Beyonce – “Lemonade”
If it’s true that we’re not supposed to remain interested in contemporary, mainstream music after a certain age, then I quit that particular club. I remember, as a student, reading an interview with Dave Gedge of The Wedding Present in which he said most people stop caring about music once they hit 30, and I was horrified. I need not have been, since that particular dystopian vision has not been realised in my life, and neither has it in many of my (ageing) friends.
So including Beyonce’s sixth studio album from 2016 in this list is not, I assure you, a bit of verbal Dad Dancing. It’s not me desperate to appear down with the kids and I’m not including it because “it’s got a good beat”. I remain genuinely interested in most forms of music and am passionately insistent that ‘pop’ music should never be reviewed under a sneering cloud of cultural snobbery. Just because ABBA, to take but one example, have been obsessively, weirdly commodified over the years should not obscure the power a song like “The Winner Takes It All” packs within its formal structure and lyrical content. Kylie Minogue’s output between 2000 and 2003 is supremely innovative (as documented alongside the history of pop itself in the highly idiosyncratic but brilliant Paul Morely book “Words and Music”), and what Billie Eilish is doing right now demands (and receives) the highest critical cultural attention. If this is all trivial to you, you’re possibly reading the wrong blog. Pop music is serious, even when it is not.
Beyonce has always been hugely impressive, and always put stuff out that was better than it needed to be in strictly commercial terms. There’s a remix version of “Independent Women”, for example, on the CD single from her time with Destiny’s Child incorporating a South American, flamenco feel that is so good I usually crave hearing it again even whilst I’m still listening to it. It is pop, dance, RnB providing nourishment so deeply satisfying it feels biological.
When she headlined Glastonbury in 2011 the show was so densely packed with songs, performed with power, grace and energy, backed-up with a mind-boggling array of singers, dancers, musicians and light-show pyrotechnics that it felt like we were witnessing something as big as Elvis in his prime. Maybe it’s the other way around and listening to Presley’s breathtaking concert album “An Afternoon In The Garden” recorded in 1972 feels like a precursor to Beyonce some forty years later.
So when “Lemonade” landed as a concept album exploring the twelve stages of grief that she’d been through in her personal struggles with Jay-Z and his infidelities, I dived straight in. It features all-star collaborations from people such as Kendrick Lamar, James Blake and Jack White and the song cycle it spins through gives the album a concrete “beginning”, “middle” and “end” narrative drive that rewards close listening for its entire duration. Hip-hop, reggae, blues, gospel and funk are all woefully under-represented in my collection but this album re-fired in me a desire to explore further, leading me down the rabbit holes of back catalogues from artists such as Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic and then further back into the work of Otis Reading and Wilson Pickett. Returning to 2016, Beyonce stirs all this (and more) together and delivers a towering work that deserves its place on any list of all-time greatness.
The album also exists as a “visual album” meaning one is able to “watch” it right through. I have yet to do that. I mean, I am 47 for god’s sake; that’s way too old to be messing around with such new-fangled what-have-yous.