Hell hath no fury like Beyoncé scorned. It has been around three weeks since she dropped Lemonade, a visual album, and the world seems better for it. Following its release, the album has incited almost universal critical acclaim accompanied with a steaming pile of hot gossip and controversy. The album is a brutally honest look into Beyoncé’s womanhood, her blackness and the intersection between the two. It is quite arguably her magnum opus; a career-defining work of art which offers a jarring and oftentimes uncomfortable look into Beyoncé’s marriage and her experiences as a black woman.
Beyoncé introduced the concept of the visual album with 2013’s Beyoncé, which was dropped in a stunning PR move with no warning whatsoever. She later sang in Nicki Minaj’s song “Feeling Myself” that she “changed the game with that digital drop”. Well if she changed the game then, she’s definitely altered it irreparably this time around. Beyoncé was heralded as one of her best albums so far but in the face of Lemonade, it almost seems like a warm up. The album was a celebration of the ways Beyoncé defined herself – a mother, a wife, a feminist, a woman in touch with her sexuality and a business woman who defied the rules of the music industry.
In direct contrast, Lemonade is a far more personal and visceral exploration of Beyoncé’s emotions in the aftermath of an incomprehensible betrayal. The visual album is split into eleven chapters, structured in a similar way to the Kubler-Ross model of grief, but manages to provide a more nuanced look at the grieving process. The album addresses adultery and deception from the very first line. “You can taste the dishonesty/ It’s all over your breath” sings Beyoncé on a lone stage before she jumps off a building headfirst into “Hold Up”. After one of the most iconic sequences of the album, in which Beyoncé destroys cars, CCTV cameras and fire hydrants with a baseball bat, comes “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. If “Pray you Catch Me” and “Hold Up” are akin to a lioness stalking her prey, then “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is Beyoncé moving in for the kill. “Sorry” and “6 Inch” seem almost joyous, like she is revelling in her victory after thoroughly eviscerating Jay Z on national television.
The second half of the album focuses on retrospection and inner power. “Daddy Lessons” is an unexpected country music number, infused with blues rhythms and hand clapping which somehow seems to work. Lemonade is then led on a deeply private journey with the ethereal “Love Drought” and the strikingly intimate “Sandcastles” in which Beyoncé appears to reconcile with her husband and firmly removes any thoughts of this power couple separating. James Blake’s short yet haunting “Forward” leads the album into perhaps the most powerful song on the album, the Kendrick Lamar collaboration “Freedom”. The album ends with “All Night”, a classic Beyoncé love song which showcases snapshots from her own relationship with Jay Z, and the viral “Formation”.
In recent times, there’s been a trend of heralding ‘the strong female character’ who really is a collection of masculine tropes in an attractive woman’s body; but Beyoncé throws that version out the window. Instead, she brings to the forefront a woman who is gut-wrenchingly vulnerable and in touch with her weaknesses. The beauty of the album is that Beyoncé finds her strength by working through her insecurities and coming out the other side with more self respect and experience. It is this coming of age, this transformative character development, which makes the album a unique piece of feminist discourse.
Lemonade seems to be Beyoncé’s most mature work yet and while the album includes a variety of genres including country and classic rock, it somehow remains cohesive. The glue which holds the album together is Beyoncé’s adaptation of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s poems which thread their way through the album and weave it together into a tapestry. Beyoncé’s sultry voice punctuates the chapters, using the poems as interludes which add context and greater meaning.
Shire is not the only African collaborator on the album. One stand-out is Laolu Senbanjo, a former attorney-turned-artist whose expressive body art features on “Sorry”. This is not the only Nigerian influence found in her work – she wears a Batik print dress in “Daddy Lessons” and channels the Yoruba goddess Oshun in “Hold Up” in her mustard yellow Roberto Cavalli dress. These influences are a clear insight on how the African diaspora has influenced African American identity today. It is an exploration of the modern and the ancestral, the traditional and the alternative.
Due to the numerous references to Beyoncé’s identity as a black woman, both overt and covert, the album is inherently political and Beyoncé knows it. She includes the mothers of victims of police brutality – Lesley McSpadden, Gwen Carr and Sybrina Fulton. She includes Aaden Bereal, a 6-year-old boy to dance in front of a police line up in “Formation” and ends his dance sequence with the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ gesture made famous by the Ferguson protests. She quotes Malcolm X and includes historical figures in the Civil Rights movement like Leah Chase. She drowns atop a sinking police cruiser and silently screams in outrage over the suffering of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She’s political, she’s in your face and she doesn’t give a damn what you think.
It is hugely refreshing to see a black woman so angry and uninhibited. In a world which uses the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype to fuel their misogynoir, Beyoncé validates the emotions of black women. She is unapologetic and carefree as she saunters through streets and destroys public property. She is brimming with barely-contained fury as she takes off her wedding ring and throws it at the camera. She is apathetic as all hell as she throws her middle fingers up and waves them in Jay Z’s face. It’s revolutionary in a global society and culture which sees women, especially black women, as illogical and overly sensitive. It’s an affirmation of her womanhood and her blackness all in one. It is a testament to the fact that Lemonade is an album by a black woman for other black women and women-aligned folks.
Despite the acclaim from critics and outspoken support from her loyal fans (the ‘Beyhive’) Lemonade has not remained untouched by rightful criticism. Many have said that Beyoncé has not created the album on her own but has instead succeeded due to the large number of collaborators. This is a fair point to make; but Beyoncé has moved past the title of singer-songwriter and has adapted the role of a director in a film, relying upon the expertise and talent of others to realise a deeply personal vision. It’s not just the music itself which has been critiqued – many black feminists have pointed out the lack of dark skinned black women in the video and have cited the age old roots of colourism at play. Others have pointed out Beyoncé’s unwillingness to included fat femme black women in the album. In a slew of celebrity cameos like Zendaya and Serena Williams, it would have been easy to include talented fat femme black artists like Gabourey Sidibe, Amber Riley or Jazmine Sullivan. I guess nobody is perfect, not even Queen Bey herself.
There is one thing for certain: Beyoncé always knew this was going to happen. When she dropped Formation with no prior warning, she told us: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”. And boy did she cause a conversation.
Words by Ishita Mathur