Beyoncé: “Lemonade”

Beyoncé slays.

That’s the only word to describe her achievement on her most recent album, Lemonade.

Now I am not a big fan of hip hop or pop music or what the Grammys call urban contemporary music, but ever since Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” at last year’s Super Bowl, I have been mightily intrigued by this powerhouse of a performer.

For Beyoncé’s songwriting and performance go well beyond hip-hop or pop music or urban contemporary or R&B. Indeed, it seems that any genre is just too narrow to contain Beyoncé. “I am large,” said Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” The same might very well be said of Beyoncé. She slays precisely because she contains vast multitudes.

“Formation” – especially the video Beyoncé released the day before the Super Bowl – made me sit up and take notice. Indeed, it made an entire nation sit up and take notice. Like many Americans, I pored over the video, read the lyrics online, read analyses of the song and the video, talked with others about what they were hearing and seeing. So many layers of African American history – from Creole culture to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, from the Black Power movement to Ferguson and #blacklivesmatter. I continue to watch the video and listen to the song – and I continue to hear and see new cultural references every time I witness this powerful piece.

Two months later, Beyoncé released Lemonade, both as a “conventional” album (which in its release exclusively via the Tidal streaming service can hardly be called “conventional”) – and quite unconventionally, as a “visual album.” Back in the 1970s, we would have called this a “concept album” – but the term “visual album” refers to the fact that the entire album is also presented as a 65-minute film, which premiered on HBO in April 2016 the same day the album was released. It’s safe to say that Beyoncé and her husband, rapper Jay Z (who owns Tidal), likely earned considerable money from this album and film. As she says in “Formation,” “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

On the surface, Lemonade may tell the story of Jay Z’s infidelity, but to say that makes it sound as though you’re getting the latest issue of Us magazine or some other celebrity gossip rag.

Lemonade is not that. You couldn’t say Beyoncé slays on this album if this were merely a tell-all complaint.

No, Lemonade tells the story of marital infidelity in such a way that Beyoncé – as the narrator of these songs – becomes a stand-in for all women who have been betrayed, particularly all black women who have been denigrated as second-class citizens (or worse). The album’s title is drawn from Jay Z’s grandmother, who is shown in the film at her 90th birthday party: “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

Spin magazine calls Lemonade “a visual tale of grief, resurrection, and black female empowerment” and goes on to say:

On first listen, Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade is all about Jay Z’s cheating. But the 65-minute film accompanying the music makes the personal political by visually empowering black women, celebrating Deep Southern culture, and referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X, and Hurricane Katrina. Beyoncé is not just a single woman scorned — she represents a scorned demographic, or as the film directly quotes Malcolm X: “The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

The visual album features the work of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, who hold photos of their dead sons; and appearances and contributions from African American celebrities and artists from Serena Williams to Kendrick Lamar. Jay Z also appears near the end of the film, and Ivy Blue Carter, Beyoncé and Jay Z’s young daughter, makes more than one appearance.

The cinematography and some of the actual scenes in the visual album strongly echo Julie Dash’s revolutionary 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust. According to The Washington Post, Daughters of the Dust is “widely recognized as the cultural antecedent” to Lemonade. NPR interviewed Dash about last year’s rerelease of her film. When asked how she responded to Lemonade, Dash said:

I was, in a word, enthralled. I was stunned. My mouth was hanging open a gap. I was so taken by the music, the visuals, the non-linear story structure. I was – I was in heaven. . . . I was very pleased. I was very pleased.

To learn more about the album and to participate in a lively, ongoing discussion about it, go to Twitter and use #LemonadeSyllabus as your hashtag. To read the lyrics to each song and learn the behind-the-scenes back story to the evolution and composition of each song, visit The Atlantic also offers a substantial and insightful analysis of the album.

If you want to get deep into the heart of what Lemonade represents and think about whether Beyoncé is contributing to the liberation of African American women, you might want to explore the debate started by the nuanced and not always positive view of the album and film offered by African American cultural and feminist critic bell hooks. Her commentary – “Moving Beyond Pain” – sparked considerable discussion. The website Feministing is a good place to explore this lively conversation and to peruse a variety of responses to hooks’s assessment.

At the end of the day, Beyoncé slays. As she says at the end of the album, you know you’re it “when you cause all this conversation.”


Watch:Watch “Formation,” the first video released from Lemonade.