On Saturday night, I stepped back for a couple of hours from what had been an emotional whirlwind of unforgettable experiences, days that were hard but rewarding. I’d been working with my colleagues at The Current to help tell the story of Prince’s death and what it meant to everyone here in Minnesota. Last night, I joined some friends to sit down, to eat and drink, to talk about it all — and to gather around the TV at 8:00. In the midst of this all, Beyoncé was up to something.
What she was up to, it turned out, was the release of a new “visual album”: an expression she’d previously used to describe her self-titled 2013 surprise release, with a connected collection of music videos to accompany every song on the album. Her new album, Lemonade, works the same way — and it’s such a stunning achievement that we immediately played it again once it had finished. In a room full of people, hardly anyone spoke as the album unfolded. Almost everyone cried a little, then cried some more.
On the one hand, the album has absolutely nothing to do with Prince: it’s a pained but ultimately triumphant song cycle that unambiguously addresses Beyoncé’s relationship with her husband Jay Z as well as the violence — both physical and emotional — that has affected African-American communities in recent years. On the other hand, it felt like there couldn’t have been a more fitting example of music that exemplifies so many of the values Prince most strongly held.
I’d been thinking about nothing but Prince for the past three days, and by the end of the second time watching Lemonade, my head was spinning with all the connections and similarities between Beyoncé and Prince — who was just breaking big when Beyoncé was born in 1981, at the other end of the Mississippi River.
Most obviously, there’s the scale and ambition of the work. Lemonade is a sweeping epic encompassing themes both intimate and global; in that way, it recalls Prince classics like Sign “O” the Times. Like Prince, Beyoncé is rooted in R&B but able to confidently spread far and wide both topically and stylistically — Lemonade encompasses a country song, a piano ballad, a righteous anthem, a sleek electro-soul thumper, and more. Collaborators on the album include Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, the Weeknd, and Jack White.
Then, there’s the centrality of the visual. Many musicians, including a lot of great ones, treat visuals as distinctly secondary to the music — Bruce Springsteen, always a reluctant video star, comes to mind. With Prince, visuals were always core to his art. His stage shows were inspired by flamboyant icons like Little Richard and James Brown, and he helped define the MTV era — despite the fact that there was a de facto music-video color line that had to be attacked.
Purple Rain is something very much like a “visual album” in the way that it uses film not just to illustrate the music but to help underline and expand its themes. Like Prince, Beyoncé understands that if audiences can’t hear a song without thinking of the video, that’s not a cop-out: it demonstrates that as an artist, you can command multiple media to tell your stories.
Back to that color line — which is also a line between genres and formats in American music. From the very beginning, Prince knew that if he was going to have the kind of career he wanted, he was going to have to very deliberately work to climb multiple music-industry ladders simultaneously.
American music scenes and genres are still widely segregated by race, but when Prince was releasing his first albums, the divisions were even starker: he would play both predominantly black venues and predominantly white venues, increasingly drawing mixed audiences no matter where he played. He made sure to be signed to a major label as a pop, not R&B, artist, so he knew his music would be worked to the largest possible audience. By the time of his death, Prince had conquered almost the entire musical landscape — he was manifestly relevant to audiences of virtually every genre.
Beyoncé is on the same trajectory. Having made a name, with Destiny’s Child and as a solo artist, in pop R&B, she caught (and commanded) the wave of “new R&B” with Beyoncé. Now, she comfortably exists in the realm of artists like Kendrick Lamar: musicians who are among the world’s biggest stars despite defying genres. Like Prince, Beyoncé is able to craft sublime and widely appealing music that’s also completely personal and specific to her experience.
Further, there’s the fact that both Prince and Beyoncé have worked to challenge the way their industry works in terms of distribution and compensation. Lemonade was released exclusively on Tidal: the streaming service Beyoncé co-founded with Jay Z and other artists, and that Prince strongly cosigned. It’s the only streaming service where Prince’s catalog can be heard, and he was giving the service regular exclusive “Purple Pick” releases.
In interviews and on Twitter, Prince was very clear about why he supported Tidal: it’s artist-run; it pays directly and promptly (he said); and it makes high-quality audio available. It was also important to Prince to support a service run by African-Americans in an industry where people in power are still predominantly white.
Prince and Beyoncé were well-acquainted and were often mentioned together — for all the reasons above, as well as their sheer charisma. They performed together on the Grammys in 2004, and Beyoncé and Jay Z attended Prince’s Tidal-streamed concert for Baltimore last year. Hopes were high that maybe, just maybe, something would go down at Paisley Park after Beyoncé’s concert in Minneapolis next month.
When Saturday Night Live created its mock “Prince Show,” it imagined Beyoncé (Maya Rudolph) as cohost with Prince (Fred Armisen), because the pairing seemed both incongruous and apt: two of the world’s most talented, beautiful, and all-around fabulous people co-hosting a show where by definition, almost any conceivable guest would be outshone. The running gag was that Prince could make even the likes of Robert DeNiro participate in absurd activities — because who’s going to say no to Prince, especially when Beyoncé is standing right next to him?
SNL rebroadcast several “Prince Show” episodes last night after airing Prince’s musical appearances on the show, and the skits were gratifying to see again — but after having just watched Lemonade, it was jarring to see Beyoncé reduced to a co-host, even next to Prince. Though Armisen successfully satirized a lot of Prince’s eccentricities and mannerisms, the idea that Prince would ever treat Beyoncé as a mere mouthpiece for his whims rings totally false.
That conceit just isn’t funny, both because it’s unfair to Prince as a person (as Andrea Swensson wrote, “I don’t know Prince, but I cringe when I see people describe him like he came from outer space, and wish they could see his quiet tenderness and humanity”) and because Beyoncé’s work — Lemonade most of all — is such a strong celebration of her identity as a black woman. Though Prince’s relationship to gender was in many ways incredibly liberating, in other ways it was problematic, and Beyoncé’s explicit critique of sexism remains vitally important.
As I write this, it’s a rainy Sunday morning in Minneapolis. It’s impossible not to feel sad, but it’s also impossible not to feel overwhelmed with a complicated kind of joy — a joy at the rich musical legacy we’ll spend the rest of our lives appreciating, and a joy at the limitless frontiers of what music can mean in this flawed, tragic, beautiful world.