Beyoncé fans: Up until now, you and my kind—white, male, getting older, owners of multiple homemade Fugazi T-shirts in high school—have mostly avoided each other. I'm here to tell you that we're coming. You'll start spotting us at the football stadiums you fill up to see her perform. Awkwardly dancing. Arguing with our friends about which half of Lemonade is better, and giving each half a cute nickname like "the revenge half" and the "redemption half."
It'll be weird, but please be kind.
Just put yourselves in our situation for a second. We have of course known what Beyoncé is for some time now. The horns to "Crazy in Love" are branded onto our eardrums just like every other man, woman and child in America. But before last week, we were aware of her like most people are aware of calculus. It's there, it's important to many people, but we were comfortable living our own lives without knowing delving too deep.
Then Lemonade comes out, and somehow we get roped in. I'm still unclear as to how it happened. Maybe we caught it on HBO. Maybe we heard Jack White was somehow involved. Maybe we tuned in to the Super Bowl halftime show in February, thinking we were going to see Coldplay, and then instantly forgot about them once Beyoncé showed up and unleashed her single "Formation" onto the world.
It's not like being an innovator in her field is anything new to the H-town native, but for years the Beyhive and those outside of it have existed. Even her 2013 self-titled release, while a critical and commercial bombshell (not to mention the invention of the "surprise release"), was mainly an event for you, her already loyal fans.
Lemonade quickly broke down those barriers. It takes the ingredients that make Beyoncé the powerhouse she already is, but presents her as more vulnerable, political, personal and flawed than anyone has ever seen her before. Keep in mind that over the past 18 years, Beyoncé lived her life in front of the entire world while simultaneously keeping its gaze into her personal life at arm's length. In examining what makes Beyoncé who she is, her talent for strictly controlling her own image is just as important as her talent as a performer.
With Lemonade, she burns it all down. She unapologetically embraces her personal and ancestral history while facing down the burdens of injustice that come with it. She even lays low her own husband, he of 99 problems fame. "What's worse, looking jealous or crazy?/ Or like being walked all over lately?/ I'd rather be crazy," she sings in the fantastic "Hold Up." Somehow, by the end of the album, she's left standing in the ashes, having regained possession of her identity and her family.
Can you blame us for being as floored as we are? Beyoncé has sung at two presidential inaugurations. Coming down from that stratosphere in such a publicly raw way caught everyone off guard, especially those of us who were content to observe from afar. Beyoncé and her A-list of collaborators, it turns out, know how to speak to us record-store snobs just as much as to you.
You need proof? "Hold Up"—and this is all true—started out as a tweet from Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig that tweaked the chorus of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps," which was then added to a verse written by Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty. These are all names we drop to prove that we're keyed in to the latest, coolest music. And Beyoncé just turned them all into a Beyoncé song.
For years, we've taken for granted that good music and popular music were mutually exclusive. I'm not sure why. We tend to have a weird aversion to music that invokes ... what's the word? Joy?
Trailblazers and risk takers, we told ourselves, toiled away underappreciated because all but we few had the palates sophisticated enough to detect them. Pop music, we'd say, is formulaic and predictable. If anyone tells you they predicted Lemonade, they're lying. The truth—and it's hard for people like me to admit it—is that pop is the genre in which the most politically relevant, innovative and unpredictable music of the past few years has been produced. The upheaval caused by streaming forces artists to prove to us that they're still worth buying. That leaves the artists who can afford to take the biggest creative risk able to sell the most records.
No surprise, but Lemonade is only on sale on iTunes or through the upscale Tidal streaming service. But here we are, dearest Beyhive, forking over our money and openly praising Beyoncé right along with you. Music that good can force people to break all kinds of habits.