After a fair few years in the pop wilderness, Beyonce and Rihanna returned this year with surprise albums that took a swerve from the shallow nature of the Top 40. ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Anti’ are two very different albums with two very different agendas but both see their superstar auteurs fighting to be shown as the strong, empowered women they are rather than being defined by their suffering.
When Beyoncé dropped her self-titled fifth album on iTunes without any announcement or warning, something changed in pop music. If the biggest pop star in the world – and there is no denying that Beyoncé is the biggest pop star in the world, even if you don’t want to believe it – could conceal news like this, then anything was possible. Less became more. Beyoncé’s stripped down electronica production felt like a darker reflection of Madonna’s Ray of Light and a sharp move away from the dazzling R&B pop sheen of Bey’s past. Songs like ‘Yoncé,’ ‘Partition’ and ‘Rocket’ saw Beyoncé embrace her body, and her sexuality, like never before. This was an album dripping in sex and lined up nicely with the un-touchable image that Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z had cultivated over the decade they’d been together. They were still, ahem, crazy in love.
But in the three years since Beyoncé dropped, something has clearly changed. The Beyoncé we see in Lemonade – her newly released, already world-mauling sixth studio album – is not the Beyoncé who, three years ago, was dancing on a beach with Jay Z. Lemonade continues where Beyoncé left us in terms of the stripped-down R&B sonic stylings (even with occasional dips into country and rock) but kickstarts a whole new narrative for pop’s resident Queen Bee. Lemonade is clearly an album which touches on political issues- with ‘Freedom’ and ‘Formation’ being notable nods to the Black Lives Matter movement – but for the album’s sprawling 60 minute ‘film’ the dominant narrative is that of a woman discovering (and the reacting to) her husband’s infidelity. It would be reasonable to assume the man is Jay Z, the wife he cheated on Beyoncé. The other woman, this ‘Becky with the good hair’? In the context of Lemonade, these details are irrelevant, a moot point.
The only thing that matters in Lemonade is Beyoncé herself; she is one woman who will not be defined by her husband or his actions. It seems – in pop music especially – it’s all too easy to frame women who have been cheated on in role of a victim. It is, after all, usually given a syrupy Sia-penned ballad and a heartfelt music video with lots of emotional close-ups and tears. Beyoncé, in Lemonade, simply refuses to adopt such a position. Instead she, quite literally, takes a baseball bat and uses her anger in the explosive ‘Hold Up.’ She struts down the street smashing windows, defacing fire hydrants and, at one point, whips her hair in the face of a fiery explosion. It’s the very personification of zero fucks given. Even in the album’s most tender cut, ‘Sandcastles,’ Beyoncé’s vocals simply drip with anger and regret – her voice noticeably cracked after talking about scratching her husband’s face from all their pictures together. It’s raw, it’s emotional but Beyoncé is never weak – she refuses to be a victim.
Lemonade is an incredibly empowering album, for both its political messages and the way it empowers Beyoncé herself. This album has depicted Bey as an untouchable force who is seemingly impervious. In Lemonade, Beyoncé bears her teeth for the first time in years. Hurt, anger and bitter resentment muddy the waters of Lemonade but Beyoncé emerges a woman triumphant; her experiences haven’t made her a victim – sure they’ve hurt – they’ve just made her stronger.
Echoing the words of Jay Z’s ninety year-old grandmother heard at the end of ‘Freedom’, ‘I had my ups and downs but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up…I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.’ Lemonade is not the sound of a pop star; it is the sound of a woman who has nothing to lose. It deconstructs brand Beyoncé down to one, irrefutable fact; Beyonce Gisele Knowles-Carter is as human as the rest of us, just as susceptible to the same pain and struggles, and she’s all the stronger for it.
Before mentioning Rihanna it’s important to state one important fact; Rihanna and Beyoncé are two very different pop-stars. They always have been. Beyoncé’s always been seen as a prestige act, her road to success more or less a given as soon as those ‘Crazy In Love’ horns first blasted through the radio. Rihanna’s trip to the top was a little different than Bey’s, given the fact that she wasn’t a member of Destiny’s Child. ‘Umbrella’ was a main turning point in Ri’s career – turning into the kind of act that demands the use of just their first name – but the point where everything changed – and I do mean everything – was the very public aftermath that played out after her assault by Chris Brown. It’s a particularly dark chapter in pop, and I won’t dwell on it, but one that significant in its concerted effort to steer Rihanna away from victimisation. Rated R was by far Rihanna’s darkest LP, from the taut subject matter to the hazy album cover. Slap-bang in the middle of that record was the reggae jam ‘Rude Boy,’ which hit number one in America and reminded everyone that Rihanna was more than just a victim of domestic abuse. It was the elephant in the room that seemed to linger over her guitar-heavy comeback ‘Russian Roulette’ that summer that was quickly steered away from with the release of ‘Rude Boy,’ her biggest banger in years. In fact, in the albums and singles following Rated R, there are hardly any ballads. Instead, there’s a focus on Rihanna The Party Animal, Rihanna the bad bitch of pop.
ANTi comes after a unprecedented year-long gap of Rihanna radio silence, after three buzz singles didn’t gain as much momentum as they deserved. It’s her most coherent album since Rated R, and sees Rihanna coming out fighting. She’s still not dwelling on the past. In some ways, ANTi accomplished exactly what Lemonade has done; taking its main auteur and deconstructing their public image bit by bit, showcasing a human side we might not have seen before. The back-end of the record, in particular, is the most human Rihanna has sounded since the rawness of ‘Stay’ (which was released in the wake of her short-lived reunion with Brown). Her bewitching cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ for me serves as the 6-minute long backbone of ANTi. ‘I can just hear them now, how could you let us down?’ she husks over a psychedelic beat. The song obviously muses over a rotten relationship and how hard it is to cut yourself off from what you know and love: ’Feel like a brand new person / but you made the same old mistakes / stop before it’s too late.’ In ‘Higher,’ Rihanna’s voice is husky and raw it visibly cracks, much like Bey’s in ‘Sandcastles.’ It might be about Chris Brown, it might not. It – much like ‘Becky with the good hair’ – doesn’t matter. The focus is not on the relationship – it’s on Rihanna. Showcasing her as human as the rest of us when it comes to love. The bad bitch we saw twerk with Drake on ‘Work’ and shoot up a strip club in ‘Needed Me’ is still there, but that’s just her pop star persona; in ANTi, Rihanna wants to take us a bit deeper than that. She sheds the layers and barriers she’s built up over the years throughout ANTi and ends the album empowered as a woman and laid bare to us as a human.
Beyoncé and Rihanna are two of our most recognisable – and successful – pop auteurs and Lemonade and ANTi see them in the best shape they’ve been in for years. Lemonade’s stripped down sonics, deeply personal narrative arc and its searing political message have rightly seen it acclaimed (and, let’s be honest, it’s probably the best album of the past 20 years) and sees Beyoncé, the previously untouchable goddess of modern pop, gratefully brought back down to earth. ANTi is not quite as successful as Lemonade – you can hear the shackles of Beyoncé dragging behind it like the chains of Marley’s ghost – but it’s an unfiltered and un-fazed Rihanna at her rawest. And ultimately these two women, no matter the suffering or heartache they’ve experienced, are empowered through the simplest and perhaps greatest thing about them; they’re just as human as the rest of us.