There’s one moment critical to understanding the emotional and cultural heft of Lemonade—Beyoncé’s genre-obliterating blockbuster sixth album—and it arrives at the end of “Freedom,” a storming empowerment anthem that samples a civil-rights-era prison song and features Kendrick Lamar. An elderly woman’s voice cuts in: "I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up,” she says. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
The speech—made by her husband JAY-Z’s grandmother Hattie White on her 90th birthday in 2015—reportedly inspired the concept behind this radical project, which arrived with an accompanying film as well as words by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. Both the album and its visual companion are deeply tied to Beyoncé’s identity and narrative (her womanhood, her blackness, her husband’s infidelity) and make for Beyoncé's most outwardly revealing work to date. The details, of course, are what make it so relatable, what make each song sting. Billed upon its release as a tribute to “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing,” the project is furious, defiant, anguished, vulnerable, experimental, muscular, triumphant, humorous, and brave—a vivid personal statement from the most powerful woman in music, released without warning in a time of public scrutiny and private suffering. It is also astonishingly tough. Through tears, even Beyoncé has to summon her inner Beyoncé, roaring, “I’ma keep running ’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” This panoramic strength–lyrical, vocal, instrumental, and personal–nudged her public image from mere legend to something closer to real-life superhero.
Every second of Lemonade deserves to be studied and celebrated (the self-punishment in “Sorry,” the politics in “Formation,” the creative enhancements from collaborators like James Blake, Robert Plant, and Karen O), but the song that aims the highest musically may be “Don’t Hurt Yourself”—a Zeppelin-sampling psych-rock duet with Jack White. “This is your final warning,” she says in a moment of unnerving calm. “If you try this shit again/You gon' lose your wife.” In support, White offers a word to the wise: “Love God herself.”
Beyoncé saved her most boldly experimental beats for her self-titled fifth album, a mature but still mischievous opus that makes monogamy cool and stability sexy. “Drunk in Love” is soaring, ecstatic, and intimate, an instant wedding-playlist staple; “Partition” has Bey at her flirtiest and most independent. Throw in a feminist motivational speech, on self-love anthem “***Flawless,” and a handful of instantly iconic ad-libs (you’ll never think of the word “surfboard” the same again)—it's a triumph that’s both audacious and effortless.
Beyoncé has designed an album that reflects a dual personality. The first side (I Am…) demonstrates her vulnerability, while the second half exudes attitude and assertiveness. From the first set, “If I Were a Boy” and “Disappear” are acoustic downtempo tunes. On the opposite end, her larger-than-life voice is perfectly suited to the sonic enormity and melodrama of “Halo.” She is one of the few performers who can swiftly shift from a song like “Ave Maria” to the booty-shaking uproar of “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” And her sass and swagger matches the fearsome throb of “Diva.”
"Crazy In Love," the single that all but redefined R&B for that year, was more raucous, more challenging than anything Beyoncé had done in Destiny’s Child. "Baby Boy" successfully grafted her style to that of dancehall king Sean Paul. Splitting the difference between styles, she made plenty of time for ballads. "Dangerously In Love 2” helps keep the album's long legs running.