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Beyoncé's superpower: Keeping us guessing as she takes charge of her narrative

Beyonce and the ladies of “Lemonade”
Beyonce and the women of “Lemonade”
(Packwood Entertainment)

Last time Beyoncé played the Rose Bowl, it was with her husband, Jay Z, as part of a tour awash in rumors that the couple was breaking up.

Were they really still “Drunk in Love”? The answer seemed to be yes.

When Beyoncé returns to the sold-out Pasadena stadium as a solo act this weekend, she does so knowing her relationship with her rap mogul spouse will once again be front and center.

Why? Because she put it there.

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The singer’s new album, “Lemonade,” is the expertly crafted diary of a woman grappling with her husband’s infidelity. It’s left to the listener to decide whether the painful journey is biographical or a provocative play on nonstop rumors about the state of music’s royal couple.

Beyoncé’s game is to keep you guessing, and it’s a strategy that’s worked.

She’s dominated the charts for 18 years — an eternity in pop music — selling more than 15 million solo albums in the U.S. alone. In its first week after debuting on the subscription service Tidal, co-owned by Jay Z, Beyonce and other music artists, “Lemonade” generated more than 115 million streams and 1.2 million new users for the service. “Lemonade” also landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making it Beyonce’s sixth album to do so. 

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For the record

11:05 p.m., May 13:  An earlier version of this post misstated iTunes sales for “Lemonade” as more than 828,000 in its first three days. It moved 653,000 units on various outlets in its first five days.

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Beyond her artistic and commercial triumphs, Beyonce has become a culture-defining presence who transcends her music. While wave after wave of pop sensations have risen, crested and washed up in her wake, success has given Beyoncé the freedom to make her career her own. Now 34, she’s evolved from a teen managed by her father in the girl group Destiny’s Child to a woman who knows how to manipulate the system that created her in the first place.

In an era when many other female pop stars don’t seem to have much say over their destiny, “Lemonade” speaks to Beyoncé's power. It’s set off countless conversations about race, feminism, marital fidelity and beauty. The HBO companion film released in tandem with “Lemonade” — and streamed 11 million times on Tidal — offers a new way into the album, a political and cultural take on the struggles of black women. “Life gave me lemons,” says Jay Z’s grandmother on the album and in the film, “and I made lemonade.”

Armed with a voice that seems to get better with time, and moves no performer has been able to duplicate, Beyoncé has mastered the art of confusion, delivering global pop culture moments that can be interpreted in a thousand different ways.

When she appeared in a sexy Black Panther-inspired outfit at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, it was just after she had released a video for the single “Formation,” with images that referenced Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement. The response? Some labeled her anti-police and called for a Beyoncé boycott; others found #BlackGirlMagic empowerment in her performance. “Saturday Night Live” called it “the day Beyoncé turned black.”

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Find in “Lemonade” what you want, and if that means getting closer to Beyoncé, that’s here too. The album is a peek — or the illusion of a peek — into the life of pop’s most image-conscious star, the rare celebrity who has avoided the impulse to overshare on social media.

No need to give it away for free on Twitter when you can control and even monetize your supposed secrets on an album.

Control, it turns out, is Beyoncé's superpower. Two years after the leak of that hotel surveillance video showing her sister Solange attacking Jay Z — a rare breach of privacy in the pop star’s real life — “Lemonade” is Beyoncé wresting back the narrative. A bigger and better version of life behind the scenes.

Let others take the classic singer-songwriter route, alone on a stage, strumming a guitar, telling you about the genesis of a song that bares all. Yes, her tone is confessional, her delivery wrought, her lyrics so specific they do everything but say, “And that cheating dog is Jay Z.” But Bey unplugged just isn’t her style.

“Lemonade’s” songwriting credits include dozens of people (mostly men, by the way), and the list of names is impressive: Diplo, Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, the Weeknd. But Beyoncé is clearly running the show, whether onstage with dozens of dancers (“OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation”) or in the studio asserting her ever-evolving voice.

Beyoncé is a master of the art of confusion, delivering global pop culture moments that can be interpreted in about a thousand different ways.
Lorraine Ali

So many female artists work in a system that pairs them with superstar male producers who often engineer and control their ascent. When Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande sing about heartache and redemption, those lyrics are frequently the product of a well-oiled hitmaking machine comprised of songwriters and producers who have shaped and guided the young artists’ careers from their days as Disney and Nickelodeon stars.

Rare is the woman in pop music who enters the game with control over her own career — artistically or in business and money matters — and there aren’t many other genres that champion female voices today.

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The lopsided balance of power is at least one reason why singer Kesha Rose Sebert’s fight to be freed from her contract with superstar producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald hit such a nerve among high-profile female artists and on social media, via the #FreeKesha! hashtag.

Beyonce has learned how to fight back. Remember when she was lambasted for lip-syncing the national anthem at the last presidential inauguration ceremony? Her answer was to call a news conference and sing the anthem a cappella in front of reporters. She blew them away. Gone was the insinuation that Beyoncé can’t sing without Auto-Tune or a backing track. She won, again.

Beyoncé owns what she sings, regardless of whether she is or isn’t the songwriter, which is why “Lemonade” is so persuasively intimate.

“It ain’t right. Especially comin’ up after midnight. I smell your secrets, and I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless,” she sings in “Hold Up.” “Can’t you see there’s no other man above you? What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you.”

In another confusing twist, Beyonce seems to forgive her husband by the album’s end. Jay Z has said he’s proud of what she’s done on “Lemonade,” and he even showed up onstage the opening night of her “Formation” tour in Miami (he was reportedly booed by her fans).

Saturday at the Rose Bowl, as still more rumors swirl about their marriage being in peril, those lucky or flush enough to be one of the 60,000 in the audience — tickets were reselling for as much as $2,600 apiece — will become part of the Beyoncé zeitgeist, but no closer to knowing The Truth, or whether the woman on the album is the same woman we see onstage. As Beyoncé has taught us, though, the guessing game often proves just as compelling.

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Hey, L.A., what does black girl magic mean to you? BeyoncéLemonade got us talking about black girl magic. Theres been a lot of social chatter on the subject, but what do the women of L.A. have to say about slaying all day? #SlayLA

Lemonade has got everyone talking about #blackgirlmagic. There have been a lot of cultural critiques and essays. But what do the women of LA have to say about it?  We want to hear from you!

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On Twitter: @LorraineAli


UPDATES:

10:42 a.m., May 14: This story was updated with additional sales figures for “Lemonade.”

7:20 p.m., May 13: This story was updated with additional sales figures for “Lemonade.”

This story was originally published at 8 a.m., May 13.

 


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