While I don’t have a membership card to the “Beyhive,” I do think that Beyoncé is an exceptionally talented performer. When the collective internet started buzzing about the Lemonade teaser trailer, I made a mental note to look it up after it premiered on Saturday, but otherwise didn’t think much of it. And then I saw it – and felt a lot of things. In many ways, Lemonade is as much of a visual feast as it is an emotional assault. Beyoncé’s performance in Lemonade is raw and real and uncensored; she portrays several characters while simultaneously sharing private and intimate moments of her life. It’s a beautiful representation of life imitating art and art imitating life. I’ve already seen Lemonade twice, and I still think there’s more to it than meets the eye, so I’m pretty sure there are some key points below I may have (most certainly) missed.
However, in the days since Lemonade’s release, there has been a rather ugly and contemptuous reaction to the visual album. While the media and collective Beyhive trip over themselves to discover who “Becky with the good hair” may be and point skeptical fingers at cheating spouses and side chicks, I think it’s more important to focus on the real heart and soul of Beyoncé’s visual album. Social media gawking and drama should not overshadow Lemonade’s artistic achievements.
In a world dominated by fast, easy, and convenient media consumption, Lemonade challenges ideas that artists’ accomplishments and success should be measured based on commerciality or whether something “goes viral” (cue earworms like “Gangnam Style” or “Shake It Off”). Even Beyoncé herself fits into this industry expectation with hits like “Crazy in Love,” “Single Ladies,” and “Run the World (Girls).” But throughout her career, Beyoncé has grown as a recording artist, and she has the unique opportunity and loyal fan base to test format and presentation. Lemonade demonstrates a desire to continue experimenting and exploring her craft.
Lemonade integrates music, spoken word by the amazingly talented poet Warsan Shire, and stunning visuals to reflect the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Because I want to try and analyze Lemonade as objectively as I can, I’m referring to Beyoncé as “her” and Jay-Z as “him” in an attempt to separate what may be purely an artistic expression from real potential events.
You can taste the dishonesty
It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier
But even that’s a test
Constantly aware of it all
My lonely ear
Pressed against the walls of your world
– “Pray You Catch Me”
“Pray You Catch Me” immediately sets the tone for Lemonade. Beyoncé kneels on a barren stage, prostrate before the world, praying that “he” catches “her,” before plunging into water Inception-style. She continues to sing, even though it should be impossible. The water is overwhelming and stifling, yet she still continues to pray.
What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy
– “Hold Up”
Beyoncé brandishes her baseball bat “Hot Sauce” and literally rage quits in the street. She’s done, she’s had enough, and the metaphorical buck stops here. The anger section dominates the first half of Lemonade, really coming to a head in the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White).” Beyoncé pulls no punches, gesturing at the camera in harsh lighting and vows: “Uh, this is your final warning/You know I give you life/If you try this shit again/You gon lose your wife.”
What is it about you that I can’t erase, baby?
Well every promise don’t work out that way, no no, babe
Well every promise don’t work out that way
In what could only be described as Beyoncé’s most compelling and emotional performance, “Sandcastles” clearly marks a shift in the album. Despite the continual promises to leave, the real world isn’t so black and white, and she can’t stay away. “Sandcastles” is also the point in the visual album when Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s husband, makes a startling and vulnerable cameo – the two are so connected and intimate, yet the lyrics counter their intimacy. “Sandcastles” ends with Beyoncé alone, wiping tears from her eyes.
I love you more than this job, please don’t work for me
Go back to your sleep in your favorite spot just next to me
– “Forward (feat. James Blake)”
Caught in a fractured state between separation and reconciliation, things between “him” and “her” are still not okay. The best that they can do during the depressive stage is to keep moving forward – where they will end up is anyone’s guess.
Found the truth beneath your lies
And true love never has to hide
– “All Night”
Despite the trials and tribulations, “she” decides to fight for what she values, which in this case is her relationship. In the song “Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar),” Beyoncé sings before a group of women, telling her own story while speaking to their experiences as well: “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/Hey! I’ma keep running/Cause a winner don't quit on themselves.” This is the affirmation that “she” cannot, and will not, give up. Finally, in “All Night,” personal home videos and candid snapshots of Beyoncé and her family flash across the screen. “All Night” completes the rollercoaster that Lemonade leads viewers on with a sense of unity and triumph.
While the themes of grief explored through each song are masterful in their own right, it’s the visual accompaniment that makes Lemonade such a unique narrative experience.
Its use of time is fluid. In songs like “Hold Up,” “Sorry” and “6 Inch (feat. The Weeknd),” each location and use of wardrobe feel modern, yet in songs like “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” invokes imagery of the Antebellum South and African roots. I think this use of time was used to symbolize that while the album addresses a single woman’s experience, the many themes, especially those of femininity and racial identity, explored throughout the album are universal.
Also interestingly, the dichotomy between urban spaces and nature is frequently used; personally, I don’t think this is simply for aesthetics. Lemonade begins with Beyoncé walking through, what looks like to me, a dried up marsh and ends with the song “Formation,” where Beyoncé slips below floodwaters on top of a police cruiser. Throughout the visual album, water is used to purify and to re-engage each stage of grief.
In all honesty, I think I could write a half a dozen more blogs on Lemonade alone, and it would barely make a dent. Ultimately, this visual album is the realization that Beyoncé is an unapologetic artist. After taking three years to release another album, it’s no wonder that Lemonade is loaded with heavy themes and symbolism that indicates a potential rough patch in her marriage. Beyoncé is hardly the first artist to use her real experiences to fuel her creativity, but I think she may be one of the few to express it in this way. As with all art, everything about this visual album is subjective, but I for one think this is some of Beyoncé’s best work, and I can hardly wait to see what’s next for music and narrative in the future.