On 'Beyoncé', the visual album that Beyoncé Beyoncéd in 2013, there's a track called Superpower. With additional vocals from Frank Ocean, she strides towards the camera in a whirl of riot imagery gradually flanked by people: men, women, black, white. As the title suggests, it's a song about power. And more than any other track, it marks the starting point for her latest album, 'Lemonade' - her most politically charged to date.
Yes, it's a concept album about a cheating husband, with Beyoncé taking us through the various stages of her emotions: denial, anger, apathy, through to redemption. "You can taste the dishonesty, it's all over your breath" are the first lyrics we hear on opener Pray You Catch Me; by the album's conclusion, she's found forgiveness and revels in the love of her family ("so we're gonna heal, we're gonna start again"). It's cinematic storytelling, raw, painful and honest.
But more than this, 'Lemonade' is an album about power. Female power. Sexual power. Black power. The power of motherhood and family. The power to overcome adversity. The album title may suggest fizzy pop, but it's a powerful statement: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
As before, this is a visual album, one with stunning cinematography and powerful imagery. But this time the music and visuals are far more tightly integrated in what is essentially a modern, cinematic musical. Beyoncé takes us on a tour of black history and culture, using a cheating husband as a springboard to racial politics. And that's not to mention the various quotes, samples and guests that emphasise the focus on strong black women, from the voiceover reciting poetry from British-Somali Warsan Shire, to Nina Simone references, Serena Williams dancing and a speech from Malcom X. She flits between plantation costumes, tribal war paint, hoodies and glamour. On Hold Up, she struts in a flowing orange dress, every inch the superstar, before she's handed a baseball bat and destroys everything around her. It's campy and fun, but it plays with stereotypes and our expectations of black women. She's dangerous. She's sexy. She's powerful. Not since Michael Jackson has a popstar encapsulated these elements so effectively.
The music follows suit in its combination of black genres, a hodgepodge of reggae, bluesy swing, soul and modern R&B all underpinned by sharp hip-hop production. The sinister opening notes of Pray You Catch Me set a mournful tone as we begin to delve into the dark, bitter and twisted psyche of a woman scorned. If Hold Up fuels the fire of pain, then Don't Hurt Yourself is ablaze with anger as she growls over Led Zeppelin samples accompanied by Jack White. Sorry and 6 Inch are the most current songs on the album, the former reminiscent of Jealous from the last album, the latter featuring chart staple The Weeknd.
It's in these darker moments that Beyoncé revels, both musically and visually. As the storytelling leads towards reconciliation, it's almost disappointing to leave this disturbing intrigue and end up, through the pastiche of Daddy Lessons, to a happier, wholesome place. Freedom marks a musical climax with its mix of genres and a breathtaking guest rap from Kendrick Lamar. It's antithesis is Sandcastles - a simple piano ballad with an impossibly raw vocal.
Without the visuals, though, the album loses much of its impact. This is not a purely sonic experience. You won't find any obvious singles here - it's a layered, complex and at times abrasive piece of work that demands to be watched and heard in its complete form. Lead single Formation may stand out for its explicit call to arms, but it doesn't quite fit with the conceptual narrative.
But then, this is Beyoncé. She's already released some of the best singles of the 21st century. With 'Lemonade' she's truly transcended pop music: a visual album that should be considered a total work of art and further cements her status as one of the most important musicians of our time. It's a statement of power and a powerful statement.
* Don't Hurt Yourself
Listen: 'LEMONADE' is out now (on Tidal at least).