Over the weekend, Beyonce broke the internet with an album that probably doesn’t have a single hit song on it.
That’s not a criticism - it’s a brilliant, eclectic, rousing tale of anger and betrayal - it’s just that it’s unmistakably designed to be consumed as a whole. Laying waste to the notion that today’s generation lacks an attention span longer than three minutes, Lemonade doesn’t pepper its deep cuts with recognisable, already-released singles - it allows itself to stand alone, and unfurl its intrigue gradually. Because, thanks to the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West, that’s what popstars are allowed to do now.
There’s plenty of infectious, danceable fare on Lemonade of course - but even the most danceable tracks aren’t instantly accessible, and the album approaches genre with the changeable glee of someone rifling through a dressing up box. Following the languid, reggae-dappled ‘Hold Up’, which borrows its chorus from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’, there comes the raucous, riff-heavy ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, complete with a cameo from Jack White. The next few tracks cascade through trap, R&B and country (‘Daddy Lessons’ wouldn’t sound at all out of place on a Kacey Musgraves record) with abandon.
As for headline fodder, Beyonce has gleefully stoked the gossip mongers, all-but confirming that rumoured Jay Z affair - but she’s done so not with one caustic, chorus-heavy diss track, but by drip-feeding sly digs throughout the album’s twelve songs - confident that she can hold your attention long enough for the narrative to unfold organically. So when she sings in ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, “If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife,” she trusts that you’ll stick with it until the (sort of) resolution hinted at in ‘Sandcastles’: “Although I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby / Every promise don’t work out that way.”
In the years to come, the legacy of Lemonade will surely lie in its complete narrative, its scattered references, and its hour-long accompanying film - not in any one track. ‘Formation’ might be one of the best songs of the year so far, but it’s still unlisted on YouTube, received basically no airplay, and failed to chart in either the UK or the US. It’s also the only single from Lemonade that was revealed prior to its release, despite a tradition of bolstering interest in an album by releasing almost every track from it individually first.
It’s not just Beyonce who seems to be changing the rules when it comes to the necessity of hit singles. When Rihanna released Anti at the start of this year, she hadn’t yet released one single from it. Even ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, which many assumed would feature on the album, was nowhere to be seen. Rather than relying on a handful of radio friendly singles to precede the album, she allowed Anti to exist as its own entity. “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40,” she told Vanity Fair, “but I felt like I earned the right to do that now.”
Her caution was unnecessary - the album was a commercial success, though its sales figures were made nigh-on impossible to measure thanks to the million free downloads she gave away - but the sentiment was a telling one. As one of the biggest popstars on the planet, Rihanna has paved the way for a new way of doing things - one that plays the long-game, trusts that people will pay attention for more than just a catchy chorus, and that trades in cultural impact as much as on record sales.
Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo, too, was an event unto itself. Critics generally agreed that it was a brave, unholy mess - but its impact, and the attention it was given, wasn’t harmed one bit by the fact it didn’t spawn a ‘Black Skinhead’-type single.
In a world in which the album format is supposed to be dying, artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West are calmly resurrecting it.