56 minutes was all she needed to bare her soul and achieve transcendence with a visual and aural masterpiece. By her, I am referring to Beyoncé and the masterpiece created in Lemonade.
Lemonade begins with a single broken chain hanging from a structure in an uninhabited field in New Orleans. The first time we see Beyoncé, she is kneeling on a theatre stage dwarfed by the magnitude of her environment which could be a metaphor for her superstar career. The opening lyric “You can taste the dishonesty/ it’s all over your breath” sets the tone and the context. Beyoncé will sing about cheating and lying; not for the first time, as the motifs have been a recurrent theme in her discography, but this time it’s different. The simplicity of the piano and strings ballad ‘Pray You Catch Me’ coupled with the vulnerability portrayed in the visuals highlights a side to Beyoncé we have not seen before.
The adapted poems of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire act as effortless interludes between songs as Beyoncé’s first song transitions into track two entitled ‘Hold Up’. It’s one of the stand-outs on the album, combining a light reggae beat and hypnotic chorus with lyrics many women can relate to regarding the ‘crazy girlfriend’ trope. She sings –
“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”
Here Beyoncé owns the fact she may very well be crazy, as she attacks cars and cameras resplendent in a ruffled yellow Roberto Cavalli gown; channelling illustrations of the African goddess Oshun, the Yoruba deity of love.
With track three ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ Beyoncé once again highlights a different side to her personality. She is arrogant and fearless. She knows her worth and knows exactly how she deserves to be treated. If Jay-Z fails to treat her in the way that she deserves he will “lose his wife”. Jack White’s vocal distortion provides rugged edge to Beyoncé’s voice. As with ‘Hold Up’ the song is about empowerment; it’s about owning who you are and not tolerating any man who fails to appreciate you. This theme continues in the synth jam ‘Sorry’ which features an appearance by Serena Williams and the seemingly contentious “Becky with the good hair” lyric.
The following track ‘6 Inch’ is a celebration of hard working women around the world “stacking money”. Here Beyoncé departs from her own hurt and strength and focuses on the struggles and strength of women around the world. In the visual accompaniment Beyoncé travels across a city in luxury, dances in 6 inch heels and burns down a bedroom. The burning of the bedroom is highly symbolic when considering the role of women who were historically chained to the home and seen as nothing more than baby manufacturers. Moreover, in the context of the previous songs, the bedroom is the source of lust, love, and infidelity.
If Jay-Z was the man who orchestrated Beyoncé’s pain, in ‘Daddy Lessons’ we learn that her father helped instil in her the strength to overcome anything a man did to her. The heavy country influence doesn’t fit well with the previous tracks – however, the snappy song acts as a gentle break to softly transition into ‘Love Drought’ and ‘Sandcastles’, which both stress the power of love to rebuild relationships. Beyoncé employs sandcastles a metaphor; in the same way tides can erode a sandcastle, cheating can erode trust in a relationship. But in both instances the foundations still remain. In ‘Sandcastles’ Beyoncé reminds us that it’s possible to rebuild what was lost in order to move ‘Forward’.
With the track ‘Freedom’, Beyoncé departs from her story and returns to the themes she began addressing with the lead single ‘Formation’. The recurrent drums provide a military feel to the track, which is an anthem unequivocally dedicated to black women. ‘Freedom’ touches on police brutality, #BlackLivesMatter, slavery and institutional racism. To a degree the whole album was dedicated to black women, as illustrated through the cultural references throughout, Beyoncé’s use of a predominantly black female cast and the reliance on contributions from black artists. However, in this particular song there was little room for doubt and no need for inference. Visually the song opens with the word “Hope”, and features the mothers of police brutality victims Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, pictured with photos of their deceased sons. Throughout the song Beyoncé alludes to herself as the woman who can empower other black women to break the chains society places upon them by virtue of being black women. This is most evident in the chorus where Beyoncé chants –
“Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
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”
Beyoncé is reminding black women that they can navigate and overcome everything society throws at them in order to flourish, as they have done for hundreds of years. The lyrics link back to the opening scene where a single chain dangled lifelessly from a forgotten building. Now, finally the audience can appreciate that the lifeless chain was once Beyoncé’s; but now she feels free, and feels a duty to inspire other black women to do the same.
The next track ‘All Night’ is an upbeat uplifting song produced by Diplo, which concludes Beyoncé’s personal story. Having gone through denial, anger and forgiveness, she begins a journey of redemption to rediscover her true self and rediscover the love in her relationship. Her torturer becomes her remedy. The shots of Blue Ivy and Jay-Z show that for Beyoncé, the journey was worth it. The album closes with ‘Formation’, the minimalist, punchy song which led to hundreds of thinkpieces and criticism for its unashamed celebration of blackness and damming critique of society, mirroring the themes of ‘Freedom’.
Overall, Lemonade is not merely an album about cheating. Nor is the message exclusively targeted at black women; although they are focus. Instead, the album is about the revolutionary power of love – especially when that love is reflected inwards at one’s self. Beyoncé bares her soul by sharing her journey from denial to redemption with the world, in return asking that we do the same. She implores us to let go of all of hurt; to allow ourselves the time and room to heal.By Alex Ighalo