We should have known. Beyoncé dropped Formation in February, a song, a music video, and a Super Bowl performance that laid it all out: Yoncé was a black woman, a beautiful, successful, Southern Black Woman, a fierce poet warrior for #BlackLivesMatter (I dare you not to get choked up when the video cuts from that little kid dancing his heart out in front of that line of police to a grafitti’d wall sprayed with the message: “Stop Shooting Us”). On the album, which the Washington Post appropriately called a song cycle, Formation feels out of place, tagged onto the end of a richly told story of betrayal and redemption. But as harbinger of the vision that was to come? Formation is perfect.
In the beginning, there is confusion. Beyoncé tosses off images and words and music and sound and song: an aggressive, processed noise, Beyoncé in braids and fur, a wooden building, the haunting sounds of a Southern evening, a woman in a black hoodie in a pool of skirts mourning in front of a red curtain, an image to make David Lynch proud. This woman sings. She sings plaintively through clenched teeth about wanting to catch the whispers of her cheating lover. This woman speaks, with a sense of the power of monologue that only Terrance Malick has ever used with such devastating effectiveness, and he only manages it sometimes. I would later learn that these are the words of a Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire. Warsan gives Beyoncé the words to tell a story, her personal story: “In the tradition of the men in my blood, you come home at 3 AM and lie to me.” But also something more, a powerfully evocative elliptical narrative that spirals outward gloriously from one woman to encompass so much more.
Lemonade is a visual tapestry rich with forms and shapes, colors and mood, a feedback loop between the visuals and the music. More than that, Lemonade is not a narrative that is contained within itself, it layers allusion on top of allusion, building up its meaning bit by bit, counting on the viewer to recognize its many references to understand the complexities being conveyed to a sick beat. The amount of information being conveyed is nearly overwhelming at first. There are black women in white, black women whitewashed by a probing IR camera, there are antebellum beauties, and melancholy landscapes of treebeards and old slave stations and wooden buildings. The images repeat themselves relentlessly, inside of the songs and out, each visual motif receiving an extra moment of concentration in various song. The variety of the visuals matches the variety of the musical styles Beyoncé employs, from ballads, to reggae, to unapologetic club beats, to honest to god country, to a soul-cleansing fire of a march. Yoncé has given us a rich visuo-sonic immersion experience about the path of a powerful woman scorned, who will revel in her success even as she struggles, forcefully, with a deeply personal betrayal bouncing around her skull and therefore ours.
Experiencing the world watching #Lemonade for the first time on Twitter was an experience. Nearly everyone responded to the intensely personal anger that Beyoncé expresses at the beginning of an album loosely organized around the stages of grief (anger, apathy, acceptance, etc). Her anger over her lover’s infidelity is so palpable that it led everyone to wonder if Jay-Z might actually be dead or if Queen Bey dispensed with the legal system entirely and created this visual album to serve him up blisteringly public divorce papers. It’s not hard to see where they got that idea from when flames erupt behind Bey flouncing down the street in a gorgeous yellow dress and a baseball bat or when she screams “Who the fuck do you think I am?” over Jack White’s distorted chords and vicious drums. But there are images, even if you’ve forgotten Formation, at the very beginning that tell us that Beyoncé is out for more than Jay-Z’s blood. She wears a black hoodie during “Pray You Catch Me,” a nod to the stirrings of #BlackLivesMatter that began with the death of a boy in a black hoodie, Trayvon Martin. She sheds the hoodie to emerge, cathartically, from a drowned house onto the street for some quality time with a baseball bat. “Hold Up” is so its own moment that it becomes possible to forget about that hoodie. In case you forgot, in the middle of her dragon breathing fire rage, Beyoncé samples Malcolm X on the state of the black woman in America, knowing full well that Malcolm’s words about how the black woman is the least protected person in America, though 50 years old, still ring all too true.
As that Malcolm X quote illustrates, the politics of Lemonade are deeply gendered, but never to the detriment of men. It is aimed squarely at the exaltation of women. This is never more evident than when Serena Williams descends a staircase, dressed to kill, and proud as hell of who she is and what she looks and feels like. Serena twerks to a Bey's beat, a Bey that gives absolutely zero fucks in “Sorry.” Serena Williams’ presence in a video featuring the lyrics “Middle fingers up, put ‘em hands high, wave it in his face” makes it clear that Beyoncé’s artistic ambition encompasses so much more than some personal beef with her husband, as punishingly effective as that has already been. Serena Williams has been roundly criticized throughout her career for her body, none of it legitimate, most of it a toxic mixture of equal parts racism and sexism. There was even a minor tizzy over one of the most dominant athletes ever in any sport winning Sportsperson of the Year over a horse. That really happened. Well, Beyoncé has had enough of that shit. Who is this dude interrupting her and Serena’s grinding? It’s Donald Trump, it’s Ted Cruz, it’s that army of eggs on Twitter, it’s #AllLivesMatter, it’s respectability politics, it’s the passive-aggressive rules embedded in American culture and all the men who just won’t admit, let alone let go of, their damn privilege. “Suck on my balls,” indeed.
Lemonade is not all potent vitriol, entertaining as that would absolutely be. Anger and apathy are merely ways of handling feeling worthless thanks to her man’s betrayal, but Beyoncé knows who she damn well is, even if her man forget. She knows what she’s worth (“Best revenge is your paper”) and from there her struggles move outward beyond herself; once she affirms her own worth, she affirms that of her mother and will eventually do the same for her father and lover. In “Six Inch Heels,” a pulsing tune, alive with fire, Beyoncé struts her stuff. She is worth every dollar and by the end of a song, during which she has celebrated as an all-consuming goddess of fire, her anger with her lover is mostly spent and she implores him to come back, come back. But to fulfill herself, Beyoncé first must redeem all women with her strength and to do that, she has to deal with her father, her mother’s father, with every absent father, every man who abandoned a good woman. Celebrating her Texas roots musically as well as lyrically, Beyoncé inverts the “Woman ran off and my dog died today” when she sings about her Daddy’s Lessons: “when you see a man like me, daddy said shoot.”
Shire’s poetry is an insistent reminder of Bey’s concerns, with her lover and his worth; Bey will not be shooting her man. He is more than he thinks he is, he is worth more than he knows. Beyoncé could only love a great man, because she herself is great; her love redeems him and his infidelity. “You are the love of my life,” comes her refrain, as she lies down, in white, in the middle of a Superdome filled with black women, reclaiming the space as their own and another reminder that she is not just interested in a love with no context. The South is also the love of her life and she sings for it, as much as for her husband. There is something just so incredibly potent about a group of black women in white wading into the water and claiming power over the very thing that destroyed New Orleans.
In case you need proof, during “Sandcastles,” an intimate ballad, featuring Beyoncé singing alone over her synth, kneeling in her living room, we get visual confirmation of her husband’s continued existence. Jay-Z has not been reduced to ash by the consuming fire of his wife. She has conquered her fear, she understands her worth, she can now help him begin to heal himself and their love. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”
After Sandcastles, James Blake and Beyoncé move us forward to one of the most devastating sections of an already incredible short film. Lemonade, the visual album, is a celebration of the power of black women, their beauty, their struggle, and, despite its intense initial anger, their much hope for the future. You cannot celebrate hope without remembering the tragedies that came before. James Blake mourns us forward as the mothers and descendants of slain black men hold his picture in front of them. It is haunting, so haunting that even Beyoncé feels the need for an exorcism afterward, as a Native American woman blesses the rooms of a plantation house before we are introduced to the strains of the march that will lead us into Hope. Visually, we earn our "Freedom" with Beyoncé as she climbs up from the depths of the earth to embrace the light.
One of the biggest differences between the visual album and the other one, other than the unfortunate absence of Shire’s incredible poetry is “Freedom.” The song is a straight up pulse-pounding jam on the sonic album (what the hell else am I going to call it?!). In the visual album, we get Yoncé, dressed in white, singing à cappella for the first verse, singing to those mourning mothers, sisters and daughters, also dressed in white, before the martial beat crashes suddenly into our ears before just as suddenly stopping and getting the hell out of Bey’s way: “I’m a keep on running because a winner don’t quit on themselves.” It is arresting and dramatic and amazing. The celebration of the fight of black women is so forceful that feels like nothing else needs to be said afterward, but the album is called Lemonade and Beyoncé lets us know why giving Hattie White the mic for a moment as she tells us about life giving her lemons on her 90th birthday. “All Night” takes us home with a celebration of grandmothers, the wisdom of the ages, and the return of love.
My first reaction to Lemonade was a catatonic state, I was so overwhelmed by the weight of the imagery and the words . . . Warsan Shire’s words blew me away as she turned Beyoncé’s story into a text for the ages “The past and the future merge to meet us here.” Beyoncé’s expressive emotional honesty and depth devastated me, because her world was the real world, pain, and joy, and hope forged into a different world, a better one. Lemonade is powerful and full of allusions to what has been, what could be, what should be. If you have only experienced the sonic album, you have no idea how thoroughly Beyoncé has scrambled our expectations of the possibilities of the performance of potent black womanhood. Lemonade, the visual album, is a seismic event in pop culture, hell, in culture. There is before Lemonade and there is after. Lemonade haunts us with it's vibrance, and exquisite use of force, it is a precise nuclear strike mushroom clouding into our consciousness. Lemonade is, among so many other things, a celebrations of blackness, femininity in all its glorious potency and complexity, and an explosive hour being everything that society doesn’t encourage women to be, let alone women of color: proud and angry and handling things on their own terms. Lemonade is A.R.T.