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On ‘Lemonade’: Through Vulnerability, Beyoncé Displays Her Power

CREDIT: HBO
CREDIT: HBO

Beyoncé has something to say.

This alone is something of an event, because Beyoncé has earned a reputation as the star who tells us nothing. She is perhaps our most private public figure, a pop icon who so rarely grants interviews she did not even deign to speak with a reporter when she graced the cover of the September issue of Vogue. Her Instagram posts are often images sans caption; she tweeted on Saturday for the first time since 2013, only to announce what the arrival of the visual album Lemonade.

But Lemonade takes us on a tour of what Beyoncé’s inner life might look like. Some of the imagery from “Formation,” the music video and single she surprise-dropped before the Super Bowl, is present here, in the high-necked, antebellum fashion, the use of New Orleans, the way that, when she is not alone, she is almost always flanked by black women, among them her daughter Blue Ivy, tennis icon Serena Williams, teens-on-the-rise Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya, and Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s mothers, also appear, holding up framed photos of their sons.

While the cast of Lemonade is this phalanx of women, a clear celebration of female solidarity, the narrative of Lemonade is about a man: It appears to be a confirmation by Beyoncé of her husband Jay Z’s long-rumored infidelity. The hour-long film, made up of eleven songs and video segments — “Formation” plays over the end credits — are presented as her Kübler-Ross-style method of reckoning with that betrayal.

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In doing so, she makes herself as vulnerable as ever. To admit that you have been cheated on — especially when your brand is that you are the world’s most desirable woman, beautiful and badass and bulletproof — is to show the kind of humanity Beyoncé rarely reveals. In “Hold Up,” as she skip-struts down the streets of New Orleans and gleefully takes a baseball bat to a car, a fire hydrant, and a security camera, she sings, “Let’s imagine for a moment that you never made a name for yourself… Never had the baddest woman in the game in your sheets… Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you, slow down… What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you,” before asking that evergreen question: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?”

Does she look jealous? Does she look crazy? At the end she looks the way she probably wanted to look: powerful. Even in her vulnerability, she has all the control. Say her husband cheated on her; she, in turn, is outing her husband as a dirtbag in the most public way possible, and then she is making him appear two-thirds of the way through her video album as a silent, humbled figure, literally at her feet, as Jay Z does in “Sandcastles.” He does not get a guest verse, though many, many others do; collaborators include Kendrick Lamar, the Weeknd, Jack White, and James Blake, not to mention the adapted verses of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, whose lines carry Lemonade from one song to the next. To top it all off, this effort of Beyonce’s appeared to be the property of Jay Z’s struggling streaming service, Tidal, alone, but — oh, how perfect — as of Monday, Lemonade is available on iTunes, too. Hope Jay didn’t think they were exclusive.

Gone is the now demure-sounding command to an ex that he put “everything you own in a box to the left.” In Lemonade’s “Sorry,” Beyoncé, perched as if on a throne as Serena Williams joyously dances beside her, singing, “Me and my ladies sip my D’USSÉ cup / I don’t give a fuck / Chucking my deuces up / Suck on my balls / Pause / I had enough.” She tells her women-in-arms to face their cheating men with “middle fingers up… wave it in his face / tell him, boy, bye.”

As Vulture points out, in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé samples Malcolm X’s speech, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?,” in which he proclaimed that “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” (In the opening of the speech, which is not sampled, Malcolm X asks, “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?… Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips?”, a call-out Beyonce acknowledges and rebuts in “Formation” with her chorus: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros / I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.”)

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl TriumphThe Super Bowl is supposed to be about triumph: Over the limitations of the human body, over that vague “they” athletes…thinkprogress.orgLemonade, musically, feels like Beyoncé’s most sprawling work to date. There’s reggae and funk and even country (“Daddy’s Little Girl,” which takes on her parents’ divorce and includes video of Beyoncé’s father both with Beyoncé as a young girl and with Blue Ivy). As she signaled with “Formation,” Beyoncé isn’t only about escapism and fantasy, which is arguably what dominated much of her self-titled visual album from 2013, with its many ecstatic odes to sex and romantic love. Visually and sonically, Beyoncé is engaging directly with her place in the world: Her place as a black woman in a society that systemically and often violently devalues black women, her place as a link on a chain between her mother’s history and her daughter’s future. Lemonade gets its name from a home video embedded in the middle of the album, as Hattie White, Jay Z’s grandmother, celebrates her 90th birthday. “I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up,” she says. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

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No one drops the mic like Beyoncé. Dropping the mic is about a victory so complete it is obviously final; you have said the thing after which no more needs to be said. But most artists drop the mic in their music only to pick it up, dust it off, and “one more thing” themselves into the great overexposed beyond. The song that should speak for itself instead is a springboard into a bunch of misguided Instagrams, juvenile tweets, pointed interviews in carefully-selected magazines and newspapers. But there’s no comment quite like no comment, no power like the one on display here, of Beyoncé saying everything she needs to say as transparently or opaquely as she likes, and then immediately withdrawing from the explosive conversation she’s begun.