Beyoncè is the business. She’s the Queen for a reason. She strides the earth, a two-legged God, in high heels that would - and will - absolutely kill you dead. In generations to come, we’ll be holding up her music as a definition of the age. This is what the frontier of popular music and artistry looks like in 2016. We take as our holy text today the latest album, Lemonade.
Released in April of 2016, Lemonade was Beyoncè’s second album to be released like an assassin in the night. In secret, with little build-up, the whole thing dropped out of nowhere. To accompany it, a one-hour special on HBO. It’s called a ‘visual album’ for a reason: the whole thing is meant to be consumed as one piece of art. It’s a story. It’s the apotheosis of the concept album that started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band a generation ago. Quite brave in an age where songs are purchased as singles, pre 60’s style, 99 cents a download and mixed into user-created playlists. The music video is supposed to be dead. In defiance, Beyoncè created a video for every single track on the album and stitched them together with poetry and pieces of filmography that are bewildering, intoxicating and sad. Her previous visual album, 2013’s Beyoncè, did the same trick, but the pieces were less defined as a whole as on Lemonade.
This isn’t a think piece on Lemonade. There are literally hundreds of white guys that have already written think-pieces. Beyoncè’s famously tight-lipped about her work, but Lemonade demands to be studied. It’s an album that is bursting with collaborations, and so this is merely my attempt to amalgamate a lot of loose information about who wrote or created what and how - track by track. This thing has the density of a dying star. References and samples spill from the seams. I’m barely scratching the surface. I’ve linked where possible, and the associated articles will allow you to go deeper. Let’s begin.
Pray You Catch Me
‘You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath…’
The first track opens with a layered, bending vocal - harmonies rise and fall and gather together. It’s reminiscent of The Beatles’ Because, but the tone is much darker. We’re talking about straight-up infidelity right off the bat - it’s the starting point for the narrative arc of the album. This is a woman cheated, waiting for her husband to realise that she knows what he’s up to. She’s ready to start the fight.
The song was co-written by Beyoncè, Kevin Garrett and James Blake.
Let’s start with Garrett, relatively unknown but highly respected in the industry - he’s 25 years old, and his 2015 EP release Mellow Drama garnered attention from the likes of Sam Smith and Katy Perry. Since the release, he’s gone on tour with James Vincent McMorrow and co-written a song with Beyoncè. So no biggie. He’s very much from the McMorrow and Smith school of male melancholic ballad. Have a glass of wine and take a bath, contemplate existence and cry type music - and I mean that as praise.
Garrett commented to Billboard: “It was a collaborative effort with Beyoncè. It’s an incredibly special song to me because of the way it was written, lyrics first and on a guitar. Once she added her voice and her honesty to the track, it really pushed everything over the top.”
Try and imagine this thing on just guitar and vocals.
James Blake, meanwhile, features later in the album as well on Forward as a vocalist and co-writer. Blake is annoyingly young too - just 27, but is just so hot right now. And for good reason. He’s talked more in the press about Forward than Pray You Catch Me, so it’s difficult to ascertain his involvement in the track. But given the sound, it’s not hard to see how the track is very much in his wheelhouse.
‘What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?’
The credit line on this track is as thick as a baseball bat.
This is the song that’s made gifs turn around the world - Beyoncè in a canary yellow dress beating the shit out of cars with a baseball bat. It’s visual poetry. The song’s decent, but the image of the video is so intoxicating, it’s impossible to hear the song without thinking of the video. The story of it’s evolution is a thirteen year odyssey.
First, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get a writing credit on this track. Their 2003 song Maps is the musical foundation that inspired Ezra Koenig, frontman for Vampire Weekend. The chorus of Maps runs: “Wait, they don’t love you like a love you…” In 2011, in between Vampire Weekend albums and looking for inspiration, Koenig hears the song and thinks about replacing ‘wait’ with ‘hold up’ in the lyrics. He even tweets it out as a brain fart. A couple of years later in 2014, he’s in the studio with Diplo, and thinks of the tweet. They come up with a hook and a riff - only about a minute in length. At first Koenig figured it would make a Vampire Weekend song, but then passed it onto Beyoncè.
You can hear Diplo all over this track. Just listening to his group’s Major Lazer’s 2015 hit Lean On and you get the neo reggae, dance hall vibe. It’s infectious and joyful. I like to think the track inspired the visuals (everyone’s much tighter lipped on how everything came together for the videos). Its joy is matched with fury, which becomes fully exposed over the next couple of tracks, but here, it’s just like Queen Bee is getting warmed up.
(For anyone interested, Diplo also samples from Andy Williams ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ - which is hilarious. Also, the last time Diplo worked with Beyoncè was on her 2011 record Run The World (Girls).)
The song’s creation story doesn’t end there. We’re in 2015, and we’ve got a riff and a chorus, but no verse. So where does Beyoncè go? Father John Misty, niche folk singer songwriter. Now I love Father John. His lyrics are like no one else's’: antagonistic, acerbic and funny. (Listen to the album I Love You Honeybear - you’ll hate the world when it’s done, but you’ll love him.) His real name is Josh Tillman, and he spilled the beans on the process:
“About a year and half ago, my friend Emile Haynie played Beyoncè some of my music, along with some tunes I've written for other people, back when she was looking for collaborators for the record... Pretty soon after they sent along the demo for "Hold Up”…I'm pretty sure they were just looking for lyrics, but I went crazy and recorded a verse, melody and refrain too that, unbelievably -- when you consider how ridiculous my voice sounds on the demo -- ended up making the record -- right between picking up the baseball bat and decapitating the fire hydrant.”
For the record, those are some of my favourite lyrics on the album, before I knew Father John had written them:
How did it come to this?
Scrolling through your call list
I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch
Know that I kept it sexy, and know I kept it fun
There’s something that I’m missing, maybe my head for one.”
Father John sent the demo off and was in the dark about whether his lyrics had made it on to the record. This was not uncommon for collaborators, apparently, who worked in isolation and having no concept of the album has a whole or where their piece may fit. It wasn’t until Beyoncè spoke to Father John at Coachella in 2015 that he realised he’d made the record.
MeLo-X also takes some credit for writing some lyrics and adding backing vocals - how and where is uncertain, but he’s been a longtime artistic ally of the Queen. When Beyoncè says ‘I hop up on the bed and get my swag on / I look in the mirror, say, ‘What’s up?” - she’s quoting Soulja Boy’s Turn My Swag On - so he gets a credit too.
Tellingly, this leaves the rap section of the song uncredited to anyone in particular, and it seems sensible to attribute this to Beyoncè herself. The lyrics are very specific here, and unmistakably point to Jay-Z (husband, probable cheater). But it’s only track two and we’re just gettin’ started…
Don’t Hurt Yourself
“Who the fuck do you think I is?”
The big rock number, co-produced and co-written with Jack White. Jack White is the Jack White of Jack White’s. He knows what he’s doing. Here, he borrows a lick from Led Zepplin’s When the Levee Breaks (so they get a credit too) and provides backing vocals. He also grabbed talented emerging vocalist Ruby Amanfu to do backing vocals - but at the time she was recording she had no idea it was for a Beyoncè track. She found out when she was watching the special on HBO and heard her voice. Blam.
But Jack isn’t the only co-writer. Wynter Gordon (a stage name for Diana Gordon) makes her first appearance of three here - but she’s remained silent on the subject of Lemonade. Long-time collaborate and music director of Beyoncè Derek Dixie produces the track. Aside from the Led Zeppelin sample, it’s a straight up rock/blues track, one of the most aggressive of the album.
For the video, a lot happens. The music breaks when the song references Malcom X, who is an enduring motif in Beyoncè’s current work, both live (her dancers formed an ‘X’ when performing Formation at the Superbowl, where they were dressed in homages to the Black Panther Party movement), and in tracks such as Don’t Hurt Yourself. We cut to audio of Malcom X, speaking in 1962 at the funeral service of Ronald Stokes, killed by the LAPD:
“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”
It’s the first trigger to a theme that will bloom throughout the rest of the album: racial equality and the plight of the African-American Woman throughout history. Malcolm X’s words, and their context, have all the more power in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement, which Beyoncè references later in the album too.
The visual album also contains a striking moment where Beyoncè is uncharacteristically crystal clear in the interpretation of her lyrics. The chorus ends with ‘Love God Herself’ - and the screen abruptly goes black, with bold white text across the screen: “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT’. Determined to counter act the inevitable interpretation that Beyoncè is labelling herself as God, she stops the show for a second to get the record straight. Although, as lyric Genius points out, the feminisation of God is a potential juxtaposition to Jay-Z. One of his nicknames is ‘Jay-Hova’ or the ‘God MC’.
It’s a song about disrespect, about how haters ultimately hurt themselves.
“Uh, this is your final warning
You know I give you life
If you try this shit again
You gon lose your wife.”
“Middle fingers up, put ‘em hands out, wave ‘em in his face, tell him boy bye.”
In the video, Serena Williams twerks while Beyoncè gives the finger to the camera. So what can you really say about that?
The song is credited to Beyoncè, Wynter Gordon, MeLo-X a with long-time Bey ally HitBoy. There’s no specific mention of how the song came together, just that it wasalong process of collaboration and mixing of ideas.
The song represents the most lyrically ‘controversial’ on the album, for the litany of references to Jay-Z, as well as just being generally kick ass. Take the first verse:
‘He trying to roll me up, I ain’t picking up
Headed to the club, I ain’t thinking ‘bout you
Me and my ladies sip my D’ussè cup
I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up
Suck on my balls, pause, I had enough
I ain’t thinkin ‘bout you
I ain’t thinking ‘bout
D’ussè is a brand of Cognac that Jay-Z has been promoting since 2012. He even gives it a shout out in Drunk In Love from Beyoncè’s last album - a song about how happily in love/lust they are. Beyoncè’s deliberately telling him to get fucked here.
By the time we get to the third verse, the reality of a possible separation has set in. She talks about leaving a note in the hallway and taking her daughter far away. But the last line of the song has probably garnered the most attention out of any on the album:
“He better call Becky with the good hair”
Who the hell is Becky? There’s been much speculation, and a heap of different theories that point to possible ‘other women’ in Jay-Z’s life. It’s important to understand the context of ‘Becky’ here, which is a stereotypical-sounding name in the Black community given to average White women. “Becky” would have ‘good hair’ according to white culture. No curls, or zig-zag patterns, but straight and Caucasian. Later, in Formation, Beyoncè talks about her preference to keep her daughter’s hair in it’s natural state. Cultural representation of hair is also reflected in the video for Sorry, where a bus full of women are partying with their face and hair made up to reflect Nigerian culture. In particular the Yoruba people, which many African Americans are descended from.
(Speaking of hair, in the video Beyoncè is also featured in a silhouette that is strongly reminiscent of the famous Nefertiti bust. Nefertiti being a famous Egyptian queen who had a powerful relationship with her husband Akhenaten.)
The strongest clue to the identity of ‘Becky’ points to Rachel Roy. The persistent rumour that Jay-Z cheated with Rachel was brought to the surface when paparazzi snapped Beyoncè’s sister beating the crap out of Jay-Z in an elevator with Beyoncè watching on. After this song dropped, Roy posted a photo on Instagram with a caption that read “Good hair, don’t care” and #nodramaqueens.” Shortly after, Roy tweeted that she “loves and respected marriage.”
Either way - who cares? It’s a good song.
“She fights and she sweats those sleepless nights
But she don’t mind, she loves the grind”
First off, the song samples Issac Hayes Walk on By, which means Burt Bacharach, who co-wrote Walk on By, has a credit on the song. Weird and amazing. The song allows nabs a lyric from Animal Collective’s My Girls. The piece is co-produced by Boots, an artist who Beyoncè’s had a direct hand in helping break through. He points to 6 Inch being the spiritual sequel to Haunted, featured on Beyoncè’s previous album - a song about working hard to stay alive. But the real collaboration here is with The Weekend, who’s biggest break-out hit was 2015’s I Can’t Feel My Face, who sing the catchy verse here.
Lyrically, The Weekend make parallels between wealth, booze and drugs, not uncommon for them (I Can’t Feel My Face is a song about cocaine). Overall, however, the song is about working women. Beyoncè is worth a lot of money. So is Jay-Z. (Together’s there’s an estimated billion dollars between them.) But Beyoncè here points to “being too smart to crave material things”. She keeps working, allying herself with millions of working women around the world, doing what they need to do get by. Six inch heels become a metaphor for female empowerment here, holding the key to working successful, hard-working women who find freedom through money.
The final moments of the song hold a moment of intense vulnerability. At this point, the album begins to pivot. Beyoncè’s voice breaks on ‘come back’. The visual album shows her burning a bedroom. It’s the end of the first half - and we’re done with anger and fury. We’re moving on to trying to find healing.
“With his gun, and his head held high
He told me not to cry
Oh, my daddy said shoot.”
A country song on a Beyoncè album. Somewhere around this point my respect for the album rose from moderate to maximum. It’s one thing to say you don’t pay attention to genre, it’s another thing to truly break the bounds and be so deeply unfashionable as put a country song on your album. But she does, and it’s brilliant.
The song is co-written with Wynter Gordon, Kevin Possum and Alex Delicata. Kevin talked to Billboard about writing the song with Wynter and Alex:
“On that record “Daddy Lessons,” we were in my condo in Miami. Wynter just wanted to do something from scratch. I called over a good friend of mine, Alex Delicata, who is also co-producer and writer. He played the guitar, wrote it and we pretty much pressed record on the laptop and sang it down -- harmonies, stomping and clapping, and that was the vibe. We probably did it a few times till we got it right. We knew that we had something. Wynter wanted to take it to Bey…”
As with other collaborations, that was the last Kevin heard about it. The song went to Beyoncè, and two years later, it shows up on her album.
Beyoncè has a long and complex relationship with her father. She fired him as her manager back in 2011. It’s now known he cheated on Beyoncè’s mother. Throughout the visual album, through the poetry segments (co-written by Warsaw Shire, poetic mastermind), Beyoncè draws parallels between her husband and her father. It’s also a song that points to a culture, shouted out with ‘Texas’ in the song’s opening gambit, that revolves around a certain type of patriarchy typified in rifles and whiskey. It’s yet another layer to an already complex picture about female strength, male dominance, African American culture and more.
(Beyoncè’s daughter Blue Ivy appears at the end of the track. There are also many lyrical references to the colour blue on the album, and these usually point to Beyoncè’s daughter.)
“Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying
But nine times out of ten, I know you’re trying
So I’m trying to be fair”
A complicated conversation between husband and wife, trying to move on from past hurt. Co-written by Houston rapper Ingrid and long-time Kanye West (genius lunatic) producer Mike Dean, who opened up about the experience of writing the song - but only a little - to Billboard. Like other songs, this piece had been ready for a couple of years before being released, and was the result of artistic people hanging out in a room together and playing around. It’s one of the simplest and most original songs in the album in terms of credits as it doesn’t sample anyone else. Emotionally, it’s the most complex. Hardly a pop or club hit, it’s inclusion on the album can only point to a desire in Beyoncè to maintain a narrative. It’s an awkward, in between spot (tellingly the very first song of the second half of the album), not yet fully healed, but with the fury gone.
“Although I promised that I couldn’t stay
Every promise don’t work out that way.”
For the video, Beyoncè sits at a keyboard and sings her guts out, and the camera pans across the room to signs of a failed relationship. Jay-Z makes his first appearance in the visual album, and the two appear to be reconciling.
The only ballad on the album Sandcastles was co-written between Beyoncè and Vincent Berry II, spoken word artist Malik Yusef and Midian Mathers. It’s Berry playing piano on the track.
Story goes like this: Berry was working with Yusef, and they came up with some lyrics. It was an emotional experience for both of them, particularly Berry, who said the song opened a ‘wound’ for him in relation to a previous relationship. He swore to himself it would be the last song he wrote about a particular ex-girlfriend.
The record was originally intended for R&B singer Teyana Taylor, but Berry felt it needed Beyoncè’s voice. It got to her through word of mouth. Berry got invited to a studio session with Midian Mathers, who cried upon hearing the song. With Midian on board as co-writer, they developed the song a little more. Mothers took the song to BMG and executive Teresa LaBarbera Whites, who discovered and signed Beyoncè and Destiny’s Child to Columbia Records back in the day. Whites tells Mathers about songs she’s scouting for Beyoncè’s record, and Mathers plays her Sandcastles. Teresa cries too.
Berry waits a year before learning his song is on a Beyoncè album. While he waits, he’s homeless, and couch surfers around LA. Now he’s in high demand, of course, and his life has changed dramatically.
Berry says Beyoncè changed the last couple of lines of the song. “And your heart is broken cause I walked away / Show me your scars and I won't walk away,” Beyoncè sang. “And I know I promised that I couldn't stay, baby / [But] every promise don't work out that way.” It’s a more hopeful ending than the one Berry originally penned, which was about ending a relationship, as opposed to having a relationship continue past hardship.
Berry’s journey as a Beyoncè collaborator is the most arbitrary. It also speaks to a bigger idea that a lot of collaborators have expressed: for every song that gets on the album, there are a dozen or more that don’t. Beyoncè’s ability to curate and sew the whole together only comes after opening up the doors very wide for material, even to relative unknowns like Vincent Berry II.
“Now we’re going to hold doors open for a while
Now we can be open for a while
The shortest song on the album also has the shortest credit list. A somber duet between James Blake and Beyoncè, a turning point in the relationship. The penultimate reflection before we rush through to the finale.
Blake talked to Pitchfork about their time together: “Beyoncé came to the studio, and I was sitting at the piano when I met her. She was just lovely. I came up with something to go with an idea she had; I just embellished her melody. I think the idea was to use some of her lyrics, but I didn't realize that—I misunderstood and did something entirely different from what she wanted. But it didn't matter, because she really liked it, and they ended up using [my version]. Blue Ivy was there, too, which was nice. She was singing along to the song, which was a huge compliment, because kids just don't have any pretense whatsoever.”
The video features mothers of police shootings holding pictures of their deceased sons: a powerful shout-out to the Black Lives Matter movement. The song thus takes on a layered meaning. It’s about moving forward as husband and wife, but also how to move forward as a people, long oppressed and wounded.
And indeed, we move forward to the final trilogy of songs on the album, which are the most hopeful and celebratory.
“Imma keep runnin’
cos a winner don’t quit on themselves”
Favourite song in a long time. A rock gospel anthem about overcoming hardship, Freedom is Lemonade’s calling card. There’s a lot going on lyrically here - I’ll put out a few things about Lamar’s rap in particular. But musically we’re in the world of sampling again. The song nabs from Kaleidoscope’s Let Me Try, Reverend R.C. Crenshaw’s Collection Speech/Unidentified Lining Hymn and the famous Negro spiritual Stewball (credited to Prisoner “22” at Mississippi State Penitentiary).
The video features a handful of admirable black women - artists, athletes and activists, to bring the message home. It’s further articulated in the song’s lyrics. Beyoncè alludes to herself as a force of nature, overcoming both the domestic hurt of infidelity, and the global hurt of racism. Virtuoso Kendrick Lamar expands on the racism note in his rap verse.
"Ten Hail Marys, I meditate for practice
Channel 9 news tell me I'm movin' backwards
Eight blocks left, death is around the corner
Seven misleadin' statements 'bout my persona
Six headlights wavin' in my direction
Five-O askin' me what's in my possession
Yeah, I keep runnin', jump in the aqueducts
Fire hydrants and hazardous
Smoke alarms on the back of us
But mama don't cry for me, ride for me
Try for me, live for me
Breathe for me, sing for me
Honestly guidin' me
I could be more than I gotta be
Stole from me, lied to me, nation hypocrisy
Code on me, drive on me
Wicked, my spirit inspired me
Like yeah, open correctional gates in higher desert
Yeah, open our mind as we cast away oppression
Yeah, open the streets and watch our beliefs
And when they carve me name inside the concrete
I pray it forever reads
Just to untangle this a little bit (stay with me), he’s counting down from ten to five in the first five lines, then switches up to shortening the syllables of his lyrics a little bit with each line, giving the whole thing a forward, urgent momentum. But more than that, he’s colliding a mishmash of references here that has the density of an exploding star: FOX 9 (Channel Nine) white anchors have criticised Lamar in the past for his ‘divisive’ lyrics, there are six headlights on a police car, the reference to Hail Mary and the lines that reference his mother are probable shout-outs to 2PAC, High Desert is a prison in California, and the name on the ‘concrete’ is his tombstone.
Both on the audio and visual album, we get the explanation for why the album is called ‘Lemonade’, when we cut to Hattie White (Jay-Z’s grandmother), at her ninetieth birthday party:
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade”
And so the album is ultimately about creating something hopeful out of something awful. The final two songs present a kind of coda to this idea.
“With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became a remedy”
This jubilant ballad ends the visual album (Formation is presented as an epilogue, post-credits), and so this is the musical equivalent of ‘they lived happily ever after’. Beyoncè and Jay-Z ride into a sunset on a billion dollar pony.
Diplo gets back into the groove here - and once again it’s easy to hear him once you know he’s there. The brass line is sampled from Outkast’s Spottieottiedopaliscious. Apart from that, the list of writing credits is huge, featuring a range of singer songwriters who are no strangers to featuring on a range of different popular artists song credits. Once again, there’s little said publicly about how this song came together, but we can only presume it followed the same semi-ninja creative orgy that other collaborations went through.
A power anthem released as a single just before Lemonade as part of Black History month, Formation has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement and contemporary race relations. The song’s co-writing credits go to Asheton Hogan, Mike WiLL Made It, Swae Lee and Beyoncè, but there are additional appearances from Messy Mya, a popular YouTube artist. Messy Mya was tragically murdered in New Orleans in 2010, and his question “What happened in New Orleans?” begins Formation’s video, and is a pointed and direct question about the systematic oppression of African Americans.
The lyrics affirm and celebrate black culture: “I like my baby heir baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”; while also continuing to point to her incredible success as an entrepreneur: “I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay / You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay / I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” Her final line, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper”, points to her letting her success speak for itself. In a tight, four minute package, Beyoncè managed to make the world talk about her as a political artist. She shone a huge, international spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement. She fuelled discussion a day after dropping the sing when she appeared at the SuperBowl and marched across the field with an army of black female dancers, resplendent in outfits that alluded to the Black Panther movement. On America’s most watched television event of the year, she put the Black Lives Matter movement front and centre.
Also, just for fun, a line that people have puzzled over is “I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag” - but fans have noted that the baseball bat in Hold Up is branded ‘Hot Sauce’.