The two biggest music stories of the year happened just two days apart last month: Prince died, and Beyoncé came alive like never before.
Of course, it was unfortunate timing on Queen Bey’s part that the greatest album and bravest artistic achievement of her career, “Lemonade,” landed April 23, just two days after Prince’s passing. The voracious marketing campaign behind the album had started in early February at the Super Bowl and culminated with an HBO special on the day of release. She couldn’t exactly ring up the record executives and say, “Let’s hold off a week” — even if two of those execs are herself and the husband who is skewered and smoked like a roast pig on the album.
In its five-star review of “Lemonade,” Rolling Stone put a positive spin on Beyoncé’s opus coming right on the heels of Prince’s passing: “It’s a welcome reminder that giants still walk among us.”
And now here comes Beyoncé with her most gigantic production to date, the Formation Tour, which lands Monday at TCF Bank Stadium in Prince’s hometown. Her timing is perfect in this case.
Forget any overall comparisons of the two iconic singers; that’d be silly. But there’s one resemblance worth exploring: “Lemonade” is Bey’s “Purple Rain.” It’s her big moment. It’s an album that engrosses from start to finish. There’s not one filler track on it. There are songs that make you blush, think, ache, writhe and marvel. There’s even a film counterpart that stands up on its own artistic merit.
First aired by HBO and since streamed 11 million times on Tidal, the movie version of “Lemonade” is officially billed as a “visual album.” Our first glimpse of it came right before the Super Bowl, when the footage for the record’s gritty closing track, “Formation,” hit the Web like wildfire, showing an underwater New Orleans and over-excessive police.
That was our warning shot, our first clue the former teen pop star was clearly up to something bigger and bolder than “Crazy in Love.” Then came the Super Bowl performance of “Formation” with a Black Panthers-looking dance troupe, when Coldplay suddenly became the halftime benchwarmer this year.
“Saturday Night Live” brilliantly spoofed the shocked reaction to the “Formation” rollout with a mock horror-movie trailer that declared it “the day we learned Beyoncé is black.” A police union in Miami took it far more seriously, calling for a boycott of officers working her concert — a reaction largely due to another scene in the visual album that shows the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin holding up photos of their sons, two of whom were killed during run-ins with police.
Then came the real shocker. Turns out the racial issues of “Formation” were just scratching the surface of what Bey is coming out from under on “Lemonade.”
Dirt off her shoulder
The album’s most talked-about theme is actually infidelity. It’s all over the record like spilled red wine on a white carpet, starting with the splashy opening line: “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath.” Video scenes of Bey smashing up cars with a baseball bat — now the subject of another funny spoof on “Ellen” — plus a litany of explicit lyrics all seem to point to real-life strife in her marriage to rap mogul Jay Z.
Another example of Bey going off in the songs: “I smell your secrets, and I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless / How did it come down to this, going through your call list?” Also: “This is your final warning / You know I give you life / If you try this [bleep] again you’re gonna lose your wife.”
If you surf the Web at least once a month or aren’t living on the International Space Station, chances are you’ve seen or heard something about what is now the most talked-about marriage in America. Gossip sites have been ablaze with Bey-Jay tidbits and marital examinations since the day after “Lemonade” went public.
Some of the most heavily trafficked reports have been over “Becky with the good hair,” the supposed other woman referenced in one of “Lemonade’s” most riveting songs, “Sorry.” Much has even been written about who isn’t the alleged Becky (Rachael Ray deserves an award for this year’s Most Gracious Innocent Bystander). And now there are rumors that all the rumors aren’t even real rumors, and instead they’re all part of an elaborate publicity stunt that Beyoncé dreamed up to play off the plague of modern tabloid culture — or maybe just to sell records.
For her part, Beyoncé is keeping mum. It’s not even clear if her marriage is still intact. Her husband shows up toward the end of the visual album in a few sweet scenes that find him embracing his wife and playing with their daughter. No baseball bats are in sight, just forgiveness for a weapon. A Rolling Stone cover or story or maybe even an Oprah TV special will probably tell us what’s what in the end.
Whatever the true story of “Lemonade” is, the truth won’t lessen the impact of this record. If Beyoncé’s own struggles aren’t entirely real, they’re all too real for other women.
The album particularly seems to be about the strength of African-American women, whether they’re grieving mothers, estranged wives, survivors of segregation or victims of modern injustice. It quotes Malcolm X saying, “The most disrespected person in American is the black woman.” It also features a speech by Beyoncé’s own grandmother from her 90th birthday, when she said, “Life gave me lemons, but I made lemonade.”
No matter what, Beyoncé gave us a landmark album in “Lemonade.” Musically, it actually bears a closer likeness to Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” than “Purple Rain” in the way it tackles a grab bag of social woes over a wide range of styles. Like “Purple Rain,” though, this is the one she’s going to be most remembered for.