When news that Queen Beyoncé had dropped a surprise album reached my ears, I reacted like any good Bey worshipper would: with a giddy mixture of jumping around and exclaiming “YASSS!” However, I was not in the least surprised. Although I was never searching specifically for this information, I had been hearing for months via social media and friends that Beyoncé was going to release another album soon. I had also heard that she was working on a feature-length film of some kind. What I failed to grasp was that the film was the album and that she would be unleashing the full wrath of a woman scorned, a spoken-word poem so beautiful it deserves a Pulitzer, a visually astonishing cinematographic medley, a ritual guide to womanhood, and, ultimately, a tale of healing and forgiveness. By not anticipating it, I wasn’t underestimating Beyoncé; I simply wasn’t aware that any human could pull of such a monolithic feat of artistry.
In order for a release to be a true surprise, the world must have no prior knowledge or suspicion of arrival, sort of like her last album, which shocked the world and demolished the rulebooks when she dropped it unannounced on December 13, 2013. By the way, it is a rule of thumb in the music industry to never drop an album in the month of December, because the holiday distracts the intended audience from even noticing. But, as we’ve all come to learn, Beyoncé is Bey and Bey can do whatever she wants, and with each subsequent release her depth as a visionary artist grows.
Other bands have released surprise albums, but never on this scale – or with this level of visual acrobatics.
What dropped on HBO for a 24-hour period and on Tidal exclusively was nothing short of stupefying – both in scope and in message. The breathtaking 57-minute film begins with the line “You can taste the dishonesty/It’s all over your breath,” and instantly you know you’re in for a roller coaster of a viewing experience. Your mind instantly floods with questions like, “Did HOV really do that?” As Lemonade seamlessly moves from scene to scene and song to song, the narrative swells with a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll song set to a blazing backdrop as Bey snarls, “I am the dragon breathing fire/Beautiful man I’m the lion/Beautiful man I know you’re lying/I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying”. In another, she co-opts the country genre for an emotional look at her relationship with her father – all while wearing a stunning antebellum gown. The film itself is so layered with double-entendres and hidden meanings (even though her lyrics explicitly call out the crimes committed against her), that it took two viewings to notice that the bat she brandishes in Hold Up bears the name “Hot Sauce” – a hidden reference to a popular line from her Formation single.
Other bands have released surprise albums, but never on this scale – or with this level of visual acrobatics. Radiohead dropped its eighth studio album King of Limbs a day early, while other acts like David Bowie, Justin Timberlake, and The Pixies followed similar attempts at surprise releases. However, these came with public announcements and without any of the intrigue that Beyoncé has provoked with her machinations. The closest anyone has come to reaching Bey-level status on a surprise release was when Drake tweeted a link to iTunes on February 12, 2015 that led directly to the mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Although Drake’s mixtape would go on to become one of the best and most popular releases of 2015, it paled in comparison to Beyoncé’s efforts with Lemonade. Clearly, she is in a league of her own, and her drive and vision are unparalleled. No one else even comes close.
The work that went into Lemonade is simply staggering. Not only did major recording artists like Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Soulja Boy, James Blake, Diplo, and Jack White snag writing credits on the album, but producers/beatmakers ran the gamut from Mike WiLL Made-It to boots. Performers like Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd also appeared with her on tracks, while Serena Williams made a juicy cameo during the sarcasm-laced song Sorry. Additionally, directors like Khalil Joseph (m.a.a.d city), Melina Matsoukas (Formation), Dikayl Rimmasch (Bang Bang), and many others helped bring the Queen’s visual story to life. Add to that production elements like makeup, hair, back-up dancers, and more, and you’re confronted with a work of art so sprawling that it, like its star, cannot be contained.
The only surprising thing about the Lemonade release is just how phenomenal an artistic, musical, and personal accomplishment it really is.
Given the scope of Lemonade, it’s impossible to produce a true surprise album. While Beyoncé’s team is notoriously tight-lipped, the fact that a new album calls for coordination of social media and streaming accounts meant that internet sleuths had hard facts at their disposal. Members of the Beyhive were dying to break what would inevitably be an enormous story should the evidence point to an attempt at another surprise release. Obviously, the evidence was all over the internet. For instance, a Twitter vigilante tracked down the fact that Beyoncé had registered five new songs with ASCAP back in September 2015, arguably the start of the impending album rumors. In September, she also Instagrammed a photo of a glass of (presumably) lemonade and another of herself happily sniffing a ripe lemon. Meanwhile, Billboard noticed that 13 unlisted videos had been added to her Vevo account. All signs seemed to point to the new release, but no one knew the actual date.
At this point – especially since Bey has shattered the rules for releases beyond recognition – we should no longer deem any album a “surprise”. In this information age, a secret can scarcely be kept when every social-media account makes changes so public and obvious. The only realm of mystery that remains is actual concrete release dates, but in the era of instantaneous access who even needs those? While I may be of the mind that “surprise albums” are no longer an appropriately named marketing tool – since the surprise element doesn’t actually exist anymore – I do acknowledge that I will never be fully ready for the thundering stampede of emotions and slack-faced awe that washes over me when I see Beyoncé’s new, amazing work. The only surprising thing about the Lemonade release is just how phenomenal an artistic, musical, and personal accomplishment it really is.