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Beyoncé Is 'At The Height Of Her Powers' In 'Lemonade'


This is FRESH AIR. Beyonce's new album, "Lemonade," which debuted as an hour-long video on HBO, instantly became a pop culture flashpoint. It was met with acclaim and a lot of speculation that it was a concept album about the state of her marriage to Jay Z. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has some thoughts about "Lemonade's" music and the interpretations of it.


BEYONCE, MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) We built sand castles that washed away. I made you cry when I walked away. And although I promised that I could stay, baby, every promise don't work out that way. Oh, baby, every promise don't work out that way.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The first thing to be said about "Lemonade" is that it's a very impressive pop album, and I'm using pop in its broadest sense. As one of the most scrutinized stars on the planet, Beyonce embraces that widespread attention by engaging with equally widespread range of genres. She demonstrates an interest in so much - the blues, hip-hop, middle-of-the-road ballads and rock - and country music. "Daddy Lessons" is a tune so country the Dixie Chicks recently covered it during their reunion tour. "Daddy Lessons" signifies as a generational marker, the music of her father's era brought up to date by Beyonce's nostalgic gaze upon it.


BEYONCE: (Singing) With his gun and his head held high, he told me not to cry. Oh, my daddy said, shoot. Oh, my daddy said, shoot. With his right hand on his rifle, he swore it on the Bible. And my daddy said shoot. Oh, my daddy said shoot. He held me in his arms and he told me to be strong. He told me when he's gone, here's what you do. When trouble comes to town and men like me come around, oh, my daddy said, shoot. Oh, my daddy said, shoot.

TUCKER: "Lemonade" is a fascinating example of the tension between theme and execution. Both the album and the hour-long film made to illustrate it seek to extol the potency of black womanhood in the roles of mother, daughter, wife, lover and, above all, artist. Beyonce uses samples from sources as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Isaac Hayes and Andy Williams to create her best effects. Take the 1963 Andy Williams song as her wittiest example. Written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, it is by far the most interesting hit Williams ever released. It was a rare instance in which Williams, a bland, easy listening hit-maker, had his music darkened by producer Robert Mersey to create a ballad of brooding heartbreak.


ANDY WILLIAMS, MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) I guess there's no use in hanging around. Guess I'll get dressed and do the town. I'll find some crowded avenue, though it will be empty without you. Can't get used to losing you. No matter what I try to do, going to live my whole life through loving you. Called up some girl I used to know -

TUCKER: Now listen to the way Beyonce seized upon the hook of that song to bend and reshape it into a far more barbed hook of complicated anger. She makes it the sound of someone who's just tumbled to the fact that she's been betrayed, has been played for a fool - but not for very much longer.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Hold up, they don't love you like I love you. Slow down, they don't love you like I love you. Back up, they don't love you like I love you. Step down, they don't love you like I love you. Can't you see there's no other man above you? What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you. Hold up, they don't love you like I love you. Hold on, they don't love you like I love you. Something don't feel because it ain't right -

TUCKER: It's one thing to say that "Lemonade" contains some songs about unfaithfulness and a relationship fracturing. It's another to treat this work like the pages of a celebrity fan magazine and reduce the album to a barely coded biography of Beyonce and Jay Z. The reductive part of the massive acclaim "Lemonade" has received is inevitable in social media culture, but that doesn't mean that we have to limit Beyonce's achievement to that. Instead of merely setting one's life to music, appreciate the invention and imagination here.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Found the truth beneath your lies, and true love never has to hide. I'll trade your broken wings for mine. I've seen your scars and kissed your crimes. So many people that I know, they're just trying to touch you, kiss up and rub up and feel up, kiss up and rub up and feel up on you. Give you some time to prove that I can trust you again. I'm going to kiss up and rub up and feel up, kiss up and rub up and feel up on you all night long. Sweet love all night long. Sweet love all night long.

TUCKER: The way Beyonce's voice ascends to a heavenly falsetto on the phrase all night long in the chorus there, it's beautiful, gorgeous. As a collection of songs from a musician working at the height of her powers, "Lemonade" reminds us how special it is for a pop star to unite a truly mass audience with integrity and ambition, to reach out to as many people as possible while making exactly the kind of music she wants to make.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large at Yahoo TV. He reviewed Beyonce's new album, "Lemonade." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with Larry Wilmore, the host of "The Nightly Show," talking about his performance Saturday at the White House Correspondents' Dinner or our interview with John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin looking back on the LA punk rock scene - check out our podcast, where you'll find those and many other interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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