For a few decades, the full-length album was the peak of commercial value and artistic expression in pop music. It wasn’t always that way; before that, 45 RPM singles had their heyday, and 78s before that. It’s also different today; à la carte downloads and on-demand streaming have devalued the album unit in the marketplace.
And yet, when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade — her sixth LP and second “visual album” — the BeyHive flocked to HBO for the premiere, then to TIDAL for the stream, and then to iTunes to buy digital copies. Beyoncé albums have value. They’re not cheap to make (the credits for the visual album would rival a feature film’s) so they’re not cheap to buy — $17.99 on TIDAL or iTunes. But everyone expects Lemonade to be her sixth No. 1 album when the latest Billboard charts drop. In an era where so many refuse to pay for music, people will still pay for Beyoncé.
So what do they get for the money? An impeccable visual aesthetic, massive pop singles poised for radio domination, and a carefully curated peek inside the world of Beyoncé. The experience is all-encompassing, from Lemonade to the tour to the Super Bowl to the HBO documentaries… Beyoncé has raised the bar for what an album can be, and what a pop star can sell. And in the process, she’s paradoxically employed an army of experienced creative professionals to create what many believe to be a “deeply personal” record. Only the biggest pop stars could ever pull this off, but she does so flawlessly.
In an era where so many refuse to pay for music, people will still pay for Beyoncé.
Much will be said about Beyoncé’s particular brand of capitalist feminism, her representations of strong, black women, and the narrative of Jay Z’s infidelity. We don’t really know or care if/how Jay Z cheated on her; as a man, I personally don’t really have much perspective to offer on her feminism; and we’ve already written about her displays of black excellence through the lens of Lemonade closer “Formation.”
But musically, Lemonade is a tour de force, with Beyoncé playing maestro to some of music’s most talented writers and producers. She re-appropriates black music from Led Zeppelin (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and Diplo (“All Night”), adds some Texas bamma swag to country licks (“Daddy Lessons”), and sprinkles a SpottieOttieDopaliscious dash of Outkast on top (again). Lyrically, she’s at her most angry, vulgar, and intense. She cusses more times than we’ve ever heard before. It’s first half is mostly salt, with Bey looking for fights (“Pray You Catch Me”), embracing jealous rage (“Hold Up”) and straight up lashing out (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”). The synthetic robot soul of “Sorry” is a standout, even without the incendiary “Betta call Becky with the good hair” line, and hopefully serves as a breakout moment for rising stars Wynter Gordon and Melo-X, the latter of which scored Lemonade. The James Blake collabo “Forward” might be the most beautiful — and fleeting — moment on the whole album, its brevity a sacrifice to the flow of an admittedly well-sequenced album. “Freedom” is an instant anthem, with a soaring hook tailor-made for an ad sync and a Kendrick Lamar feature bound to bowl over the blogosphere.
Lemonade the album is going to be a monster success, but how many people will hear it before they see it? You may have heard the music first divorced from its visual complement, but many saw it as she intended, paired with strong visuals, serious poetry, and lots of Beyoncé directing her rage, passion, and tenderness directly at the camera. The first watch is intense — regardless of how much truth it holds, its power is undeniable. More than anything, Lemonade the visual album wants you to feel.
A frame from the “Hold Up” section of “Lemonade”
It also looks INCREDIBLE. Whether shot completely digitally or not, much of it just feels cinematic. In every single one of her myriad looks, Beyoncé is a vision, A Goddess among mere mortals. Even when she’s playing the crazy jealous lady, smashing cars with her bat Hot Sauce, she looks like she’s stomping down a runway. A haute couture tantrum.
The fountain of cultural references that Beyoncé pulls from is vast. She recruited Somali-British poet Warsan Shire for interstitial segues between songs, and brought in Serena Williams to twerk while she delivered lines like “I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up/ Suck on my balls, pause, I had enough.” She tapped a woman Mardi Gras Indian. She references Afromysterics and the Yoruba-influenced art of Laolu Senbanjo. She features the various creative styles of black hair (which is not limited to women), and rocks crimps, braids, and baby hairs. There’s a full spectrum of skin tones—even albino and vitiligo.
To wrangle all of this, she employs a support team of A-listers and up-and-comers, including co-director Khalil Joseph (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar), and OG music video directors Mark Romanek and Jonas Åkerlund. She had Hollywood production designers Hannah Beachler (Creed) and Ethan Tobman (Room) building sets. But most telling is the wealth of commercial experience she tapped, including commercial shooters such as Par Ekberg and Santiago Gonzalez, and production designer JC Molina. If at times, Lemonade looked like it could have been a Coke or an H&M commercial, it’s probably because the person shooting it shot commercials for Coke and H&M. No matter how personal she makes it feel, it’s impossible to ignore that Beyoncé is selling you something: herself.
It’s a testament to her creative director Todd Tourso that all the different styles, colors and textures coalesce into a coherent vision. It was a monumental task: she changes color palettes, formats, even aspect ratios, mid-song. It’s all over the place. But somehow, it’s coherent.
A snippet of the visuals for “Sorry” from Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”
Beyoncé wants to (and does) make art, for sure. But Beyoncé is not just an artist or even just a human — she’s a business. Fashion and music have long been bedfellows, but these days, they’re business partners. And as artists diversify the way they leverage their brand to make art and product, Beyoncé is right there on the vanguard: she just launched a new athletic wear line (Ivy Park), already has a collaborative line with her mom (House of Deréon), and of course there’s always shop.beyonce.com. To put it succinctly: If Jay Z is a Business, man, then Beyoncé is a Brand, bitch.
In 2016, brands sponsor art. It used to make us cringe, and maybe it still does, but it’s now the new paradigm. By partnering with a Korean tech giant, Jay Z and Rihanna went platinum before their latest albums even came out. Drake signed a deal with Apple Music that paid for the viral smash “Hotling Bling” video as well as his upcoming tour. Kanye West got Adidas to rent out Madison Square Garden — ostensibly to debut Yeezy Season 3, but also to debut The Life of Pablo to the world.
Bey the brand may be big enough at this point to have enough capital to bet on herself, and finance her tour, clearing a larger share of its profits in return. Whatever the terms of the deal she has with Sony, her influence is certainly large enough to have quite the strong position at the negotiating table. She creates a high-value product that people are willing to pay for. She makes the tabloid gossip machine work for her. With the possible exception of the leaked security footage from that elevator, everything we now see from Beyoncé is what she wants us to see. It’s brilliant, calculating, and ultimately, a bit hollow by its very nature. It in no way diminishes the connection her work elicits from her fans; in fact, that strictly controlled facade enables her to speak to more universal aspects of womanhood, while also being specifically about the black woman’s experience.
So what does it mean for music? Could there be a parallel to the film industry, which increasingly looks to be skewing towards pushing out mid-market films in favor of a few big bankable blockbusters each year, with a sea of no-budget indies just begging to be noticed? Or can the average artist produce visual albums and get the same kind of returns the Beyoncé gets? All you really need to know is that Beyoncé — the brand, the artist, the woman — is singular. Plenty of people write songs about unfaithful lovers, but only Beyoncé has them in the video afterwards, kissing her feet. That’s all you really need to know.