Beyoncé Knowles’ latest “visual album”, LEMONADE, will go down as another pop culture event (#Beymonade). The mega-star’s timing wasn’t ideal, LEMONADE arriving just days after Prince’s shock passing – which comedian Dave Chappelle deemed “The Black 9/11”. But, deliciously, a meme soon circulated – of purple lemonade.
When you're excited for new Beyonce but still sad about Prince pic.twitter.com/es2Opd9DyX
— Mike Wass (@mikewassmusic) April 23, 2016
LEMONADE has been lauded, and intellectualised, as a celebration of black womanhood. Meanwhile, mass entertainment journos have salaciously honed in on LEMONADE’s theme of infidelity – extrapolating what it reveals about the usually intensely private Beyoncé’s marriage to Shawn “Jay Z” Carter.
For some, LEMONADE signifies Beyoncé’s revenge – the soulstress audaciously initially releasing it via Hova’s streaming platform TIDAL (mind she, too, is an investor). Supporting its huge narrative arc, LEMONADE is Beyoncé’s most musically varied yet realised work – she actually has a country song. The singer/writer/producer/curator liaised with such unexpected figures as Jack White and UK post-dubstepper James Blake.
If indeed LEMONADE is autobiographical – Beyoncé’s family (including daughter Blue Ivy) feature in video footage – then it’s as much about sisterhood as sistahood. Queen Bey is taking cues from her younger sibling Solange – the rebellious, ‘indie’ Knowles. Alas, Solange is infamous as the homegirl who, on the evening of 2014’s Met Gala, was caught on surveillance charging at Carter in an elevator, Beyoncé aloofly looking on.
Solange was allegedly mad at her brother-in-law for allegedly messin’ around with Rachel Roy – a former creative director at Rocawear. However, Solange has pursued a riveting music career. Constantly compared to Beyoncé, and under-estimated, the starlet realised that she was free of expectations. On 2008’s Sol-Angel And The Hadley St Dreams, Solange pioneered avant ‘n’ B.
Next, she collaborated with Dev Hynes on the cult Losing You. Today Solange, living in New Orleans, presides over Saint Records and the blog Saint Heron, fostering leftfield soul acts. Last year Solange performed Rise – an anthem for the Black Lives Matters movement. Solange is forthright in interviews and on Twitter.
TIDAL’s blurb for LEMONADE universalises it as, “a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing.” Celebrity gossip outlets have long mischievously cast Carter as a serial playa, linking him romantically to, not only Roy, but also Beyoncé’s ‘rival’ Rihanna and Rihanna’s rival Rita Ora – the women depicted as commodities.
LEMONADE does chronicle marital discord, Beyoncé recalling her suspicions on the delicate intro Pray You Catch Me (a co-write with Blake). “You can taste the dishonesty,” she opens. “It’s all over your breath…”
Gwen Stefani has cut a Gavin Rossdale diss-off album in This Is What The Truth Feels Like. But LEMONADE turns out to be more than an infidelity concept album. Beyoncé, “no average bitch”, uses her personal crisis to ruminate on black women’s historic experience – Beyoncé upon a time… LEMONADE is about pride, resilience and the bonds of recognition. All this is reinforced by the accompanying movie.
Beyoncé, once Destiny’s Child frontwoman, has become progressively adventurous with every solo album since 2003’s blithe Dangerously In Love. But it was with 2013’s eponymous first video album that Beyoncé became an auteur. Then Drunk In Love, and drunk on illwave, Mrs Carter expressed a new eroticism – claiming her own corporeal feminism. She showed disregard, too, for commercial conventions. Beyoncé dropped without warning – the Texan introducing the now increasingly ubiquitous stealth LP.
On LEMONADE, Beyoncé goes further in asserting her identity as a black woman. When the singer staged Formation – the lead single, helmed by Mike WiLL Made-It – during the Super Bowl halftime, she and her dancers orchestrated a Black Power salute. But the song’s lyrics are as much concerned with defying rampant misogynoir – hatred of black women. Collaborating with White on Don’t Hurt Yourself, Beyoncé sounds like Kelis-channelling-Nona Hendryx – and the track quotes Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
The normally composed Beyoncé unleashes her rage. In the visual sequence for the Diplo-stamped dub Hold Up, Beyoncé, in a now iconic lemon ruffled Roberto Cavalli gown, strides down a street, smashing cars, anything, with a baseball bat. “What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?,” she sings.
Sorry has the line, “He only want me when I’m not there/He better call Becky with the good hair.” Gossip-types have speculated about Becky – is it Roy? (She’s denied it.) In fact, Beyoncé insinuates that Carter’s mistress is white. Conceivably, Becky is an archetype – and figurative. In the country Daddy Lessons Beyoncé sarcastically asks whether her husband is not just like her father, ex-manager Mathew Knowles – whose marriage dissolved on the disclosure of a ‘love child’.
The LEMONADE film, with multiple directors, is largely populated by black women – Bey’s sistas. Cameoing are Serena Williams (twerking to Sorry), Quvenzhané Wallis and Ibeyi. Beyoncé reads the poetry of the Somali-British Warsan Shire for interludes. Nevertheless, LEMONADE honours black female community – it’s not a ‘girl squad’.
Forward, a haunting duet with Blake, sees Beyoncé lamenting for those black mothers who have lost their sons to police brutality. Elsewhere, a transcendent Beyoncé embraces her mother Tina’s Southern Creole heritage – evoking the spirituality of Louisiana’s legendary Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau herself. #BlackGirlMagic. LEMONADE’s allegorical album title comes from Carter’s grandma, Hattie White, 90.
Black protest music is back in the mainstream with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – and K-Dot guests on Freedom. Still, LEMONADE is an emotionally raw album that, like Mary J Blige’s My Life or Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation…, intersects drama, personal and political. Ultimately, Beyoncé forgives her husband – on her terms. She’s a Survivor.
Beyoncé is risking her ‘brand’. She has a fragrance empire and has just partnered with Topshop for the ‘athleisure’ line Ivy Park. But Beyoncé is willing to transgress her own franchise. After she announced the Formation World Tour launch in Miami, local police threatened to pull security services over her video. At the show, Beyoncé flogged merch with the slogan “Boycott Beyoncé”.
That some have suggested that LEMONADE is a marketing stunt, Beyoncé and Carter contriving, or exploiting, a story, is disappointingly cynical. Bey ain’t no Kris Jenner. On the flip, Beyoncé’s fans, her BeyHive, have deployed bee and lemon emojis as weaponry to attack any presumed ‘other’ woman on social media. Roy’s Wikipedia was hacked so as to read that she died 23 April 2016, “under a Lemonade stand”. But close listeners will know that to troll, is to miss the point of LEMONADE.
LEMONADE is available now via Tidal and iTunes.