The transformation of sour fruit into a delicious drink has symbolized the struggle that is existence at least since a 1915 obituary for the dwarf actor Marshall P. Wilder read, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemon-ade stand.” The subsequent popularity of the lemons → lemonade metaphor might owe to the fact that its underlying narrative is, more or less, the only story anyone ever wants to tell. What is the American Dream if not a story of sweetening one’s condition? What about the Christian vision of salvation? What about Hamilton?
The narrative dominates pop music so much that Sia, the singer and songwriter charged with demystifying the present-day hits machine, once jargonized it as “victim to victory.” Pop stars peddle this idea by their very existence—no one is born selling platinum albums—but also, almost inevitably, through their songs: When little else is relatable about a millionaire celebrity, they can still scour their life for evidence of struggle. Successful efforts to do so usually mean making the trope feel new using seemingly authentic details or stylistic innovation or both. In the biggest releases of the season, both Beyoncé and Drake have once again reengaged with culture’s favorite fairytale—Beyoncé to imbue it with more meaning, and Drake to make it smaller.
Beyoncé’s name has been synonymous with perfectionism and power for a long time now. But the most recent phase of her career has sought to peel back the superhuman veneer while still maintaining an extreme degree of control over her image. One of the achievements of her 2013 self-titled album was reminding audiences that her current reign came about only through a long slog of hard work: The fierceness barrage of “Flawless” was bookended by a clip of her on Star Search in 1993, where the host mispronounced her name and then announced her group had lost to a rock band.
Her new album and film, Lemonade, is not about rising to greatness; it’s about being great and still having to struggle. Part of the genius of it is in putting specific and interesting meaning back into the “lemons into lemonade” phrase, otherwise washed of its power by overuse. The lemons here are the betrayal (we are led to think) of Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z. They are also the historic burdens black women have faced. Highlighting these obstacles communicates that Beyoncé is not above the rest of humankind—she is right in the middle of it, facing personal problems like we all do, yoked to history and society like we all are.
Lemonade goes further still in disassembling cliché and using each piece of it for effect. Lemonade is associated with the American South, where much of the visual album is set. Turning lemons into lemonade entails exactly the kind of labor—traditionally feminine, communal-minded, nourishing—that Beyoncé seeks to elevate. We don’t just hear Jay Z’s grandma Hattie say she turned lemons into lemonade; we get her actual recipe (“one pint of water, add a half pound of sugar, the juice of eight lemons, the zest of half lemon ...”).
Perhaps most impressively from an artistic perspective, Beyoncé deepens the victim-to-victory narrative by avoiding pat moments of uplift. Some people might argue that the visual album’s eventual arrival at the images of cute, diverse couples seems Hallmark-y. But sit with the album and you find the real story Beyoncé tells is of a measured victory, won on compromised terms, with much work left to be done. That’s why the climax of reconciliation, “All Night,” is sung in future-tense: It’s about the expectation of rekindled passion, not yet the existence of it. That’s why you have a queasy interstitial like “Forward,” during which she shows the mothers of black men killed by police. Triumph does not erase loss. Personal success only means so much in a society that’s failing in so many ways.
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The controlling metaphor of Drake’s new album, Views, is the cycle of seasons in Toronto from winter to summer to winter again. This is a perfect Drake concept on so many levels—the cold edges, the hometown pride, the overlap of banal and specific—but the most important one may be the fact that it communicates stasis. Winter is always coming; a year from now, most things will be the same. One of the threads through the album is an odd and arguably pathological belief in the permanent present when it comes to romance: “If I ever loved ya, I’ll always love ya that’s how I was raised”; “I group DM my exes / I tell ‘em they belong to me, that goes on for forever.”
Yet Drake’s entire career has been a variant on the classic hip-hop storyline about transformation of difficult circumstances. A Canadian, half-Jewish black kid who acted in the TV show Degrassi, Drake’s arc has been less about dealing with material adversity—though he’s said his upbringing was more hardscrabble than many assumed—than it has been about beating perceptions held against him by culture and hip-hop. “Started From the Bottom” is an anthem whose sentiment, made plain by its title, can fit lots of people. But in songs where Drake references, say, his protective mother, or the guff he gets for singing sensitively, or the specific places he grew up in, his story takes on a very particular shape.
Drake calls himself the “6 God” and placed himself on the top of the CN Tower for his Views cover to show that he’s ascended to overlord status. But he keeps flashing back to the same battles he’s waged before: “They think I had the silver spoon but they’ll get it soon,” he raps on Views’s title track, with “they” referring to unnamed skeptics of his life story. On another song, “Weston Road Flows,” he reminisces about being too poor to buy pizza. A very specific kind of nostalgia pervades the album, via references to Toronto and washed-out samples of ’90s hip hop and R&B. He doesn’t want anyone to forget where he’s come from.
But he also doesn’t want anyone to think he’s comfortable now. In the context of Views’s lyrics, the image of him on the top of the tower mostly illustrates that he can’t climb much higher but could very easily tumble quite far. His great theme is insecurity—not the kind that comes from self-doubt, really, but rather the kind that comes from being let down by other people. Both lovers and friends turn out to be disloyal; the album opens with a slowly unfurling orchestral piece about the fact that none of his exes have stayed in touch with him, and the Beats 1 interview he gave on Views’s release night was defined by tension over how former allies like The Weeknd aren’t in his camp anymore.
Underlying Drake’s embattled mentality is deathly anxiety that everything he’s achieved could crumble at any moment. “I got it right now so I’m everybody’s friend / If I ever lose I bet we never speak again,” he raps on “9,” a strobe-lit anthem about giving Toronto a new area-code-related nickname for the second time in his career. “Y’all showed me that nothing’s guaranteed,” he says over the baroque trunk-rattling of “Pop Style” in a verse he swapped in for one Kanye West performed in an earlier version of the song (a choice that contributes to the sense that Drake is cultivating isolation). For Drake, the most interesting thing about success is that it can be lost.
He’s able to maintain his spot this time out less because of his attitude or storytelling skills than his flair for cutting-edge genre mashups. Dancehall is his current muse, used to undeniably wonderful effect Views’s slew of summertime jams like the swaying and seductive “Controlla” and the current hit “One Dance.” Earlier on the album, the sputtering synthpop of “Feel No Ways” hosts a melody as yearning and sinuous as Drake’s previous lounge-crooner hits “Hotline Bling” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Elsewhere, the producer Noah “40” Shebib’s intricately strange and dour arrangements pair with Drake’s ranting to create an immersive fog of paranoia and arrogance—exactly what you come to a Drake album for.
Still, an hour and a half is a long time for anyone to spend with someone who seems militantly against the concept of personal growth. He only ever answers pettiness with pettiness, often disproportionately, as on the bounce-music tragicomedy of “Child’s Play,” where he scolds a girl for acting wrong at the Cheesecake Factory and threatens, “Don’t make me give you back to the hood.” There’s a lethargic, shiveringly beautiful ballad called “Redemption,” where the point is that neither he nor any of his exes shall be redeemed. The depression you might feel listening to this stuff is less the emotional kind than the existential kind: Views is life as a cul de sac.
Drake, like so many people, perhaps should take a cue from Beyoncé. Both Views and Lemonade center on the idea that victors can become victims again. But Beyoncé embarks on a journey over the course of her album, moving from thinking of relationships in transactional terms—love and security as payment for being fiercer than anyone else—to something deeper. She invokes family, history, and culture to help her understand her relationship, lessen her loneliness, and to make a call for broad social progress.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Drake pulling the same sort of move. There is no journey on Views, nor is there a notion of common cooperative struggle. The idea that life—romance, professional achievement, pride—should be approached as anything other than a basketball tournament or some other zero-sum affair never occurs to him. He’s climbed the tower, and if you want to get up there you’ll have to knock him off first.
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