Beyoncé’s greatest strength, it seems to me, is that (in contrast to her husband Jay-Z) she’s not a natural or intuitive talent, but rather a dedicated and ambitious professional whose craft has been carefully and conscientiously developed over the course of years of stardom. She has studied pop divadom like some people study law or medicine, and the result is that she has brought her artistry uniquely under her own conscious control.
For years she has deployed that artistry exclusively in the service of an appealingly sassy and marketable mixture of sensual pleasure and female empowerment. Now, however, in the catalytic presence of the real pain caused by her husband’s infidelities, she has turned it towards deeper and darker ends, with startling results. Where another woman might have sought a divorce, or marital counseling, Beyoncé decided instead to make art and make money. I can’t help but be reminded of the fairy tale of the princess whose tears were diamonds and pearls; when Beyoncé cries, her tears are pop music masterpieces.
My initial obsession on her new album is with the song “Hold Up” –perhaps because of my love for music with paradoxical affect. On the surface a sunny, reggae-dancehall inspired trifle, the true nature of the song is made clear by the accompanying video. In it, Beyoncé dances through the streets, a big smile on her face, and a baseball bat in her hand, as explosions, tidal waves, and other images of destruction follow in her wake. It should seem incongruous, but in fact it makes perfect sense: Beyoncé is so furious she’s gone all the way through anger and out on the other side. It’s a state I’ve personally experienced only once in life, and never before seen depicted in art, a state of anger so intense it becomes almost pleasurable. It’s almost an expression of joy to know yourself to be so alive, so human, so open-hearted and vulnerable to the world that you can feel pain and betrayal that deeply.
Not everyone shouts and rages in the throes of anger. There is such a thing as becoming dangerously quiet, or dangerously polite. In this song, Beyoncé becomes dangerously sweet. Over the top of a feather-light backing track, an unusual warmth creeps into her contralto, as she coos the hook of the song to her wayward lover: “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you.” It’s a shockingly human sound for a woman who normally projects an aura of untouchable divinity. Her affection for her husband is on full display in the core of the song, even as she exploits dancehall conventions and affects a light patois in order to let the hurt and rage spill out around the sides.
The title of the album, “Lemonade,” comes from her husband’s grandmother’s quotation of a popular aphorism about dealing with adversity, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It’s an apt metaphor for this song in particular, as a bitter and sour reality is transformed by a little sugar into the sweetest of treats. Still, I would advise Jay-Z not to be lulled into complacency. Even on an album where, in other songs, Beyoncé fantasizes about wearing her rival’s skin like a dress, and drops a not-so-subtle hint about her willingness to shoot a philandering man, this song is the real warning. A shining example of the contemporary “front street” style of songwriting (where private business is aired “on Front Street”), it forgoes metaphor and allusion in favor of a direct message sung to a beat: Don’t treat me like this (or else).