I play a game with my friends: Which is a better song, “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson? The question has its roots in a scene in John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine. The producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin are sitting in a room listening to “Maps.” They like the song, sure, but they’re frustrated that the song never comes to a clear, explosive chorus. So they decide to make a song that has the same atmosphere and also the makings of a pop hit. The result was “Since U Been Gone,” which became the most popular song of the first decade of the 2000s. It was the type of insidious song that rockists like to complain about. And, to be sure, “Maps” is all over that song, especially in the guitar solo. This story is echoed in Ezra Koenig’s story about the genesis of the new song “Hold Up” that he produced and wrote with Beyoncé. A bit of “Maps” was stuck in his head, too. Like nearly every track on Beyoncé’s new album, Lemonade, it came to be through the grab-bag pop process. What’s different is that Lemonade resists those explosive choruses that Dr. Luke and Max Martin were after, thus reshaping what’s possible for such a mainstream artist.
Is it possible that the most hyped pop performer of our era could be avant-garde? We talk about the avant-garde as though it can only spring from the mind of a lone, starving artist, and we say that the opposite of the craftsman’s approach goes into the creation of a pop album. But Lemonade feels like an avant-garde document. It’s impressionistic, it builds on filmic history, fuses documentary with fiction, and uses polyphonic voices to tell a broad story. In his 2014 book Freedom Time, the Yale English professor Anthony Reed details the long, unsteady history between blackness and ideas of the avant-garde. He contends that, in general, the work of black artists is burdened with the expectation to be literal, political, and representative, whereas white artists have the freedom to break away from such constrictions altogether. Even after Lemonade, Beyoncé’s most experimental project, large audiences immediately searched for statements that the album made about her real life, seeking out living analogues for “Becky with the good hair” among Jay Z’s rumored mistresses. There’s a special anxiety of influence that comes along with being a young creative of color who wants to make strange works of art.
There are ways to complicate this narrative, and the history of class analysis in art certainly can help. Beyoncé is certainly not the first person to make art that comments on race and identity in a way that feels expansive and humorous. In his book, Reed identifies Douglas Kearney and Claudia Rankine as two poets whose “graphic images and allusions to mass culture draw attention to the dimensionless moment of expression in a period during which commodified black expression is celebrated even as black lives remain precarious.” That is to say, artists shouldn’t have to compromise on making political commentary in order to make work that expands the idea of what art can be.
Lemonade does the work of complicating that narrative, most prominently by recruiting others to contribute to her album. The Somali-British poet Warsan Shire adapted her poetry for Beyoncé to recite in the interstices between songs on Lemonade, and her words import so much of what is cool about contemporary poetry: shifting perspectives, imagistic storytelling, and magical thinking. She puts striking words in Beyoncé’s mouth that might not have heard from the singer otherwise. For example, consider Shire’s commentary on seeking absolution after betrayal, delivered with Beyoncé’s coldest affect: “I plugged my menses with pages from the holy book.” It’s a gross, knotty image—the specialty of a contemporary poet, not a pop star. But Beyoncé’s execution of Shire’s words is crucial. She’s an impeccable actress; like Ingrid Bergman, her face doesn’t give anything away, pushing a viewer to work to read her emotions.