,” and leaves a Dear John letter in the hallway; “Love Drought” is sheened-out alt-R&B about conflicted longing; “Daddy Lessons” is accomplished shoulda-listened country-blues; “Sandcastles” is a tormented piano ballad about reunion; “Forward” concedes a full minute to James Blake‘s moody electronic key and air musings.
“Hold Up” is a Caribbean-tinged ditty with contagious phrasing that’s hurt but defiant. “What’s worse — being jealous or crazy?” Beyoncé asks. In the video, she struts down a city street in platform heels and a flowing, ruffled summer dress that’s red-carpet casual. She’s also wielding a baseball bat. Her notable targets: car windows, a storefront window housing a wig, a surveillance camera, a fire hydrant, and lastly — after cradling the bat, phallic symbology implied — the gaze of the viewer. She’s making it clear that this is not about us. We just happen to be here, watching. And we see it all.
“This is your final warning,” Beyoncé declares to her husband at the end of the Jack White-assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” “You know I give you life/ If you try this shit again/ You gon’ lose your wife.” It’s the most potent and lethal diss Jay Z has ever received. (Yes, even more soul-burning than Nas’ “Ether.”) It’s also a savvy flip of battle-rap cliches that threaten to both murder an opponent and steal his spouse.
When one of the world’s top power couples go through it, when the most iconic pop-culture figures in their respective arenas have marriage issues, this is how it should sound. The musical credits here run deep, but the tale is all Beyonce’s, and it’s her brave decision to deliver these songs as in-the-moment overshares that drives the album’s power. When she asks “Who the f— you think I am?” on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she’s pissed as f—. When she’s putting up the deuces on “Sorry,” she’s totally over it. When she decides to start all over on “All Night,” she’s deep into reconciliation and the lustful ebullience that follows: “I’m gonna kiss up and rub and feel up/ Kiss up and rub up and feel up on you/ All night long.” It’s a doubly great passage, because the first time she runs through it, she’s dismissing sycophants that want to “kiss up and rub up and feel up” on her husband’s fame.
Throughout this project, Beyoncé is many things — insecure, tortured, angry, defiant, resourceful, in control. She’s also, understandably, contradictory. At one point she spits that “I am not broken,” but a highlighted bowl of gold-joined kintsukuroi pottery lets us know the truth: The unbreakable broke, but she didn’t fall apart; she re-emerged whole, with some help. “You’re the magician,” she says to her husband. “Pull me back together again the way you cut me in half/ Make the woman in doubt disappear.”
Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us after all.