No one squeezes more genres of music into an album than Beyoncé. On Lemonade—which dropped over the weekend on Tidal, as its sister visual album premiered on HBO—Beyoncé spins songs that bleed country, R&B, hip-hop, pop, gospel, and rock and roll. To do all those things well, of course, takes talent and brains. And Beyoncé was smart enough to hire some good ones.
According to the liner notes released in the digital booklet, 72 writers collaborated to write Lemonade. Some songs are stacked, like “Hold Up,” which enlisted 15 writers, and some are lean, like “Formation,” which needed just two. A writer count, high or low, doesn’t determine whether a piece of art is good or bad. It’s simply a reflection of how many people are getting credit (and money) for the work.
But—as they have done before—a group of people on the internet is trying to dismiss this album, not for its artistry or sound, but for the number of contributors who worked on it.
This conversation has happened publicly before. After Beck took home the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015, many fans of Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album were furious. Because Beyoncé had such an undeniable popular impact—and because the Grammys are a bogus award show based on popularity—many fans didn’t understand how it could have lost to Beck’s excellent but much less relevant Morning Phase.
The reason Beck won was vote-splitting: Morning Phrase was the only rock-and-roll album in the running, so support from fans of the genre was undivided. But the reason people said that Beck won is that he wrote his own music. “Beyoncé collaborated with multiple writers to create each track, whereas all of the songs on Morning Phase were written by Beck Hansen alone,” Harriet Gibsone wrote for The Guardian at the time.
In other words, sole authorship is the hallmark of a true genius. This argument may sound familiar. American mythology is littered with the names of men who acted alone. Paul Revere singlehandedly blazed a trail for the future of the country. We love the myth that Steve Jobs, unassisted, built a technology empire in his dorm room. But myths are exactly what these reductive stories are.
Throughout the history of art, innovation has rarely come about in a vacuum. Imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as a work in progress. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Is it Michelangelo lying on a raised platform, toiling long and lonely hours into the night? Because that’s wrong. That masterpiece of Western art was completed by Michelangelo and his 13 assistants. Was he the mastermind, the visionary? Absolutely. But he didn’t work alone.
This kind of collaboration happens in every creative field. A single artist doesn’t make a Pixar movie. The Bauhaus school spurred a generation of German artists on to greatness. It took three Wright brothers to learn how to fly an airplane. The Beat writers gathered together at coffee houses and poetry readings. The Manhattan Project assembled a robust team of physicists to build the bomb.
In his 1879 study of (Nathaniel) Hawthorne, Henry James wrote:
Every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding to the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation. Great things have of course been done by solitary workers; but they have usually been done with double the pains they would have cost if they had been produced in more genial circumstances.
Collaboration breeds creativity, and no one can claim that Lemonade isn’t a creative album. Unlike so many pop songs by so many artists that sound so similar to one another, Lemonade is filled with songs that no one else could have made, from the country twang of “Daddy Issues” to the synthed-up “Sorry.”
Lemonade isn’t just an album for Beyoncé. Lemonade is an album that is undeniably written for, marketed to, and—most importantly—inspired by black American women. It is saturated with their stories, their lore, and their faces.
As L. Joy Williams, the President of the Brooklyn NAACP, told Melissa Harris-Perry in Elle:
She did this for all of us. The album and the visual art alongside it became a representation of the betrayal, anger, and despair that Black women (at least me personally) feel from the world and feel from Black men collectively and individually. But she didn’t leave us in that hollowed out space.
If you think about popular music in relation to the rest of modern mass media, it’s pretty insane that we expect a single person to do it all by themselves. We don’t expect Jennifer Lawrence to write, produce, direct, and star in her movies. We don’t ask Kit Harrington why he isn’t also behind the camera for his scenes in Game of Thrones.
In almost all of pop culture, we understand that creation requires a team of people. Could a single person write, produce, direct, shoot, and star in a movie? Sure. But the odds of that movie being good, much less marketable to a mainstream audience, are slim to none.
And Beyoncé’s not the only artist whose liner notes look this way. All pop stars work with songwriters, producers, and samples to create their art. Taylor Swift brought on songwriters for her first pop album 1989. Rihanna’s Anti credited more than 30 writers. So did the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness. Kanye West’s most recent album The Life of Pablo employed more than 100 writers. A popular album in 2016 with fewer than a dozen writers would be a massive anomaly.
Having more voices and more brains on an album gives it the opportunity to reach greater depth, achieve better sound, and draw from more varied experience than one person alone could ever bring to the table. Not only do the collaborators who helped create Lemonade lend the album more nuance, but this process allows Beyoncé to promote lesser-known artists through her work.
Think about Beyoncé (or any pop star, really, from Kanye West to Taylor Swift) not as a musician working alone in a dark studio with only her own thoughts for company, but as a conductor in front of an orchestra, a curator filling a museum, a director blocking a scene. Pop music is a kind of auteurism.
It’s undeniable that Beyoncé had her hand on the controls for the creation of every piece of this album. Beyoncé is a credited writer on every single song. She is also a credited producer on every track but one. She touched everything. She tweaked the lyrics. She remixed the vocals. She made decisions big and small and perfected her art until it was ready for public consumption.
Collaboration makes awe-inspiring art in 2016—just as collaboration has created awe-inspiring art in every generation, in every culture. To say otherwise is to buy into a myth of genius constructed by people who don’t know what art really is.
If anyone knows what art is, and how to make it, it’s fucking Beyoncé.