One infamous elevator contained three iconic artists, and three ground-breaking albums later, one night in 2014 will go down in music history. Perhaps this night and this elevator were partly responsible for the recent influx of music produced by one royal family. Regardless, these three albums will surely go on to define this era of music for decades to come. Beyoncé was the first of the triumvirate to drop a stirring project in April of last year when she released the visual album Lemonade. Solange followed suit with her own soulful, empowering album A Seat at the Table. And Jay Z’s phenomenal 4:44 dropped exclusively on Tidal at the end of June. Now that we’ve witnessed three different perspectives on consequences and selfhood, partly spurred by this fateful May night, what are the major differences between these incredibly diverse yet intersecting projects? Which album resonates the most? And which album will have the greatest longevity as time passes?
Originally a visual album showcasing the anger, pain and resilience of the iconic pop artist, the multi-award winning album confirmed the speculation of the media after rumours surfaced that husband, rapper and business mogul Jay-Z had indulged in some good old-fashioned infidelity. Lemonade is a sonic and visual journey through Beyoncé and womankind’s process of healing. It isn’t a subtle confirmation either, literally opening with the track ‘Pray you Catch me’, which introduces us to the album with the lyrics: ‘You can taste the dishonesty’. ‘Hold Up’ deals with this repressed female anger resulting from male cruelty and misunderstanding. In the visuals, after reciting some prose about abstaining from sins and inflicting pain on herself, the artist asks: ‘are you cheating on me’. This gut-wrenching question segues into a shot of Beyoncé waltzing through the streets with a cunning smile, holding a baseball bat – a monument to liberation. ‘What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?’ The cutting lyrics are punctuated by an image of the artist elegantly smashing some nearby cars. The entire visual album features iconography of African American history and the resilience of women throughout time. In ‘Sorry’, Beyoncé is joined by Serena Williams—also considered to be one of the most successful women in America—while she brags: ‘I ain’t sorry’, contradicting the track title. ‘Rest in Peace, my true love, who I took for granted’, she recites in a poem called ‘Apathy’, opening the video. The poems are filled with quotable and empowering lines about embracing femininity and reclaiming power in the face of patriarchal neglect and dismissiveness. Beyoncé performed ‘Formation’ during the Super Bowl halftime show, the day after the album dropped; offending racists with her unapologetic black power aesthetics alluding to Black Panthers. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks’, is a declaration of survival. Beyoncé isn’t afraid to express this to Jay-Z or the world.
A Seat at the Table
Landing three months after Lemonade, Solange’s A Seat at The Table was a deeply personal and probing reflection on womanhood, race and self-expression. Although Solange had already carved her own distinct sound and aesthetic separate to her sister in previous endeavours, this is the album that confirmed that to the world. It samples the voices of her mother and father as they articulate their unfiltered thoughts on racism, isolation, ignorance, and finding strength on the route to self-discovery. Solange’s voice is also interwoven with harmonising features from Sampha, Lil Wayne, former Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland, and a catalogue of other artists. Solange stressed the importance of having this conversation to Interview Magazine, claiming that she is inviting listeners to ‘Come and get close. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be perfect.’ This message translates to the album cover where her eyes probe the soul of observers, demanding our attention and patience. From the opening track, ‘Rise’ to the closing track, ‘Closing: The Chosen Ones, the album details Solange’s own search for healing and self-affirmation. She grabbles with identity and belonging. And she’s right, though the visuals and music videos are a beautiful showcase of art and her eclectic vision, the truth isn’t always comfortable. ‘I’m weary of the ways of the world’ she confesses in ‘Weary’. The lyrics ‘you know a king is only a man with flesh and bones, he bleeds just like you do’ could relate to any member of the successful trio of artists mentioned so far. Proving that even the most prosperous and worshipped individuals bleed and hurt. ‘As long as you find peace in what you doing then you successful’ the interlude affirms. ‘Cranes in the Sky’ details Solange’s attempts to compartmentalise and evade toxic experiences and thoughts. Drinking, dancing, spending it away. Realising you can’t medicate the darkness away with hedonism and hobbies. Solange’s emotions become ‘cranes in the sky’, surrounding us and compelling us to empathise. ‘Mad’ forces us to take a ‘seat at the table’ and listen to her account of the anger society has made her repress for so long; despite stereotypes ridiculing black women’s expression of these emotions. Solange doesn’t need our permission. she expresses her truth unapologetically, conveying the importance of self-love in the face of ignorance.
Even down to the distribution of the album, which is exclusive to Tidal, Jay-Z delves into the topic of power and money, and what it takes to make it in the industry. He reflects on his career, decisions he’s made, and the beliefs and actions that have shaped him and brought him here. The personal nature of the album seems to contradict the shady nature of the corporations such as Sprint that Jay Z hustles for in this release. Jay Z is equally slick, confident and cool as he is confessional and self-effacing. The album contemplates on maturing as an artist and an individual; betrayal and infidelity; fatherhood, power and race; and the legacy he wants to leave behind for the world and for his family. Honest, retrospective and thoughtful, the album implicitly addresses his supposed fallout with Kanye West. He also touches on the cheating scandal; admitting in the opening track (‘Kill Jay-Z’) that he ‘let the baddest girl in the world get away’. He makes note of other topics, such as his relationship with Prince before the artist’s death; La La Land wrongfully being announced as the winner of the Oscars instead of the true victor, Moonlight; and the regret he has about shooting his brother when he was young. Gloria Carter comes out while delivering words of wisdom: ‘love who you love’. The album features Beyoncé, Damian Marley and Frank Ocean. It is inspired by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Prince, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Lauryn Hill, as well as contemporary artists, including Playboi Carti and James Blake. This eclectic mix of inspiration contributes to the album’s sound, which is both historical and modern, but always soulful and classic. The video to ‘The Story of O.J’ references racist caricatures of African Americans in historical cartoons, depicting a history of anti-black racism. While in the footnote video, Kendrick Lamar, Will Smith, Mahershala Ali and other influential figures discuss their experiences with racism in America. Carter’s statement: ‘We can say, let’s have our own streaming services, have our own Grammy’s’, defines much of what the album represents. Demonstrating what he calls ‘black excellence’, and taking control of an industry that doesn’t want him to succeed.
Each artist draws inspiration from and reflects off the other two artists. But these albums approach themes of growth, race, success and empowerment in distinct ways. While Beyoncé, Solange and Jay Z focus on their own personal experiences, it’s safe to that every one of these albums will survive the test of time while containing an accumulation of specific moments in time.