Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth studio album dropped on Saturday, with nothing but a seconds-long cryptic YouTube video to promote it. The ‘visual album’, directed by seven directors including Kahlil Joseph (Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d’), and Melina Matsoukas (‘Pretty Hurts’, ‘Formation’) is something special. Beyoncé has previously spoken about her habit of rooting her songs in imagery throughout the creative process, and in Lemonade she has created music to be watched.
It is not just visuals; spoken word also informs the experience of listening to Lemonade. In ‘Formation’, released earlier this year, Messy Mya, and Big Freedia voice clips provided punctuation to the melody, in Lemonade, Beyoncé evolves the concept by reading poetry written for the album by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire (London’s Young Poet Laureate) interspersed with the songs.
The album is stunningly ambitious. Just as the camera seamlessly shifts from bayous, to drowned mansions, to downtown New Orleans, to underground car-parks, vast plantations, weaving through the urban and rural Deep South, so does the music. Twelve songs, split into chapters which stage the unravelling of a marriage, effortlessly skip through genres: from rap, to soulful ballad, by way of country, and dance. In lesser hands, it might have come across as confused, but Lemonade is tightly strung and expertly cohesive.
In one of the first songs, ‘Hold Up’, Beyoncé throws open the doors to a courthouse, emerging arms outstretched, resplendent in yellow frills, floodwaters cascading around her down the steps, Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ made flesh. She struts down a downtown street swinging a baseball bat named ‘Hotsauce’, murderous smile fixed, smashing classic cars. The song, with writing credits as varied as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, MNEK, and Father John Misty, borrows heavily from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’; and Soulja Boy’s ‘Get My Swag On’. What results is a catchy song with a distinct reggae twist, reminiscent of Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’. From this, we are launched into a series of songs which sample everything from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Scene from Swan Lake’, with collaborations that reads like a who’s who of exciting new musical talent. Jack White lends his voice to ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ which is raw, rap heavy, and rage fuelled; ‘6 Inch’, a collaboration with The Weeknd, is gritty and layered; James Blake accompanies Beyoncé in a short lyrical ballad; and in ‘Freedom’, one of the last songs of the album, Kendrick Lamar stars in a song that could easily be a bonus track on To Pimp a Butterfly.
In Lemonade she has created music to be watched
On the surface, Lemonade is a very specific, seemingly autobiographical narrative of a marriage under strain of secrets and betrayal. Her lyrics, which specifically reference Jay Z, (“Big homie better grow up”) and Beyoncé’s use of home videos in the film, seems to lend credence to the rumours of Jay Z’s affair that have circled ever since 2014, when her sister, Solange, attacked Jay Z in an elevator at the Met Gala.
Look a bit deeper, however, and Lemonade is about a lot more than infidelity. If ‘Formation’ is a celebratory anthem of self-love for her identity as a black woman, the reward of self-acceptance and pride, Lemonade charts the journey it took to get there.
At times, early in her career, with the release of albums I am… Sasha Fierce, 4, and even the 2013 hit Beyoncé, Beyoncé was accused of dismissing her blackness, neatly sidestepping any attempt at political stance in favour of drawing in a wider, whiter, fan-base. “I tried to change / closed my mouth more / tried to be softer / prettier / less awake”, she confesses. As the album progresses, she’s done trying. “I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up / suck on my balls, pause, I had enough / I ain’t thinking ‘bout you”, the expletive laden line from ‘Sorry’ is about a cheating man, but as well could be about the mainstream viewers. Beyoncé’s message is clear: if you don’t like what I’m saying, feel free to leave.
In ‘Formation’, Beyoncé sang about her love of her black features “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”, Lemonade reveals that such a declaration is not free from a hinterland of hurt, and doubt; featuring the fantastically shade-throwing line “better call Becky with the good hair”, using the name ‘Becky’ as a shorthand for ‘white woman’ as she calls out her husband for cheating on her. In a heart wrenching, chilling lyric that follows, Beyoncé tells her lover “If this what you truly want, I can wear her skin… over mine / Her hair, over mine / Her hands as gloves / Her teeth as confetti”. In doing so, she articulates a sentiment that has been explored by many black artists before her. In a deeply moving article, _Jezebel_’s Clover Hope draws parallels between this line, and Toni Morrison’s novel ‘The Bluest Eye’. In the novel, a young black girl, Pecola, is continually told she is ‘ugly’, and wants more than anything to have a pair of blue eyes so she can live up to the white standards of beauty. Toni Morrison writes: “The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”
Beyoncé aligns herself with self-doubt, and the pain and humilation it carries
You’d be hard pressed to find any minority girl, surrounded by the predominantly white mainstream media, not struggling with these issues. In Lemonade, Beyoncé aligns herself with this self-doubt and the pain and humiliation it carries, singing “I’m not too perfect / to ever feel this worthless”.
Lemonade is a body of work determined to overthrow that mantle, not just from Beyoncé, but all black girls. The videos are filled with black women, some faces more familiar than others. In ‘Sorry’, Beyoncé, in a head full of cornrows, dances on a bus with women in Yoruba body paint, a celebration of the African diaspora. In the same song, whilst Beyoncé reclines on a throne, Serena Williams twerks next to her. There aren’t many artists who could inspire one of the greatest living athletes in the world to twerk for three minutes, but Beyoncé is one. Later, Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie) appears with Blue Ivy, Beyoncé’s daughter. Also present are actresses Amandla Stenberg (_The Hunger Game_s), Zendaya, model Winnie Harlow, singers Chloe and Halle Bailey. Ballet dancer Michaela dePrince performs beautifully to ‘Freedom’, even Leah Chase, the ‘queen of Creole cooking’, a New Orleans institution unto herself, makes an appearance. Of course, Warsan Shire is ever-present, whose words, evocative, punchy, and brave, sculpt the narrative throughout the album.
The most poignant appearances, however, are by Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sabryna Fulton, and Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, all holding portraits of their sons who were killed in acts of police brutality. They hold their heads up, and look defiantly into the camera as Kendrick Lamar raps “Eight blocks left, death is around the corner / Seven misleadin’ statements ‘bout my persona / Six headlights wavin’ in my direction / Five-O askin’ me what’s in my possession… mama, don’t cry for me, ride for me / Try for me, live for me / Breathe for me, sing for me”.
The Malcolm X speech sampled earlier in the album, “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the black woman, the most neglected person in America is the black woman”, echoes throughout the album. Beyoncé acknowledges that sometimes even black communities are complicit in the oppression of black women, “are you a slave to the back of his hand? / Am I talking about your husband, or your father?” and she can hardly fail to recognise that many black male artists, Jay Z included, rap about racism, and discrimination even as they rap about women in demeaning terms.
The world is waking up to the reality of Beyoncé as a black artist
In Lemonade, patterns keep repeating. “You look nothing like your mother / you look everything like your mother”. Oppression is generational, “are you thankful / for the hips that cracked, the deep velvet of your mother / and her mother / and her mother / there is a curse that will be broken”. The camera pans to a Nina Simone record. The inference to be made is clear. Nina Simone, one of the most incandescent talents of the twentieth century, lived in a physically abusive relationship with her second husband, a man who beat her, held guns to her head, and then laughed it off; her talent, her strength, her charisma could not save her from violence, from pain.
In Shire’s poetry, men are “magicians, able to exist in two places at once”, across generations, they “come home at 3 AM, and lie”, they betray, disappoint. Those with real magic are the women, cursed, and yet, able to save themselves; “grandmother, the alchemist / you spun gold out of this hard life / conjured beauty from the things left behind / found healing where it did not live / discovered the antidote in your own kitchen / broke the curse with your own two hands”. The camera cuts to a home video of Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie White’s, 90th birthday. “I had my up and downs,” she says, “but I found the inner strength to get back up. Life handed me lemons, but I made lemonade”.
Lemonade, plantations, southern gothic, cowboys, shotguns, seedy streets in New Orleans, churches, parades; these are all images rooted in the cultural landscape of the Deep South. In Lemonade, this landscape is populated with black women surviving, thriving in a life that keeps handing them lemons; they keep making lemonade. This is Beyoncé’s love letter to these women, to their whole selves; to their anger, their joy, their love, their talent, their magic, their beauty, and above all, their resilience.
Beyoncé has sung about girl power before. ‘Irreplaceable’, ‘Independent Woman’, and ‘Run the World (Girls)’ come of age as ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’: “I’m a fire breathing dragon / Beautiful mane, I’m the lion”, “keep your money, I got my own / Get a bigger smile on my face, being alone / Bad motherfucker, God complex”.
The world is waking up to the reality of Beyoncé as a black artist, an experience skewered brilliantly in a recent SNL skit. Of course, she has always been black, but like so many minority women, she diluted her blackness to fit into the cookie cutter mould society expected her fit, in order to succeed. Nina Simone sang “I wish I could break / All the chains holdin’ me / I wish I could say / All the things that I should say / Say ‘em loud say ‘em clear / For the whole ‘round world to hear” and this Beyoncé taking up the mantle in the way she knows best. If Beyoncé ever feigned being ‘less awake’, she is plenty woke now.
More personal than Beyoncé, as political as ‘Formation’, Lemonade, a glorious celebration of healing, of self-love, and sisterhood, is in a class of its own. Lemonade proves Beyoncé to be an artist at the top of her game. Others have created autobiographical music, they have even brought along their famous friends for the ride, but most seems pedestrian, stuck in the little league; alright, I’ll say it; Beyoncé is a grown woman; she can do whatever she wants.
Lemonade is out now on TIDAL