No outsider can ever know what goes on inside a marriage. The two people in it are sometimes driving half-blind.
It follows that, unless one of the people in the CCTV footage of the lift at New York’s Standard Hotel one night in May 2014 tells us, we can’t know for sure what caused Solange Knowles – as 2016 proved, a sensational artist in her own right – to aim a series of furious kicks at her rapper-mogul brother-in-law after the Met Gala. In its infinite capacity for judgment, the internet decided that Jay Z had been cheating on Bey.
And so it was that the most server-melting of 2014 gossip memes became the most scrutinised album of 2016: Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It was a jaw-dropping audiovisual work, now nominated for nine Grammy awards, in which the theme of infidelity knocked boots with a host of vivid tropes: of the resilience and resourcefulness of generations of black women, of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the daughters. On this second sumptuously produced visual album, in which 12 songs are stitched together in a filmic tableau modelled on the Kübler-Ross model of grief, Beyoncé once again pulled the rug out from under the idea of what a pop R&B record could be. This former girl band member quoted Malcolm X and declared her affection for her “Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”.
“Suck on my balls,” she sang on Sorry, “I’ve had enough.” The visceral and unflinching words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire became a framing device, as Beyoncé told of ripping pages out of the holy book “to plug [her] menses”. You didn’t get this from Joanne, or Anti, or The Life of Pablo. Music, you could strongly argue, had long since lost its capacity to shock – until Beyoncé disrupted the US Super Bowl half-time slot with a 50th anniversary tribute to the Black Panthers. It’s hard to think of a pop star who has travelled further from bumping and grinding out Top 40 fodder, to this politicised avenging angel.
Along the way, Beyoncé gorged on a stunning array of sonic styles and imagery, pulling in mothers, actors, chefs, dancers, models with vitiligo and tennis players for filmic cameos, and sampling everything from Alan Lomax field recordings, to Led Zeppelin. The magnificent Hold Up is, basically, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song Maps, turned into a dancehall tune by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and Diplo. (The bit in the video where Beyoncé looks into a CCTV camera before smashing it with a baseball bat is especially delectable.)
Sure, the Weeknd was on board for a token mid-album dip into sexy-as-usual (6 Inch, a song of solidarity with working women, whatever their profession). And, in such illustrious company, Sandcastles sounded like a fairly standard piano ballad, until Beyoncé’s voice lets rip. But she seemed to spend an entire song pretty much impersonating Jack White, putting the rhythm and blues back into R&B on the White-assisted Don’t Hurt Yourself.
A New Orleans-inflected country and western tune draws parallels between Beyoncé’s father – a taskmaster who put his daughters through song-and-dance boot camps, who fathered a child outside his marriage, and who was sacked as Beyoncé’s manager in 2011 – and husband. “When trouble comes to town and men like me come around / Oh my daddy said shoot,” advises Beyoncé’s “Daddy” in Daddy Lessons. So Beyoncé shot: at Knowles Sr, at Jay Z; at middle America, and at a series of police forces unable to still their own trigger fingers when confronted with young black male suspects.
Then there are those who check the ample credits on this album, and accuse Beyoncé of having little part in it. We are all in thrall to the idea of the creator-auteur, who can write, sing, play and produce every note of their music, like Prince. Most pop isn’t like that, and neither is a lot of other art for that matter: from the Renaissance into the modern day, artists have routines employed others to colour in their drapery; designers get others do the fine stitching. Yes, it does trouble the mind that the kernel of Formation was thought up by Swae Lee of hip hop duo Rae Sremmurd. Producer Mike Will thought it sounded like “some woman empowerment shit”, and fleshed it out. Is it still an instant classic? It is.
Cynics would have us believe that Lemonade is all a stunt. Despite all those raised middle fingers, Beyoncé has not taken Blue Ivy and set off to live “a good life” elsewhere. Jay Z and Beyoncé – reason conspiracy theorists – must have agreed to cash in on an album in which a woman scorned smashes cars up with a baseball bat and the Knowles-Carters check the cheddar like food inspectors, as a Jay Z line once had it. This is not outside the realms of possibility. Something had to happen to get rapper’s rapper Jay Z to stroke Beyoncé’s calf on Sandcastles.
Is every word on Lemonade 100% truth? Does it need to be? If listeners cannot cope with a little light fictionalisation in the medium of the pop song, with some degree of verisimilitude in their cultural products, then they are going to have trouble consuming art of any kind. Because even if Lemonade is all an elaborate hoax, dreamed up by a pair of cackling Illuminati, it is still nothing but magnificent.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010