Beyonce doesn’t simply release albums anymore, she unleashes events.
And so it was last week, amid deep mourning for a lost icon, music’s queen dropped Lemonade, an arresting display of what technically qualifies as videos and singles, but is better described as a work of art that appeared deeply personal, yet is a bold social and political statement as well.
It contains revenge anthems for scorned wives and girlfriends, a display of #BlackGirlMagic and support of #BlackLivesMatter, and an ode to forgiveness. It was broadcast as an hour-long HBO special last weekend, and now, of course, is streaming on Tidal, the music service owned by hubby Jay Z.
“Are you cheating on me?” Beyonce’s husky voice intones early on. For the first half of Lemonade, it seems that Jay Z’s 100th problem is here, and unfixable. While Beyonce has used rumours of infidelity to fuel her music for years, from Ring the Alarm to Jealous, it seems as if in Lemonade, she’s spilling all the goss.
On Hold Up, an intoxicating song with an island beat, a smiling Beyonce takes Crazy in Love to a new level: she smashes a bat on everything around her while reminding her man that other women “don’t love you like I love you.” Later, on Sorry, with a twerking Serena Williams by her side, she shows her man the stupidity of his cheating ways and all he’s lost. “Middle fingers up, put ’em hands high, put it in his face, tell him ‘Boy bye.’”
At another point, she references her man’s desire for “Becky with the good hair” and talks about wearing the scalp of the girl he’s cheating with. Ouch.
What could come across as desperate instead becomes empowering, though, in part due to the poetic narrative Beyonce uses to tie each segment together, as well as the imagery, which is a defiant celebration of the beauty of black women, all looking glorious, with cameos from the likes of Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis, Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg.
And just as we think it’s time to start to get seriously concerned for Jay Z’s safety, he appears, nestled with his queen, in Sandcastles, which speaks to a troubled union but a love that transcends it.
While much of Lemonade would appear to tie into Beyonce’s own life, or so she would have us believe, she also draws from the angst of the black community: the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are seen, among others, looking sombre as they hold photos of their slain sons. At another point, she tells the audience via the voice of Malcolm X that “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman”.
Like much of her music over the last few years, the music on Lemonade is not made for pop radio. Besides the explicit language, it doesn’t fit into neat categories and boxes, ranging from R&B to a bit of reggae to rock, and even a country twang (Beyonce is, after all, from the Deep South, so maybe this should be less of a surprise than it is). Paired with its visuals, it’s also elevated, becoming a work of art that has many layers to be dissected; there may well be dissertations planned on it at this moment.
It all speaks to Beyonce’s undisputed role the queen of pop – not of music, but of culture. It’s hard to imagine any other artist who could drop a project in the middle of the world’s mourning for Prince and still not only get attention for it, but captivate us so.
Toward the end of Formation, Beyonce intones: “You know you [in charge] when you cause all this conversation.”
With Lemonade, she shows us she is Queen, once again.