Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Ain’t for Everybody–Which Is Exactly the Point
There’s something about having your heart broken, about feeling like it’s been ripped out of your chest and cut into tiny pieces, about the air being so heavy it seems like it couldn’t possibly pass through your body to give your lungs the oxygen needed for survival, that lends itself to creativity.
There's a bittersweet beauty in that kind of pain; it's so heavy and real, but so seemingly intangible, that it transforms into a literal ache in your body. It's there but it's impossible to pinpoint where it began and where it’s landed exactly. But once you emerge victoriously from that pain, it’s a revelation that can’t be erased by circumstance or opinion. You’re reborn. Found again as a different, better you. It’s the sort of all-encompassing pain that lends itself to high art.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a lot like that.
The old school lemons-to-lemonade philosophy she evoked to overcome heartbreak has produced her most personal album to date...and probably her best. Lemonade is Beyoncé’s statement album. She’s brash and confident, broken and contrite, fierce and vulnerable throughout the 12-track record. Lemonade is Beyoncé’s Back to Black, Tennessee Slim Is the Bomb, or The Velvet Rope-- personal to the point where it’s almost painful to listen to, but captivating and incredibly relatable.
Honestly, it’s the only Beyoncé album that I’ve ever been inclined to listen to repeatedly, back to back.
I listened to the album before I watched the Lemonade film, which allowed me to focus on the music, the energy and the overall beautiful brokenness projected throughout songs like "Hold Up" and "Forward" featuring James Blake. I went in with no expectations (having enjoyed a completely Lemonade-free weekend that was focused solely on celebrating Prince while the rest of the Internet was exploding). I came out a with a newfound respect for Bey’s music.
I’ve been pretty middle-of-the-road about Beyoncé for a while now. I’m not a Super Stan, one of those people who believe any and everything she produces is gold. Nor am I a Beyoncé Hater—one of those people who find fault with everything she does, not because she’s terrible, but because it’s the only reaction they can muster to counteract the exhausting, crazy fandom of her Beyhive. My respect for her has increased over the last three years or so, as I watched her grow into herself, become more musically confident and well, bold.
Still, while I would bounce to "Flawless" in the car or listen to her more soulful songs like “Ego” and “Party,” (give me those songs over "Halo" or "XO" any day of the week), Beyoncé’s music mostly remained a piece of art in a museum; I respected it but didn’t necessarily enjoy it like that. I understood the aesthetics that made her music pleasing to the masses, but it wasn’t anything I needed in-house. Basically, I liked Beyoncé for what she represented— a black woman who is the biggest star in the free world, setting a precedent for success, even if unwittingly, for other little black girls. And over the past three years, when she began doling out money to Black Lives Matter initiatives, bailing protestors out of jail and showing up at rallies for black boys murdered by the police, my admiration increased-- even if that admiration didn’t lend itself to her music.
Lemonade is something different. It's pretty damn dope.
In the 13 years she been on the scene as a solo artist, this is the first time I feel as though I'm actually seeing and feeling her, not just the projection of the Beyoncé she wanted us to see.
It started, of course, with "Formation." Hearing her proclaim her preference for "Jackson Five nostrils" and for her baby's hair in Afros, did something for my soul, especially when I looked at my own four-year old daughter's natural curls, which she is immensely proud of. When Beyoncé threw up a Black Power fist while standing on top of a sinking New Orleans police cruiser for all the world to see, and the next day, when she trotted onto the world's biggest stage in an outfit that was an ode to the Black Panthers, I was exuberant. Still, I didn't know what to expect from Lemonade. However, I was pleased to find it's full of that same necessary black girl brashness.
Yes, the production on the record is great, particularly on the Jack White and Beyoncé produced "Don't Hurt Yourself" and on the self-produced “Daddy Lessons.” But mostly, it’s her lyrics. I get that this isn’t the first time that Beyoncé has had something meaningful to say lyrically but this is definitely the first time that I’ve actually wanted to hear it. And no, it’s not because the lyrics are an extremely personal glimpse into the intimate dynamics of one of the world’s most famous couples. It’s because Lemonade is just raw. It occupies that space that every woman gets to at some point-- that broken down place where it’s difficult to see the light, the place where you have to claw the confidence out of yourself to cover and mend your heart's shattered pieces. It’s honest. It's real. Vulnerability historically makes the best art, and Lemonade is no exception.
Beyoncé’s vocals on this record are aching at times ("Sandcastles"), haunting at others ("6 Inch" featuring The Weeknd), defiant and full of bravado born of a woman’s struggle ("Sorry"). She’s not treading new territory here, artistically. A brokenhearted woman who fights to love her man through his indiscretions ain’t exactly groundbreaking. Throughout Lemonade, Beyoncé often paints herself as the woman who loves her man unconditionally but is simply too much and too complex for him to handle, thus forcing him to search for “easier” love elsewhere. Or in Bey’s case, with "Becky with the good hair." Essentially, it’s the Hubble Syndrome, as illustrated brilliantly in Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford’s The Way We Were and later reinterpreted in Prince's "If I Were Your Girlfriend"—the man craves something simpler and the woman loves the man so much, she runs to him to soothe her, even when he's the source of her pain. So no, Lemonade as a musical work isn't necessarily innovative in concept. But just because it isn’t new doesn’t mean that it isn’t damn good. Compelling, even.
Beyoncé channels the dirty debutante raw fierceness that was slightly reminiscent of wildly underrated singer, Joi, while delivering "Don't Hurt Yourself." On the song, she angrily sings with distorted vocals, "Who the f— do you think I am? You ain't married to no average b-tch, boy" over choppy production and a deep bass track. It's hard not to be present with her, feeling her brokenhearted rage when she declares— "When you hurt me, you hurt yourself." And on "Daddy Lessons" it's easy to relate to the full circle relationship she experiences with her father—on the one hand, being disappointed in her father's inability to be the man her mother needed, but on the other, maturing enough to be grateful for the lessons her father extends her way, as man who recognizes those same failings in her daughter's choice of partner. "Love Drought," with its airy vocals is reminiscent of talented songwriter Jhene Aiko, but Beyoncé manages to twist it enough to sound sincere. And in the end, she finds remedy in her torturer. Because sometimes the strength isn't necessarily in leaving, but in staying, and becoming stronger through the experience of being truthful with yourself and your desires, as showcased on "All Night."
By the time that I got around to viewing the accompanying film for Lemonade, I was already sold. But watching Lemonade, I was kinda blown away. Breathtaking cinematography and affirming imagery aside (at one point she stands audaciously in front of a burning plantation house), it was powerful. But more than that, Lemonade resonated with me because Beyoncé, the biggest star on planet earth, has continued her streak of being unapologetically black.
Yes, Lemonade is a call and response for resilient women everywhere. But make no mistakes—Beyoncé made Lemonade very specifically for black women.
Of course, that’s not say that just because you're a black woman it’ll resonate with you. Maybe it won’t. But that’s not really the point, is it? Whether you like it or “get it," she made this album very specifically for black women, at the risk of alienating her broader audience. That’s not just cool, that’s important. Is Lemonade some sort of socio-political manifesto? No, not really. But then, yes, maybe. Because it’s so unapologetically black during a time when being unafraid to be unapologetically black is so necessary, it ends up being that by default. This celebration of blackness is coming from the biggest star in the world, with the power and influence to be seen by everyone. Again, that’s important.
Visually, Lemonade is simply gorgeous. What was already a lyrically raw work is only aided by Nigerian poet, Warsan Shire’s written narration, which Beyoncé delivers convincingly. I was late to the Warsan Shire party, having only gotten hip to her about a year and a half ago, but to say she’s brilliant would be understating the unnerving simplicity in which she conveys the most basic, yet complex human emotions. Put simply, Warsan is dope as hell and Beyoncé gets cool points for having the foresight to further showcase her talents to the world, just as she earned cool points for featuring incredible Nigerian author/thinker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "Flawless."
As black women and girls of all shapes and hues boldly stared into the camera during Lemonade, their faces masks of joy, pain, sorrow, defiance, resilience and survival, it was hard for me to look away. I saw myself in those women. I saw my little girl self in Quvenzhané Wallis, my teenage self in the dauntless eyes of Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya. I saw myself in the beauty of model Winnie Harlow. When the best athlete in the world, Serena Williams, twerked and undulated her body with seduction and grace— the same body that has had to stand in defiance against the warped, twisted perceptions of a racist, patriarchal society, with no room or allowance for exhaustion— I felt victorious, and feminine, and proud.
And when Mike Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, blinked at the camera, tears rolling down her face, I felt my own stomach clench with the unending pain and righteous anger of what it must feel like for a mother to lose her child so violently, so senselessly. So no, Pier's Morgan, Lemonade was not exploitative of McSpadden or Sybrina Fulton, who also makes an appearance. Those scenes were the visual manifestation of the bond between a black woman recognizing the pain of another black woman as only we can.
Even the weakest song on the project, "Freedom" featuring Kendrick Lamar, (which is a little too close to the nearly-unbearable John Legend and Common collaboration "Glory") is excusable when accompanied by the powerful imagery of black women, young and old just being present with their individual truths.
As Beyoncé free-flows through the process of healing, grief giving way to redemption and ultimately the newfound, spiritual power of trusting one's own inner-strength, the beauty of Lemonade is discerned. In a micro sense, it's about a woman healing from a broken heart but in a broader sense, it taps into the strength derived from pain, something that has been unique and specific to black women in America and across the Diaspora.
Of course, Lemonade's overall impact on popular culture has yet to be determined. But it's bold, celebratory portrayal of black women is something that can and should be respected right now, regardless of your personal politics or opinion of Beyoncé.