BY BEN TUTHILL
There’s no reason to parse words: Lemonade is probably the best visual pop album I’ve ever seen. So often these things are episodic mishmashes with at best a matching introduction and conclusion to force a coherent narrative. Lemonade, by contrast, incorporates persistent visual themes building on themselves in parallel arcs that culminate in a moving step outside Beyoncé‘s dream world and into the everyday life of family films and photographs. Melina Matsoukas’s Southern Black gentry tableaus carry over from Formation to arguably even more gorgeous effect here. The flooded hotel room set over Pray You Catch Me is as beautiful as it is moving. The vaginal red-out over Don’t Hurt Yourself is about as good as pop video feminism gets. The whole thing feels like a better version of a Terrence Malick movie with all the political joy of Rhythm Nation 1814. It’s a shame that it’s been relegated to the 1% blackhole of Tidal and that nobody without HBOGo access will ever be able to see it.
That exclusivity is an essential part of the Lemonade experience. A VIP Tidal release is the perfect fit for the entertainment object we call Beyoncé Carter Knowles. In an era where self-exposure in all its messy glory is the primary means of celebrity brand-building, Queen Bey stands as maybe the last great 20th-century pop star. She reveals herself the old-fashioned way, through PR clips, manufactured social media posts, and -most importantly- performances. She’s at years behind the times, and it speaks to the remarkable talent of her team’s success that she’s managed to incontrovertibly retain her throne.
Lemonade is the third great Tidal-affiliated pop record of 2016. They make a nice trilogy, but Lemonade stands apart from its siblings’ particular brilliances. ANTI and The Life of Pablo are a new kind of pop record: messy, confessional, unfinished, held together only by the listener’s personal relationship with the artists standing at their centers. It’s unsurprising that the critical response to both records has been for the most part confused – neither record makes sense within a critical rubric that doesn’t include the necessity of getting the artist. Rihanna’s and Kanye’s albums are coherent in the same way that a friend recounting a story of a shared experience is coherent. If you don’t treat the artist as a tangible component of the artwork itself, then albums like ANTI and TLOP are incomprehensible messes.
Lemonade sets itself up to be the same sort of experience. This is the real Beyoncé. This is Beyoncé opening up – about her politics, about her experience, about her relationships. If we didn’t *know* Beyoncé – if we didn’t follow the rumors about her and Jay Z’s marriage – if we didn’t recognize the messy haired baby that keeps running around in a Restoration-era dress – then Lemonade would still be an incredible pop record, but it wouldn’t be the same.
The thing that sets Lemonade apart from ANTI and TLOP is that the Beyoncé we’ve gotten to know over the past twenty years is pretty darn easy to get. Whereas the Kanye and Rihanna we’ve been presented are at least as complicated as your average human, the Beyoncé we know isn’t much more than a slowly evolving assembly of interview platitudes and dance moves. To say that the Beyoncé we’re seeing in Lemonade is the real Beyoncé is as offensive as it is preposterous. We have no idea who the real Beyoncé is. We have no idea who the real Rihanna is either, but at least the Rihanna we’ve been presented is more or less fleshed out. Our Rihanna is a startlingly vulnerable character backed up by numerous IRL accounts. Our Beyoncé is a minimalist construct with a remarkably adept finger on the cultural pulse.
We’re being asked -if not by Team Bey, then by the media-industrial complex of the BeyHive- to treat that construct’s latest masterpiece as a work of self-exposition. No matter that the self-exposition includes confessional poetry written by somebody else – no matter that we know almost nothing about Beyoncé’s personal contribution to her music’s creative process. And no matter that all of this self-exposition came along at just the right time for maximal commercial success. It’s a Clintonian approach to pop-culture marketing. Get raw once it’s become commercially viable. Get political once politics has become an Internet necessity. But always always retain control. If your personal rawness has been precisely tailored to the Internet’s exact preferred brand of rawness, you don’t run too much of a commercial risk.
All of this is to be expected. Lemonade, like every Beyoncé record, is a great commercial achievement. Beyoncé is probably America’s strongest argument against communism – nothing other than capitalism could produce a visual record that hits so many pleasure centers at so many levels. You could say the same thing about her self-titled record, you could say the same about B’Day. Lemonade is just the version of Beyoncé’s capitalist maxing for an Internet whose pleasures include the consumption of socio-political thinkpieces. It features politics. It features feels. It maybe even features the real Beyoncé. But that doesn’t make it any less of an immaculately tailored commercial product. Can you imagine a more 2016 album than Lemonade? Neither could Team Bey. So they gave it to you.