Biographical, confessional, raw, deviant, dope. A few words to describe the experience that is Beyoncé’s latest album, LEMONADE.
I have been sippin’ on Beyoncé’s LEMONADE for about a week now, trying to savor and make sense of the feminist mogul’s alchemical mix of r&b, soul, rock, and country music. Interlaced with spoken word poetry and her own home videos, Bey even samples the sweet sounds of James Blake, The Weeknd, Jack White, and Kendrick Lamar and layers them richly together to create a trans-genre cinematic/musical manifesto that dropped last weekend on Tidal.
The visual album appeared last Saturday night on HBO GO in the US for one night only, and is now available for streaming only on Tidal (more thoughts on this exclusivity later) and for purchase on iTunes. The album’s explosion was an even more dramatic reveal than her 2013 self-titled album, which finally gave a label and musical definition to her feminist tendencies. LEMONADE is even less subtle in its feminist credo.
LEMONADE is Beyoncé’s sixth album, with 12 featured tracks and an hour long film instead of individual music videos. LEMONADE is being described as a visual album, akin to her last album BEYONCÉ, which although accurate, is a nearly reductive phrase to describe its dynamic cinematic performance on gender, race, sexuality and marriage.
So what is this album made of?
- Infidelity, Love, and Healing
- Bey’s Background: Texas, Louisiana, Southern Gothic Roots
- Black Womanhood in America
- Black Lives Matter Movement
- A Celebration of Warsan Shire’s Poetry
- Female Empowerment: a strong dose feminism that everyone can get a squeeze of
LEMONADE is rife with fuck-yous to Jay-Z and accusations of Bey-trayal, including Beyoncé flat out demanding “Are you cheating on me?” before she bursts into “Hold Up,” a bad ass sequence in which Bey, parading in a fabulous yellow chiffon gown, swings a bat at flashy cars and catches fire to a street in suburbia, alternatively titled by me as “In Which We Witness Bey’s Ire.” In the segment to follow, I’ll break down Bey’s path to forgiving Jay in 11 parts as she discovers his infidelity, lashes out, and begins to heal again.
As if sharing her marriage with us wasn’t intimate enough, LEMONADE digs deep into Bey’s roots in the American South, and we witness this explicitly throughout the gorgeous Southern Gothic imagery in the film. Think old manor homes, African-American folklore, a strong blend of mystical and religious themes, and a nuanced use of black and white film. Footage of post-flood Katrina, of Texan mansions and lower-income neighborhoods, and of wealth and poverty in stark contrast stream throughout much of the film, particularly during fragments of spoken poetry. Featuring recorded moments of her childhood with her father, and of her grandmother Hattie’s 90th birthday (from which we derive the titular recipe for lemonade), Bey has never been so vulnerable and personal with her viewers.
This visual album experience would not be possible in an earlier time, when the media and social landscape weren’t so ripe for feminist uprising and for racial empowerment. Most crucially of all its messages, LEMONADE is a razor-sharp commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement and a celebration of the experience of being a black woman in America. Never before has there been such a high-profile piece of art that features so many depictions of black women, in joy and in anguish, steeped in Southern Americana, and mired in all of our fucked up national political systems. Famous black women Serena Williams, Ibeyi, Amandla Stenberg, Laolu Senbanjo, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chloe x Halle, and Zendaya appear in LEMONADE, and if you don’t know them now you certainly will. In a moment of drama that brought me reeling with tears, the mothers of Trayvon Martin (Sybrina Fulton), Eric Garner (Gwen Carr), and Michael Brown (Lesley McFadden) are seen holding portraits of their deceased sons. In these ways, Beyoncé allows us bear witness to the greater black community, and their victories, happiness, injustice and suffering, all in equal measure.
Credited with “film adaptation and poetry,” Somali-British expat Warsan Shire expertly interweaves her poetry throughout the visual album. Named the 2014 Young Poet Laureate of London, Shire is now gaining wider recognition for her previously published collections of poetry Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and Her Blue Body. Quietly rising in the digital age, Shire has made a name for herself as a key voice on black womanhood, first through Twitter and Tumblr. In the next segment, I’ll highlight her poetry.
From LEMONADE, beyond its nobler messages, we can derive strong sympathies and feelings of feminine empowerment, particularly if you’re a woman who has ever been crossed by a lover, felt deeply inadequate, or has savored the basic human emotion of love. The shattering experience of grief, the explosive feeling of anger, and the reconciliation of self and enemy that is forgiveness are all potent in LEMONADE, but those things are merely the base experience. The lemons, if you will.
The sweet stuff of LEMONADE, the ingredients that really hit me, are the samplings of spoken word poetry. Written by poet Warsan Shire and adapted by Bey, here I’ve included key phrases and stanzas that I believe best represent the film as a whole. These are not the track names, but the subtitles through which the film is divided. There are 11 sections.
“You remind me of my father, a magician
Able to exist in two places at once
In the tradition of men in my blood you come
Home at 3am and lie to me
What are you hiding?”
Here Bey announces her first suspicions of Jay-Z’s infidelity, and makes the connection between him and her own father.
In this next section we are introduced to the overt religious aspects that proliferate throughout LEMONADE. Ceremony and ritual and worship define the experience of Bey as she explains how she tried to deny her innermost anixety: “Are you cheating on me?:”
“I levitated into the basement
Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river
Got on my knees and said amen
And said I mean
I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet
I threw myself into a volcano
I drank the blood and drank the wine
I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God
I crossed myself and thought I saw the devil
I grew thickened skin on my feet
I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the Holy Book”
Bey and Shire’s imagery here breeches on the sacrilegious gurlesque.
These two lines, extracted from a larger body of poetry, powerfully express Bey’s frustration in her relationship:
Why can’t you see me?
Everyone else can
Even mogul powerhouses can be overlooked by the men who love them.
So what are you gonna say at my
funeral now that you’ve killed me?
Here lies the body of the love of my life,
whose heart I broke without a gun to my head
Here lies the mother of my children both living and dead
Rest in peace my true love
Who I took for granted
Most bomb pussy
Who because of me, sleep evaded
Her shroud is loneliness
Her God is listening
Her heaven would be a love without betrayal
Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks
Take that, Becky-with-the-good-hair.
In this section called Emptiness we witness a distinct transition from anger and grief to a triumphant “fuck you” and appraisal of women on their daily hustle, with the track “6 Inch.” (Unabashedly my favorite track.) Bey includes longer segments of Shire’s poetry here, “Grief Has Its Blue Hands In Her Hair,” to preface the track, and it draws the connection between sex and worship with your partner:
She sleeps all day
dreams of you in both worlds,
tills the blood in and out of uterus,
wakes up smelling of zinc.
Grief sedated by orgasm,
orgasm heightened by grief.
God was in the room
when the man said to the woman
I love you so
much wrap your legs around
me pull me in pull me in pull
me in pull me in pull me in
pull me in.
Sometimes when he had her
nipple in his mouth she’d whisper
“Oh my God” –
this too is a form of worship.
Her hips grind,
pestle and mortar,
cinnamon and cloves.
Whenever he pulls out:
This is peak female empowerment here, recognizing the power dynamic and element of worship inherent in sex. Shire’s words are so poignant.
Accountability features Bey’s own words in direct address to her mother:
Mother dearest let me inherit the Earth
Teach me how to make him beg
Let me make up for the years he made you wait
Did he bend your reflection?
Did he make you forget your own name?
Did he convince you he was a God?
Did you get on your knees daily?
Do his eyes close like doors?
Are you a slave to the back of his head?
Am I talking about your husband or your father?
LEMONADE draws an interesting comparison to the treatment of women by their husbands and fathers here, pointing out the curious intermingling of religion and patriarchy and how women react to these institutions.
A home video of Beyoncé and her father is shown here, within the following musical cue, “Daddy Lessons,” an unexpected country song that is another favorite track of mine.
The most bold phrase of this spoken word is a chant repeated by Bey:
But you are the love of my life…
love of my life…
the love of my life…
the love of my life.
Bey is beginning to forgive Jay-Z here, showing us that her love is stronger than his transgressions, than his pride.
now that reconciliation is possible.
If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious
Bey delineates again from Shire for her own message to Jay-Z, and to the greater black community. The continued religious language is a beautiful touch.
You are terrifying
We see that Bey says this to her reflection; appraising herself is a key part of forgiveness. Her feelings of inadequacy colored her grieving process and she is regaining self-sufficiency and self-worth with every stanza.
In another poem by Warsan Shire, called “Nail Technician as Palm Reader:”
The nail technician pushes my cuticles back
Turns my hand over
Stretches the skin on my palm and says
“I see your daughters, and their daughters”
This hopeful look at Bey’s progeny (and indeed at the future that lies ahead for us all) precedes the track “Freedom,” which is a brilliantly political song intimately tied in with the Black Lives Matter movement.
At last, the titular section of the video, Beyoncé’s grandmother, Hattie, tells us how she has survived the hardships of her life:
Take one pint of water, add a half pound of sugar
The juice of eight lemons, the zest of half lemon
Pour the water from one jug, then into the other, several times
Strain through a clean napkin
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
You passed these instructions down to your daughter
Who then passed it down to her daughter
GRANDMOTHER (HATTIE): I’ve had my ups and downs
But I always find the inner strength to pull myself up
I was served lemons, but I made lemonade
Diving deeper still into LEMONADE, the visual album is an intimate examination of women’s relationships with men: our lovers, our fathers, how we credit and discredit them, forgive them, how we suffer in their wake, and rise up from our grief, healing and forgiving and forever loving. Beyoncé and Warsan Shire’s work together explores the power we give men, and how we reclaim it.
And we move through these emotions with these women, the mogul and the poet, and our own grief and sorrow bubbles up within, and we can examine our relationships with men and our mothers through the same lens.
Now let me tell you the fucked up bit about this cinematic and musical phenomena, the real zest of it all, that nearly makes LEMONADE too bitter for consumers to swallow. LEMONADE is available to stream exclusively through Tidal, a service owned by Jay-Z:
Beyoncé is believed to own 3% in the streaming service. Her husband, Jay Z, is the majority shareholder.
So Jay-Z is cashing in on his alleged infidelity.
But is their infidelity fabricated, is Bey a capitalist femme machine? Maybe it’s appealing to imagine that their marriage scandal is a business construct, but to me, her emotions ring too true for such manufactured perspective. All of these inquiries are merely speculative, and whatever deals Bey has arranged with her husband to stream via Tidal does not strip her of her power she has demonstrated to us. If this album is about infidelity and finding love in your imperfect partner, then it is also about forgiveness, and healing, and the very delivery of the album is a testament to that.
(I don’t care if Jay-Z is earning money from this, he certainly isn’t earning our respect. Beyoncé transcends all and it is not for me to judge if she forgives Jay-Z for all his Beckys-with-the-good-hair.)
There is a lot to think about, the controversies surrounding the album, but when you strain the bitter from the sweet brew, the art that stands alone is truly magnificent.
Now more than ever, this is Beyoncé’s moment, and it is the shared moment of black women in America. LEMONADE is made for women, yes, but it is a high profile work of art for black women, which is the most important thing about it.
As a white woman, I recognize that LEMONADE was not made specifically for me, that this is not my story or experience of American life— but damn, how I stand in complete shaking awe and mad respect of the magic that Bey and Warshan Shire have spun for us, out of woe and mischief and macabre. And I can empathize with the shattering heartbreak, and betrayal, and regaining of self, and crazy, crazy love.
After we’ve had some lemonade, can we reconcile with our lovers, with those who have transgressed us? If we do heal, let it be glorious.