The fear in an album as compelling as Lemonade is that the surface level narrative — Jay Z cheating on Beyoncé — will overshadow the real root of the record. Beyoncé assured audiences that that would not be the case, creating her most complete and striking visual and audio narrative yet. With nods to Voudou and Southern Black gothic storytelling, Lemonade, the visual album, wove chapters of emotional grief into a piece of art about the black woman. Without that visual, the lyricism and the structure of the music might have been lost in the gossip. But Beyoncé is smarter than that, and it’s time that we acknowledge that. And separated from the visual, the album itself acts as dexterously as the film, exposing the rawest elements of Beyoncé’s personal life while framing it against the universal — the machinations of internal paranoia, the all-consuming well of fury and anger, and the bottomless depths of sadness.
Rooted in the heart of Lemonade is a dissection of cycles of violence (from the verbal, to the spiritual, to the physical) against women, specifically black women. Beyonce attempts not only to unveil the emotional toil it has placed on her (like in the catchy “Love Drought” and the gorgeous “Sandcastles”), but also the ways it perpetuates in our community as a whole (as in the country-twinged “Daddy Lessons”), and how she has managed to overcome the power of that same narrative. It might not be the solution for every woman, but it worked for her.
Each song acts as a step in the evolution of this narrative of grief. In “Hold Up”, the second track on the record, we hear how the vise grip of paranoia plays on one’s psyche. The song, co-written by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and Diplo, tricks the listener. The light bounce of the piano’s melody and the almost playful air horns sound torn from a gentler song. The instrumentation, much like Beyoncé herself, pulls listeners in with low-hanging fruit, distractions that belie a denser narrative. In the track, she sings that she’d rather be considered “crazy” than “walked all over lately,” meaning, she’d rather trust in her feelings than be disregarded or played for a fool.
The album also includes two of her best songs ever, standing as the emotional crux of the work. “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, the third track on the album and appearing right after her bout of paranoia, is the peak of her anger. A duet featuring Jack White, the track cuts aggressively at its listeners, never letting go for a second. In this track, we praise Beyoncé’s essence. Hurting Beyoncé is hurting yourself in the same way that loving her is loving yourself. She is all things, always. But more importantly, the structure of any union relies on the truth that love and hate and betrayal are not acts on a one-way street. Each moment has a repercussion that extends beyond the initial moment.
Taken as a whole, we hear the threads of this from song to song on the record. If Lemonade is a record about dismantling the cycles of abuse, ripping open the secrets we keep hidden (especially within the closely guarded black community), and finding healing, purpose, and even greatness in the process, then it is personified in the arcs of each track. We hear this most strongly on “Freedom”, which also provides the explanation for the title of the record with a clip of a speech from Jay Z’s grandmother, Hattie May, at her 90th birthday celebration. “I had my ups and downs, but I always had the inner strength to pull myself up,” she says. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Consider the song pushing and pulling against the emotional peaks of “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. If “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is all anger, then “Freedom” is all transformation. “I’m telling these tears fall away, fall away,” Beyoncé begins. “May the last one burn in flames.” The songs stand as joined entities, two dichotomous halves of the grief process. Will Beyoncé (will you) succumb to the depths of sadness and anger, or will she (you) reclaim self and power to finally find freedom from the pull of her (your) emotions?
(Read: Beyoncé in 10 Songs)
The album ends with “Formation”, the previously released single from the record. This is not a fluke. Yes, it is a politically charged track in the same way that the record is a politically charged piece of art. After the rollercoaster of emotions — from paranoia to anger to sadness to forgiveness — we land at “Formation”, a song that reclaims the power of the black woman and praises all parts of her, from her “negro nose” to her Southern roots. Grief is not one thing, but many things, and each step moves toward a point of reconciliation within ourselves and toward the person or thing that has hurt us.
Lemonade marks Beyoncé’s most accomplished work yet. It is the perfect combination of the sharp songwriting of 4 with the visual storytelling acumen of her self-titled record. Here, we see Beyoncé fully coming into her own: wise, accomplished, and in defense of herself. Many artists struggle with finding the right balance, but then Beyoncé is not like many artists. Rather than mold to the conformity of contemporary music, she leans firmly into her own instincts and vision. Those instincts believe in visual storytelling. They also believe in the roots of ourselves. On Lemonade, our personal is the political. On Lemonade, the music that shaped us, from gospel to rock to r&b to trap, tell the stories of our lives. It is a risk, especially today, but Beyoncé has earned these risks time and time again through her timeless hits and unparalleled work ethic. Now, with her latest album, she has given us perhaps her greatest gift yet: herself, raw yet polished, beautiful yet ugly.
Essential Tracks: “Freedom”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, and “Formation”