THE TWO BIGGEST music stories of the year happened just two days apart last month: Prince died, and Beyoncé came alive like never before.
Of course, it was unfortunate timing on Queen Bey's part that the greatest album and bravest artistic achievement of her career, Lemonade, landed April 23, just two days after Prince's passing. The ambitious marketing campaign behind the album started in early February at the Super Bowl and culminated with an HBO special on the day of release.
Beyoncé, who plays Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, couldn't exactly ring up the record executives and say, "Let's hold off a week" - even if two of those execs are herself and the husband who is skewered and smoked like a roasted pig on the album.
In its five-star review of Lemonade, Rolling Stone put a positive spin on Beyoncé's opus coming right on the heels of Prince's death: "It's a welcome reminder that giants still walk among us."
Forget any overall comparisons of the two; that'd be silly. But there's one resemblance worth exploring: Lemonade is Bey's Purple Rain. It's her big moment. It's an album that engrosses from start to finish. There's not one filler track on it. There are songs that make you blush, think, ache, writhe, and marvel. There's even a film counterpart that stands up on its own artistic merit.
First run by HBO and since streamed 11 million times on Tidal, the movie version of Lemonade is officially billed as a "visual album." Our first glimpse of it came right before the Super Bowl, when the footage for the gritty closing track, "Formation," hit the web like wildfire, showing an underwater New Orleans and overly excessive police.
That was our first clue the former teen pop star was clearly up to something bigger and bolder than "Crazy in Love." Then came the Super Bowl performance of "Formation" with a Black Panthers-looking dance troupe.
Saturday Night Live brilliantly spoofed the shocked reaction to the "Formation" rollout with a mock horror-movie trailer that declared it "the day we learned Beyoncé is black." A police union in Miami took it far more seriously, calling for a boycott by officers who might work her concert - a reaction largely due to another scene in the visual album that shows the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin holding photos of their sons, two of whom were killed during run-ins with police.
But it turns out the racial issues of "Formation" were just scratching the surface of what Bey is coming out from under on Lemonade.
The album's most talked-about theme is instead infidelity. Video scenes of Bey smashing cars with a baseball bat - now the subject of another funny spoof on Ellen - plus a litany of explicit lyrics all seem to point to real-life strife in her marriage to rap mogul Jay Z.
If you surf the web at least once a month or aren't living on the International Space Station, chances are you've seen or heard something about what is now the most talked-about marriage in America. Gossip sites have been ablaze with Bey/Jay tidbits and marital examinations since the day after Lemonade went public.
Some of the most heavily trafficked reports have been over "Becky with the good hair," the supposed other woman referred to in one of Lemonade's most riveting songs, "Sorry." And now there are rumors that all the rumors aren't even real rumors, and are instead all part of an elaborate publicity stunt Beyoncé dreamed up to play off the plague of modern tabloid culture - or maybe just to sell albums.
For her part, Beyoncé is keeping mum. It's not even clear whether her marriage is still intact. Her husband shows up toward the end of the visual album in a few sweet scenes that find him embracing his wife and playing with their daughter. No baseball bats are in sight, just forgiveness for a weapon.
Whatever the true story of Lemonade is, it won't lessen the impact of this album. If Beyoncé's own struggles aren't entirely real, they're all too real for other women.
The album particularly seems to be about the strength of African American women, whether they're grieving mothers, estranged wives, survivors of segregation, or victims of modern injustice. It quotes Malcolm X saying, "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman." It also features a speech by Jay Z's grandmother from her 90th birthday, when she said, "Life gave me lemons, but I made lemonade."
No matter what, Beyoncé gave us a landmark album in Lemonade. Musically, it bears a closer likeness to Prince's Sign o' the Times than Purple Rain in the way it tackles a grab bag of social woes over a wide range of styles. Like Purple Rain, though, this is the one she's going to be most remembered for.