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With ‘Lemonade,’ Beyonce shows she’s an artist in control

April 25, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Pop sensation Beyonce’s sixth studio album, “Lemonade,” made an immediate impact with its innovative release as a visual album on HBO and through the music streaming service Tidal. For more on the groundbreaking work, which addresses both her personal troubles and the larger history of black women, Jeffrey Brown talks to Salamishah Tillet of the University of Pennsylvania.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Anticipation had been building all week, and it took just a matter of hours over the weekend for Beyonce to create a major phenomenon surrounding her latest work.

Titled “Lemonade,” it’s her sixth solo album, but it has charted new territory for how she’s created a different a path in a digital era of music streaming and downloading.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a surprise record, released at first exclusively on the music streaming service Tidal, but also as a so-called visual album, a one-hour film shown on HBO.

Once again, the pop music phenomenon Beyonce is doing things her own way, and this time with songs and stories that address both personal troubles and the larger history of black women.

Joining us with more is Salamishah Tillet, a scholar and professor on black women performers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Welcome to you.

So, surprise albums aren’t such a surprise anymore, but Beyonce and “Lemonade” takes it to a whole ‘nother level. Tell us what’s going on. What do you see?

SALAMISHAH TILLET, University of Pennsylvania: Well, I think it’s Beyonce pulling a Beyonce.

And by that, I mean, she is an artist who has — this is her second consecutive visual album that was dropped unexpectedly. I think it’s akin to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” premiere on MTV in 1983, and, of course — and this may be controversial, but to — it’s comparable to Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65, meaning that you have an artist who’s at their peak who is conjuring and converging with the sound technologies and the political demands of the moment.

So, it’s unexpected and it’s a surprise, but only Beyonce could do this in this magnificent of a fashion.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is it fair to see it as part of these big changes and a kind of continuing a battle of changes of artists, music labels, streaming services, to figure out sort of who’s in control?

SALAMISHAH TILLET: Definitely.

In many ways, I think it’s Beyonce both aligning herself with the new technologies, whether it’s Tidal came about as a way of artists being able to control the content and benefit from the new streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.

And so Beyonce is responding to that, but also she’s innovating that, right? So, it’s not simply, like, releasing music on a music streaming service, but she’s also innovating the artistic form of what we think of as an album, what we think of a music video.

So it’s a convergence of an artist’s reinventing her sound and herself and using and benefiting from new technologies, and also making a statement to the music industry that artists can continue to benefit from, not simply be exploited by these changing tides.

JEFFREY BROWN: And grabbing — so a statement to the industry and then gabbing a lot of quick attention from consumers with a message that in this case got a lot of attention because it went to some perhaps marital infidelities with her famous husband, Jay-Z, right, and then to some much larger issues.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: Yes, I think it’s the way in which Beyonce has been able to tightly control her narrative, whether it’s around issues of marital infidelity or simply what she wants to say politically.

And so I think this album is a convergence of those things. But I think it’s a mistake to think about it only as a kind of confessional tale, right? It’s not simple a woman who has been scorned speaking truth to her man or speaking truth to power.

It also is an album that I think exposes another truth about the United States, and it’s re-imagining American history through the performances, through the music and through the visual imagery of black women.

So, it starts in Louisiana plantations, and yet it’s clearly tied to a kind of narrative of racial oppression and gender oppression that Beyonce feels like she can now be a spokesperson for and an activist in a movement such as Black Lives Matter.

So, that’s why you have Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s mothers featured so prominently and poignantly, and Eric Garner’s mother featured so prominently in this video. It’s not only about Beyonce and Jay-Z. It’s about something much deeper and larger.

And I think it’s retelling American history through the voices of those who usually are on the margins. Beyonce recenters them and then allows us to see America differently as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: And very briefly, she’s one of the few artists who can do it this way, right, her own way.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: She’s one of the few artists who can have this kind of platform, but that doesn’t mean that the artist will do that.

So, I think she’s coming from a tradition of political activists who are artists as well. And so I think this is a new Beyonce. We are going to figure out what we do with a pop star who’s gone political. And I think it’s tremendous.

And she features someone like Nina Simone in this. And I think she sees herself as part of that tradition, an heir to that legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Salamishah Tillet, thank you very much.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: Thank you.

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