The Album of the Year: LEMONADE by Beyoncé

In a fragmented, subgenre’d, and mix-heavy music culture, it’s notable whenever a full album is able to grab some attention for its full damn self, not just its killer singles or release strategy or guest stars or endless delays. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is such a record, showing up on all four individual SportsAlcohol Best of 2016 lists and warranting the kind of track-by-track exploration we last applied to the St. Vincent album in 2014. This does make us four white people talking extensively about Beyoncé, so we should preface this post, and our upcoming music-of-2016 podcast, by saying please go check this out. And then check out our albums six through two for 2016. And then enjoy four indie rockers drinking up Lemonade.

The Album of the Year: Lemonade by Beyoncé

1. “Pray You Catch Me”

It starts, as they say in film and literature classes across the country, “in media res.” The narrator’s husband has cheated and she’s pacing the room, deciding just what to do about it. I won’t presume to say the narrator is Beyoncé, necessarily. She has always been crafty about her public image, an immaculate conception if there ever was one, giving us just enough to make our own assumptions (and keep coming back to her music.) But it’s tough to think an album so full of righteous anger was borne from anything less than genuine personal experience. We’ll dig into that later. For now though we have the opening track, the calm before the storm. On first listen it’s not as immediately arresting as what follows. But it’s essential place setting, the heavenly vocals and soft arrangement becoming gradually unnerving, the lyrics perfectly capturing the moment of ambivalence between loving and deciding to leave someone who’s betrayed you. The story here (spoiler alert?) has a happy ending, but that’s not guaranteed yet. First we’re going to be put through the wringer as much as the man who wronged her. – Sara

2. “Hold Up”

Those who only dip a toe into Lemonade’s waters mention that “Hold Up” is, in addition to Ezra Koenig and Diplo, partially credited to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for use of the chorus to “Maps” – the famous line about how “they don’t love you like I love you.” Yes, in both songs, that is a heartbreak of a line, which elegantly conveys a whole album’s worth of emotion and situation in just a few words, even if it’s done in a bouncy, reggae-ish way.

The real meat of “Hold Up,” however, comes a little bit later, in a separate, less-repeated refrain: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” That is basically the question the whole album sets out to answer. You suspect your love isn’t being true. How do you react? Do you act on your suspicions, and risk being labeled as paranoid? Do you act jealous? Do you act crazy?

The answer, as the next track and later songs on Lemonade will attest, is you GET ANGRY. -Marisa

3. “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

I know it’s official policy not to talk about the Grammy Awards, and with good reason. I will make a brief exception to that here: Apart from the cursory and obligatory acknowledgment that Lemonade was nominated a fuckload of times, it is worth noting how those nominations were spread out across categories for different types of music. The album got nods for being pop, rap, rock (for this song!), and urban contemporary (whatever that is). Only the country categories turned their backs on Queen Bey, because #racism (and it’s shit like this that makes us ignore the Grammys in the first place). But Beyoncé is not the equivalent of pan-Asian cuisine, a culinary attempt to represent all flavors without excelling in any of them. No, Beyoncé is a master of all.

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” is clearly a Jack White song. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said that the style of his fellow poet William Wordsworth was so identifiable that, “If I had come across [his] lines in the desert, I’d have said ‘Wordsworth!’” If I had come across “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in the desert, I’d have said, “Jack White!” And yet, the fact that it’s being delivered by Beyoncé doesn’t feel like an imitation. Beyoncé can be Jack White if she wants to. She can take on Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and come up with something I like way more than “When the Levee Breaks.” She’s got the anger, the blues, the genuine rock chops to do it. If Jack White wanted to give the White Stripes another go with a replacement for Meg, I’m sure Beyoncé would be amazing at the drums from the first moments she sits behind the kit. —Marisa

4. “Sorry”

It’s a relatively minimalist song, musically, which may be why it stings. After the fuming anger of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Lemonade brings out a song as cool and concise as the extended middle finger it sings about. I know I just called a thing that made me laugh in seventh grade – flipping someone off – “cool” but that’s how it feels when you’re listening to “Sorry.” That coolness comes, I think, from the serenity that contains the song’s anger; Beyoncé can get fired up, but she can also exert tremendous control. There’s no oversinging, overproduction, hook-grabbing here. It’s this simple, perfect fuck you, and in a single song, Beyoncé defines “#SorryNotSorry” better than just about anyone. – Jesse

5. “6 Inch”

Forget The Weeknd. Forget the ring-the-alarm Rihanna cameo. Forget the Animal Collective sample. The takeaway from “6 Inch”: Let us endeavor to feel as powerful as Beyoncé looks right here.
– Marisa

6. “Daddy Lessons”

Beyoncé’s albums have always been eclectic, sometimes to a fault – the many obligatory slow jams of Dangerously in Love, the self-conscious decision to make I Am… Sasha Fierce an unwieldy “double” album splitting a single album’s worth of songs across two discs, and the sullying of the otherwise sterling 4 with a Diane Warren ballad. But Lemonade reconciles her sonic adventurousness with an album narrative like nothing else she’s done before (though 4 came close). Hence somehow “Daddy Lessons,” a country song, totally fits on the same record as “Sorry” and “Formation.” It cannily repurposes the rhythms and tropes of a country song – most notably in its down-home refrain of “my daddy said shoot” – to fit Bey’s ruminations on strength and (in)fidelity. It even reclaims a piece of right-wing real estate for female empowerment: “Girl, it’s your second amendment.” – Jesse

7. “Love Drought”

This is the crucial turning point of the album, and it’s no mistake that its title features the word “love.” Beyoncé has previously been both crazy and drunk in it. It was on top! Here, though, she acknowledges that an emotion that runs so deeply and heedlessly can also go through periods when it’s fallow. But those are the moments that it’s the most precious, and worth protecting. In an age when it seems feminism is a belief system that must be practiced perfectly, there’s something both brazen and brave in admitting that you still love your partner, in spite of their faults, even faults that are potentially demeaning to you. That good work can still be done together and is still to come. – Sara

8. “Sandcastles”

When I see that a pop star has a heartfelt ballad called “Sandcastles,” I immediately think of “Sandcastles in the Sand” from How I Met Your Mother, and that right there is probably the most cogent argument in favor of the idea that Lemonade was not made for me. Perhaps more appropriately, I also think of the aforementioned horrible Diane Warren ballad “I Was Here” and its lyrics about Beyoncé wanting to leave “footprints in the sands of time.” What I’m saying is, singing a piano ballad about sandcastles is easy shorthand for unabashed treacle, and yet that’s not really the deal with “Sandcastles.” Beyoncé no longer needs to oversell her ballads; this one is so gentle that she has no trouble playing it right into “Forward,” the James Blake song that Rob relieved everyone else by agreeing to write about. – Jesse

9. “Forward”

Besides hair that looks like it just does that, what is even the point of James Blake? Beyoncé answers that musical question with this beautiful interlude. While simple and short, “Forward” is the clearest example of how Beyoncé can elevate her collaborators, using Blake’s falsetto as another color on her palette. Its beauty is driven home on the visual album, where it’s paired with static shots of mothers holding pictures of their children lost to police violence. – Rob

10. “Freedom”

In a year where the Avalanches put out a record, it’s a bit surprising that the most impressive crate-digging shows up on a Beyoncé album. The organ-heavy sample that propels “Freedom” comes from an obscure psychedelic record that an original pressing of 200 copies. More impressive is what the song does with it. While most of Lemonade is clearly focused on her personal life, “Freedom” takes her struggles widescreen, raging against the treatment of black people (women in particular) in this day and age. This is driven home by the appearance of card-carrying Beyhive member Kendrick Lamar, coming off his successful 2015 with his best verse of 2016. The lyrics from both Beyoncé and Kendrick show a clear understanding of institutionalized racism, but it’s not going to stop them. What does that sound like? It’s power. It’s freedom. – Rob

This song gets me so fucking hyped up I almost feel guilty about it. – Jesse

11. “All Night”

Everyday I see Kellyanne Conway on TV, she is defending our next president’s indefensible tweets by saying his foreign policy is “Peace Through Strength,” a terrible euphemism for the type of brinksmanship our top diplomat and Commander-in-Chief usually tries to avoid. Our next leader could learn a thing about magnanimity from our nation’s secular queen. On “All Night” Beyoncé shows that true strength comes from not using your considerable power. Over a pleasing reggae backdrop, she displays more empathy and grace for someone who wronged her than I ever could. It almost feels out of place on Lemonade, but I think the added range of emotions brings the album full circle. Bey is not the bigger person; she’s the biggest person. – Rob

12. “Formation”

Fellow white women, a PSA: please stop making parodies and/or homages to this music video. It’s almost always embarrassing, whatever your intent might be. Now that’s out of the way: this was my personal pick for best song of the year, despite the fact that Lemonade overall didn’t make my top 5. I’ll freely admit that I’ve tended to write Beyoncé’s music off in the past as the sort of bubblegum radio fluff I avoid. That’s to my detriment though, not hers. I don’t have HBO access so I saw this video first and free of context. And it was galvanizing. Not because of the image of Beyoncé on the flooded police car. Or all the emphatically-thighed women dancing in, well, formation. Or that carrying hot sauce in your bag soon became a calling card for woke women everywhere (and I actually don’t doubt Hilary was telling the truth about that). From the live-wire opening sample to the lyrics that reference everything from Red Lobster to Bill Gates it’s simply that it was the perfect anthem at the (im)perfect time (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” and let’s keep being that bitch for the next four years at least.) When she first conceived of the song Beyoncé likely thought she was singing for just her and Jay. Now, though, it’s all of us. So let’s get in formation. – Sara