A cymbal shimmers as a bouncy reggae riff begins to play, the sound dampened slightly as if heard through water. Sampled from Andy Williams' 1963 gently heartbroken hit Can't Get Used to Losing You, it is a sunny, almost tropical lilt, each note halfway between a strum and a pluck - funky, even playful. It floats around dreamily for a bar or two, before a dancehall air horn blares in the distance and a soft woodblock beat appears: tick-tocking like a patient clock, biding its time.
With another air horn blast and cymbal clash, the instrumental comes into full focus, rising out of the water to become clear and distinct, expanding to fill the soundstage; the rhythm is a crisp staccato, the melody warm and fun. The atmosphere is mellow as a warm bassline fills in the gaps between the drops of sound. Beyoncé begins to croon, softly as if to herself, savouring the vowels, the tune sliding downwards into the lower part of her range. For most of the song her manner is composed, even sweet, her true emotions expressed chiefly through subtle twists in her voice.
Hold up, they don't love you like I love you
Slow down, they don't love you like I love you
Back up, they don't love you like I love you
Step down, they don't love you like I love you
In another life, this chorus was a love song: co-writer Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) lifted most of the lyric from Yeah Yeah Yeah's song Maps. It becomes a little more complicated in this context, however: Beyoncé's love has been betrayed. She rues her lover's blind thoughtlessness as she sings, plaintively:
Can't you see there's no other man above you?
What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you
The carefree backing recedes once more so that the vocals are close, intimate, as she describes her intuition that all is not as it should be with her lover (who, we might as well say at this point, is almost certainly real-life husband Jay Z).
Somethin' don't feel right, because it ain't right
Especially comin' up after midnight
I smell your secret, and I'm not too perfect
To ever feel this worthless
Her tone is measured, even casual - but if you listen closely you might hear her pronounce the consonant at the end of 'midnight' with a quiet fury that speaks volumes. She recognises the old trope of male infidelity - returning home very late carrying the scent of another woman - and decides she has had enough.
One of the most central themes of Lemonade as an album is the way women - a black woman, in this context - are socialised to deal with injustice quietly and discreetly, all the while maintaining a perfect outward demeanour. For her part, Beyoncé has built her career on perfection in all things: the perfect voice, the perfect body, the perfect husband, the perfect daughter. Her song ***Flawless has been her calling card of late, an empowering anthem for her legions of (especially female) fans around the world.
But the expectation of grace and perfection can be oppressive, too, when it stigmatises women for being emotionally assertive and defiant - and while Beyoncé maintains her poise, she is self-assured enough to admit her pain in feeling 'worthless' at her husband's deception. Spiralling elegantly down the melodic scale, she wonders aloud at the dissolution of trust in the relationship, to the point where she feels she has to secretly examine his communications in order to discover the truth. As she scrolls through his recent calls, her pleasant façade drops momentarily as she slips into a more confrontational tone, her words dripping disdain for any woman violating her marriage:
I don't wanna lose my pride
But I'ma fuck me up a bitch
The intimidation here is calculated. She deliberately defies the cliché of the demure, long-suffering wife by threatening to take matters into her own hands by means of physical violence, as a man might do if the situation was reversed.
Beyoncé has long encouraged vibrancy in the bedroom, explicitly expressing love by pleasing her partner sexually. This is the woman who sung the lyric, 'Ladies, if you love your man, show him you the flyest / Grind up on him, girl, show him how you ride it' (Countdown). Indeed, just one album ago the joys of marital sex were front and center in songs like Drunk In Love (featuring Jay Z himself), Blow and Partition. But now:
I know that I kept it sexy, I know I kept it fun
There's something that I'm missing - maybe my head for one
Here she feels, understandably, that her sexual generosity and openness have been taken for granted - and she curses herself for her own naïvety. A twisted but sensual voice curls in the background like the ghost of so many wasted nights.
In the next lines she contemplates the dilemma in which she has been placed: women who suspect their partners of infidelity are often cast as 'jealous' or, in a turn of phrase often reserved cruelly for women, 'crazy'. The social expectations on most women discourage them from speaking out and making a fuss, so most choose to remain silent and submissive. In a cut from her previous album Beyoncé even chastises herself for her own jealousy. But the needle has now swung too far to be ignored: she is being 'walked all over'. She weighs her two options, before deciding firmly: 'I'd rather be crazy'.
The chorus rolls around again, the muffled plinks of the riff coming to the clear foreground again, the very definition of bittersweet as they bounce jauntily from note to note. Beyoncé's words become more meaningful in the context we have gained, hearing her mull over her choices. 'Hold up', she warns - 'they don't love you like I love you'. In other words: stop, before you make the biggest mistake of your life.
As the instrumentation falls behind the softening veil again, Beyoncé lowers her voice conspiratorially, as if letting her partner in on something of a secret. Half singing, half rapping, she asks him dangerously to consider his good fortune:
Let's imagine for a moment
That you never made a name for yourself
Or mastered wealth - they had you labelled as a king
Never made it out the cage, still out there movin' in them streets
Jay Z is a veritable poster-boy for the rags-to-riches black American dream. He grew up selling drugs in public housing complexes in Brooklyn, before his 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt started a chain reaction of prosperity that would see him become both a consummate musician and shrewd businessman, not to mention one of the most commercially successful and well-known artists of all time. But in his soberest moments, even a man who has written copiously of his success with women knows that his sex appeal is conditional. In 2001's Song Cry (tellingly a song in which he regrets previous unfaithfulness), he raps sorrowfully of the way women would treat him before he was famous and then after he became the iconic Jay Z, owner of flashy cars: 'Used to tell they friends I was ugly and wouldn't touch me / Then I showed up in that dubbed-out buggy'.
In a mocking, sing-song tone, Beyoncé invites him to think back to those times, before he was lucky enough to 'have the baddest woman in the game up in your she-ee-eets'. Exploiting what she knows are his real human vulnerabilities, Beyoncé asks, 'Would they be down to ride?' before giving the answer she knows he knows deep down: 'No - they used to lie from ya, lie to ya'. In this way she demonstrates both her willingness to fight dirty as well as her understanding of her husband's deepest fears. But this leads to what might be the most genuinely loving line of the track, a seam of affection gleaming from among the hurt:
But y'all know we were made for each other
So I find you and hold you down
Me sing se
In the last line she affects Jamaican patois, the better to lean into the calypso vibe of the song, as she swings into the breezy chorus for a third time. For this repetition she is joined by deep, faint and breathy male vocals, creating a smooth, buttery feel to the soundscape.
The instrumental sinks backwards, and for the first time Beyoncé shows a flash of her trademark vocal gymnastics, her melody spiralling upwards as she sardonically laments his letting 'this good love go to waste'. And as if to remind him of exactly what has forfeited, the song switches up briefly as if interpolating another track: a snappy, uptempo snare, the purest essence of twerk; Beyoncé spits punchy snippets to illustrate once more her sexual adventurousness, even making an off-the-cuff word association joke as the dancehall air horn honks its approval in the background:
I always keep the top tier, five star
Backseat lovin' in the car
Like make that wood, like make that wood
Holly like a boulevard
With a flourish from a reggae drum, the regular backing returns as Beyoncé, along with pretty harmonising voices, goes over her choices once more - 'crazy' or 'walked all over'? - before reiterating her commitment to standing up for herself (and, by extension, other women in similar situations). She repeats the chorus one last time, the instrumentation positive and confident as she sails gracefully through betrayal with her sense of pride intact.
A final cymbal, and we are left just with a sporadic bass buzz. Soulja Boy Tell 'Em's joyously simple but effective track Turn My Swag On evocatively captures the feeling of unbridled belief in oneself - and the central hook is used here to delightful, vivacious effect. Our spurned heroine sings the chorus alone to her own reflection, unguarded and unafraid, defying the stereotype of the downtrodden, neglected wife as she affirms that her self-esteem is very much alive and well, thank you very much.
I hop up out the bed, and get my swag on
I look in the mirror, say 'Wassup?
Wassup, wassup, wassup?'