The Queen is back.
Surprise album releases are now so common it's almost hard to remember that they were once unthinkable, but it only two years ago that Beyoncé first shocked the world with the out-of-nowhere release of her self-titled album. Beyonce's overnight arrival was so improbable, so impossible, that it hadn't even occurred to anyone to say it couldn't be done because it also hadn't occurred to anyone to do it. But the album's success, the way it brought together an increasingly fractured digital world, proved it's a strategy perfectly evolved to fit an age where stories, memes, and music suddenly explode from nowhere like fireworks. Traditional album release rollouts now feel like bringing a flashlight to the 4th of July and expecting anyone to notice.
Since Beyoncé shifted the tectonic plates of the music industry in 2013, surprise album releases have become routine, expected. Of course, Kendrick just dropped a surprise untitled album, of course, Dr. Dre's Compton arrived with minimal warning. Why wouldn't they? It's why Drake's announcement of a firm album release date for Views From the 6 now feels like a bit of a throwback. In 2016, the most shocking album release would be one where physical albums arrive in stores on a previously announced date.
So when Beyoncé unleashed Lemonade upon the world over the weekend, immediately following her HBO special, we all saw it coming. The accompanying videos, the TIDAL exclusivity, Twitter losing its goddamn mind, the Super Bowl performance we all assumed was promo for an album she refused to admit even existed, it's the script she wrote, and she nailed the blockbuster sequel.
In many ways, the 1 Listen review is yet another one of Beyoncé's children, an attempt to capture the immediate fervor surrounding a new release. This will be a gut reaction listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing. Just stream of consciousness reactions that try to capture the moment. We'll be back later with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once we've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here.
And with that, let's join the hive...
1. "Pray You Catch Me"
Just a few notes in and pop diva Beyoncé is nowhere to be found. This is as stripped down as it gets. Just piano notes and stacked vocals, the sound of someone exhaling. Before I even pressed play Twitter told me this album was about dishonesty and unfaithfulness, presumably Bey and Jay's marriage, and here we go. And now we've switched over to a gospel organ, everything's echoing like it was recorded in a cathedral. Hypnotizing. Ends with a string concerto, it's hard to believe that much sonic ground got covered in four minutes. To quote the woman herself, goddamn goddamn.
2. "Hold Up"
Oh shit, is this an Enya sample? If it's not an Enya sample it's close to it. I've never been so simultaneously proud and ashamed of my musical knowledge. I...don't know how to describe this. It's like, if a dancehall jam was playing through the broken speakers of a merry-go-round that Beyoncé's riding - in the best way possible. And now she's angry, going through phones. I guess no matter how rich Jay is, he can't afford a separate line and phone for his affairs (allegedly). Oh shit, she's doing this raspy talk-rap thing with call backs to "Bonnie & Clyde." The lack of production here is astounding, two tracks in and this album's as minimal as I've ever heard her - it only makes her words that much more powerful. Does Soulja Boy get a writing credit for that "hop up out of bed" line? He should. And if Soulja Boy does get writing credit for that line, that means he could win a GRAMMY for a Beyoncé album. The universe is a beautiful place sometimes.
3. "Don’t Hurt Yourself" ft. Jack White
Live drums, dirty, we even hear the squeaks of the hi-hat that would normally get edited out. The first real head-nodder of the album, energy's picking up. A lot of vocal stabs and layers from Beyonce. WHEWWWWWW...... Distortion on the vocals? Beyonce is not fucking around. This is some of that baseball bat to your car window music. Malcolm X mention, unapologetic blackness. And the chorus explodes into this punk rock vibe, very Jack White-ish. Holy...shit. This is a real piece of music that exists? Forget another level, Bey's on another planet right now. What happened to her? If she did indeed get cheated on, it's created a monster. Beyoncé's been many things, but she's never truly given so few fucks. It hurts to not be able to hit rewind on this one.
The most hip-hop-ish beat we've heard so far, but that's not saying much. Other than the stuttering hi-hats it's far from your usual banger beat. If I write that this sounds like something Rihanna wrote is the Hive going to drag me across the internets? Fuck it, it does. This is one of those songs that if you isolate all the parts you wouldn't think it'd work, but when you put it all together the pieces fit. Those are the best songs. This little beat switch up here at the end...I'm floating. Levitate, levitate, levitate. Oh, this is that "Becky with the good hair" song people are flipping out over. She's now the second most notable Becky in hip-hop history, of course right behind the Becky from "Baby Got Back."
5. "6 Inch" ft. The Weeknd
I can't be the only one who sees a title like "6 Inch" and thinks it's a small penis reference, right? Kind of a new school "Minute Man" thing. Nope, wrong. We'll just ignore what that says about me. The Weeknd coming through, he has a tendency to erase people on their own song, Bey's not about to let that go down on her watch. Is that a Portishead sample? WHY AREN'T THERE MORE PORTISHEAD SAMPLES??? And another beat switch up? I don't think there's been a typical verse, hook, chorus song structure yet. The lack of repetition is incredible. Every 10 seconds is a new instrument, a new layer. Jesus....was Beyoncé always capable of making this kind of music but was holding back? That broken "come back" whispering at the end is incredible.
6. "Daddy Lessons"
Opens with a live, New Orleans-style jazz vibe, horns winding around each other. Now we've got an acoustic guitar-driven song, it's almost country. If I've learned anything from this album so far it's that this song will sound completely different in about 30 seconds. Trying to wrap my head around this, it's like if Johnny Cash started writing Beyoncé albums. There's more gunplay on this song than "Cartoon & Cereal," apparently Jay's lucky he didn't get a rifle pressed to the side of his Yankee fitted. And now it winds back to the jazz, this is so Southern I don't know if a non-Southerner like myself can truly understand it.
7. "Love Drought"
And now we're in R&B synth territory, just a 180-degree switch from the last song. This feels like the kind of song a lot of women are going to play while driving away from their (ex) boyfriend's house, the sight of all of his clothes burning on the front lawn slowly fading into the rear view. Tempo-wise this is a "catch your breath" song after the breathtaking quality of the last six. Who could ever say no to Beyoncé? She could tell me to go fight Mike Tyson and I'd be like, "Well, guess I'm going to die at the hands of Mike Tyson then."
I wouldn't be surprised if it switches up, but this is the most traditional song yet. A real power ballad, heavy chords, she's back to her power vocals. Let's just take a moment to appreciate how unbelievably versatile her voice is. She can do gritty raps and big multi-octave ballads like this, who else has that range? And now she's not afraid to let her voice get ugly for a moment if that's what it takes to convey real emotion. And....
9. "Forward" ft. James Blake
Dammit, I didn't even realize the next song started until I heard James Blake's voice. Great album sequencing, interesting choice to break this up into separate songs. Don't sleep on James Blake, he makes some incredible stuff. Computer glitch break down at the end there, very trippy.
10. "Freedom" ft. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick...Lamar...is on...a Beyoncé album. Let that sink in for a moment. Other than Jay, who's the last rapper-rapper to appear on a Beyoncé album? I'm hard-pressed to think of someone. Is this...The Doors? I need to look up the sample list after this. Goddamn, when this chorus hits its huge, like a 12-piece soul band just absolutely jamming. I need to hear Beyoncé do this live before I die. Stripped down clapping on the second verse, I'm telling you, the first time she does this in front of an audience of thousands the Earth is going to tilt on its axis. And here comes the K. Dot verse. Sorry, I had to stop typing there for a second so I could really listen. Kept expecting him to shift to another gear and it didn't quite happen. Honestly, that felt slightly disappointing, although in fairness my expectations were through the roof. And here comes Kendrick again with some angry vocals. This is one I'm going to have to listen to again.
11. "All Night"
Clip in the beginning, I believe that's her Grandma? Jay's grandma? Something like that. Now its this echoing guitar line, she's hitting this flow that's perfect. Jesus, that chorus sounds like pure power and joy. And with the horns playing too? It's not complicated, but it's excellent. It's excellent because it's not complicated. Don't those horns remind you of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"? Love is the greatest weapon to overcome pain, sounds like a line that could apply to a relationship or a social struggle.
What else is there to say about "Formation" that hasn't already been said? Although it is interesting to hear it in the context of the album, lines like "When I rock his Roc necklace" suddenly have this darker undercurrent that no one could have picked up before hearing this entire album. I got hot sauce on my keyboard.
Like To Pimp a Butterfly, it only takes one listen to know you're dealing with a potential game-changer, an album other artists won't even bother trying to copy because they simply couldn't. This is an album that sits squarely at the center of American life, particularly Black life, while also managing to be deeply personal. And if that seems like it's a lot to get from just one run through the album, you're right. But sometimes an album doesn't need to be repeated for you to know there's greatness in it; you can feel the sun's brightness even when your eyes are closed. Right now there's Beyoncé, and then there's everyone else. No surprise there.