With an introduction like "Formation" sent ahead of the rest of the album, shooting up a flare and demanding we all get woke, it wouldn't have been a surprise if Lemonade had been a deeper conversation with the Beyhive — and our larger culture — on Black Lives Matter, equality, the systematic oppression of minorities in America, or any number of other issues that Bey managed to touch on in that single song. Instead, Beyoncé truly surprised by delivering the most personal narrative she's ever shared with the world. The album is her story of discovering infidelity, wrestling with it, and ultimately forgiving it. It's the most cohesive album of her career, as close to a concept as she'll ever come, except for "6 Inch," a song right in the middle Lemonade penned by The Weeknd (and clearly the spiritual sister to "In The Night") that explores his favorite topics: women who grind and the darkest hours of the day. Overall, Lemonade is a huge progression forward in storytelling from Beyoncé's 2013 album, because she's created an actual story using visual elements this time, rather than a series of vignettes matched up to songs. While there may be standalone singles — "6 Inch" seems poised for R & B radio — for the most part, she's created an album you want to listen to in full. In the era of singles, she's created an album experience. At the same time, it feels like she's taking on the musical styles of her collaborators more than usual. Perhaps it's to devote herself to being as lyrically honest as possible. Perhaps she's curating the picks carefully. It's hard to say. The album's first two tracks, "Pray You Catch Me" and "Hold Up," strongly reflect the style of their respective writers and co-producers, James Blake and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. The songs are virtually inseparable from the musical style and work of those two men (with Diplo dropping some sirens in on the latter to make his own signature heard). "Hold Up," though, is a complicated song to pull apart, because it's layered over and over in indie rock influences from the 2000s. In addition to Koenig and Diplo co-producing it with Bey, you've got lyrics from the debauched poet laureate Father John Misty (previously of Fleet Foxes) and a lifting of of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lyric from "Maps" ("they don't love you like I love you"). Before you can even get done unpacking how deep she rolls in the scene, Beyoncé is on to the next song with the man indie rock reveres: Jack White. Their collaboration on "Don't Hurt Yourself" is full of grandiose statements, ultimatums ("I fucks with you / until I realized I'm just too much for you" and "you're gonna lose your wife"), and is absolutely drenched in White's favorite studio tricks of vocal distortion and heavy, driving drums. Oh yeah, they managed to layer on a sample of Led Zeppelin, too, just in case you weren't sure Bey could rock. On tour, this will be where the all-girl band comes out to dust all the side chicks.
The next two tracks, "Sorry" and "Daddy Lessons," (with a dash of "6 Inch" in-between, weirdly) are likely to be the most discussed on the album. "Sorry" will be quoted endlessly on Twitter for the line, "He better call Becky with the good hair." It's also that party song where Bey cuts loose and sings about putting herself first, which is always a massive hit with her fans. "Daddy Lessons" is what some are referring to as her "country" song and it's the only track she gives herself sole producer credit on. It shouldn't be a revelation that she's experienced that space musically: she's a Texas Bama, a Houston girl. Around there, country music is something you pick up by osmosis, because you hear it in the mall, you see it at the livestock show and rodeo, and you blast it out of your car when you drive down a little dirt road at night under the stars. It's as much a part of Beyoncé's history as the Geto Boys and the Third Ward. Using country music to revisit her own father's infidelity is the ultimate in accessing her past to inform the present.
"Love Drought" marks the changing of the tide, where Beyoncé begins exploring forgiveness. At first, it's an intellectual exercise, but by the time she gets to "Sand Castles" (it can't be a coincidence that her sister Solange also has a song with this title), she has gone completely raw with emotion. In the visual aspect, it's the first time we see her husband, Jay Z, and that's plenty emotional. But even without that image, this is the rawest song on the album, in which she Bey lets her always-perfect voice crack with emotion.
We get a small, hymn-like interlude in "Forward," which finds Bey singing along with James Blake before the banger drops. "Freedom," with Kendrick Lamar, comes in with a powerhouse solo vocal with Bey singings to us, "Freedom, freedom where are you? / Because I need freedom, too," and then dropping the really real lyric: "Imma keep running cause a winner don't quit on themselves." This is not a moment of girl power, it's the moment where her narrative stops being entirely about the shambles of her marriage and she turns her eyes to bigger issues. We get the impression that getting through this personal crisis is something she's turned into a tool for empowerment, through the use of phrases like "bulletproof" and "I break chains." This is the bridge between a personal narrative and the activist Bey of "Formation," the album's final track. Between the two lies "All Night," a love song dedicated to adult love. Beyoncé decides to place her money on true love, which she heralds endlessly in the song. It's a willful reopening of her heart, embracing not only romance, but family. It may be many people's least favorite, because they don't want her to stay with Jay if he cheated. It's hard to like as much as the "middle fingers in the air" Bey in "Sorry." It's also your reminder that this is her journey and her story. You're just the spectator along for the artistic recounting of decisions she's already made. At this point, her visual album fades into credits, with the beats of "Formation" playing in the background. With all this information laid on us in Lemonade, "Okay ladies, now let's get in formation / Show me you got some coordination" gains a second layer of meaning. Correction: The lyric in "Hold Up" was originally written as "fucked with you." It has been corrected here to say "fucks with you." Additionally, references to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs sample in "Hold Up" have been clarified to reflect that it was a lyric and not music sample.