I was travelling when it dropped.
I had not checked my phone. But in my social media feed the verdict was in.
With her new surprise visual album, reigning pop queen Beyoncé Knowles Carter had maybe put a red laser dot on her husband’s forehead (and possibly his foreskin and penis) just like in the Biggie Smalls’s song “Warning.”
There were contradictions.
The album was available at first exclusively on Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal.
Did Beyoncé have her man hawking the heartbreak that he caused?
And this was not all.
Beyoncé gave homage to womanhood and animated it through a kaleidoscopic view of blackness. She offers up a songbook of black music’s different stylings—R&B, jazz, country, the blues, gospel, hip hop.
As I peeled back Lemonade’s layers, I saw an incredible feat of curating, cinematography, poetics. Warsan Shire’s poetry is formidably beautiful as has been noted (here and here). The sum of these parts eclipses the music for me. Without the visual album, and Shire’s epitaphs, “Sorry” and “Formation” are the only songs I would put in heavy rotation.
But Lemonade has stayed on my mind because of how its vision makes me think and feel. Because the visual album is an artistic amalgamation I have deep respect for its representations of blackness as multi-hued, multi-textured and multivalent. Along the way, it points towards new ways of looking at black cultural production realized in collective format. I’ve seen this in the work of the YAMS collective, Theaster Gates, and Black Constellation, to name a few. We are archives of knowledge, consciousness, so very interconnected.
Hearing black women rejoice about Lemonade and its symbolism made me wish that we felt welcome in the contemporary art world. Steve McQueen, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson are black artists who have an aesthetic conversant to the imagery used in Lemonade. In cinematic works by one of Lemonade’s directors, Kahlil Joseph, everywhere the eyes go there is chiaroscuro, dark skin illuminated by perfect light, a call and response. Dream Hampton rightfully calls him a visual folklorist.
There is no part of Lemonade’s story that goes over my head. It stitches in high and low culture.
The possibility of Jay Z being a philanderer is entirely believable. Even though I hate the sound of whistling, my favorite Jay Z song is “Big Pimping.” In the video, he shuffles on the beach talking about: “Me give my heart to a woman?/Not for nothin', never happen/ I'll be forever mackin'.” With Lemonade, I wonder what Beyoncé feels for this man, past the misogyny he projects.
Has Shawn “Jay Z” Carter been blazed like this since Nas made “Ether”?
In that homophobic (and epic) diss, Nas goes: “You been on my dick, nigga. You love my style.” She’s been on that dick, right? She loves his style? Married him. Had his baby. In the vignette “Apathy” she recites a tale of being gutted by the love of her life. Because of these things, I remind myself to proceed with care as I look around here.
We are not the masks we wear. The things we do and say. In the tumultuous undertow of Lemonade, I find that I get uncomfortable when viewers cannot distinguish the line that separates fiction and non-fiction, story and self. When NBC puzzled “who is Becky with the good hair” I held my head. Lemonade makes me hold my heart in other places, and reach out to my sisters.
Over the last few days so many black women and others have responded to Lemonade in deeply emotional ways. It resonates with their pain and they empathize. Because its guts are raw Lemonade‘s aftermath is portentous. Beyoncé has stunned her onlookers with the beauty of this tumultuous affair. Once its one-hour storm finally subsided Lemonade left many things in its wake. Praise is one part. Rage another.
The sympathies for Beyoncé gathered quickly like the various storm clouds in the video—Castellus, Lenticular, Mammatus. Perhaps egged on by the shaking rage in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the voice-cracked phrasing of “Sandcastles,” a protective shield surrounded Bey. The Beyhive sought out her supposed romantic rival, “Becky with the good hair.”
Rachel Roy has since deleted the Instagram post saying “good hair don’t care.” Did she know that she seemed to be bragging about bagging Bey’s man? After she was bullied online by Beyoncé fans, the designer took to People magazine to say she was not other woman. A conservative pundit called Beyoncé’s Beyhive "her wolf pack" and asked if it needed to be smoked out.
“Hold Up.” Let’s put our bats down. I love black art. I am protective about black women (Rachel Roy included). The dog-whistle politics aimed at Beyoncé’s supporters worried me, as did their moralistic reminder that ‘fan’ is short for fanatic. As ubiquitous as the stripper/ho figure has been in black popular culture, and as Beyoncé dons six-inch heels to tell her odyssey of loving a whorish man, I remember that the root words of “whore” are “dear” and “desire.”
Infidelities reflect desire’s complexity, which includes promiscuity and physical lust. Journalist Goldie Taylor added sanity when she tweeted: “Some of y'all outchear tweeting #LEMONADE when yew know yew squeezing somebody else's juice.”
Lemonade still asks reasonably heartbroken questions: Why do our biggest loves sometimes fuck us over? What happens to the Beloved when the Lover betrays them?
Beyoncé reminds me of Sonia Sanchez’s “Wounded in the House of a Friend.”
As I drove home from the party I asked him what was wrong? What was bothering him? Were we okay? [Did] I talk too much? Should I wear lipstick? Should I cut my hair? Let it grow? What did he want for dinner tomorrow nite? Was I driving too fast? Too slow? What is wrong man?
No investigation is more maddening than that of the detective on the case of someone stepping out on them. Beyoncé assigns herself this case and chases her mostly absent assailant against stark Southern landscapes, the tops of skyscrapers, a defenestration that magically leads to death evaded with the whisper of siren song and air bubbles escaping pearl-like from her lips.
Lemonade‘s beauty is its syncretism.
Emotion bursts out the walls in a tidal wave of tears. Beyoncé dons a yellow dress, playing the part of Oshun, the goddess of love. She wields symbols from many worlds. Sinking bibles and the warning “no more water the fire next time.” She adorns herself with the painted worlds of Ori from Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-bred artist named Laolu Senbanjo. Towards the end of her visual album, she is seated with the duo from Cuba called Ibeyi. Their video “River,” like Lemonade, is loaded with a voodoo aesthetic (more in line with Santeria). In the Victorian dress made with West African wax prints she wears in "Daddy’s Girl” and “All Night,” Beyoncé looks like she stepped out of a Yinka Shonibare installation.
All beauty is a form of sorcery.
As Beyoncé swims in the watery mojo she casts, she bridges different worlds and emotional states. Grief. Submission. Defiance. She wonders if her magic is dulling, asking, “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” She begs her magician to please put her heart back together once he has split her heart in two.
Her coronal arc moves from the personal to the political to the spiritual.
Beyoncé turns the page, goes deeper into the story. Lemonade stretches past tales of “bomb pussy” to “Freedom” dreams, saying “you look nothing like your mother” but connecting the black lines that lead to belly buttons, to mons pubis, and further inside and beyond, from grandmother to mother to daughter to baby girl, until she reaches matriarchy, lineage, resistance, the veil of the next world.
There will be theses and dissertations about the black women and girls who cameo in the Lemonade video. When Serena walks down the mansion steps in “Sorry,” I joke to my friend that she looks like she could unapologetically ground you to dust with her thighs, sweep you up, and toss your dusty ass out the window. As Beyoncé dances with her girls on the party bus with the stripper pole, this is the life I have always imagined that she lives. Brazen. Carefree. Sex-positive. Self-possessed. Unfazed by men and their bravado.
Beyoncé’s story circles back and forth conjuring mental reference to iconic black films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and Kasi Lemmons's Eve’s Bayou, (which bloggers immediately noted) with its pantone women in swaths of white.
These are not the only references.
In “Hold Up” I see a bit of Pipilotti Rist’s “Ever Is All Over” where the artists wields a flower-like scepter to bash in car windows. I also hear a lyric from Betty Wright’s R&B classic “No Pain No Gain” that goes: “I was earning my man while I was learning my man/ something you young girls might not understand” as Beyoncé’s ordeal unfurls. I hear bell hooks’s quote that goes: “Even the wealthiest professional woman can be ‘brought down’ by being in a relationship where she longs to be loved and is consistently lied to.”
Beyoncé’s artistry is most potent when she channels the choruses of black women, how we think, feel, live, love, survive, rise.
The New Yorker notes, among other things, that though Beyoncé's younger sister Solange is absent from the Lemonade album credits, she is perhaps to be absolved for assaulting Jay Z in a New York elevator if this story is autobiographical. People hurt one another: emotionally, physically, psychically. One form of violence does not cancel out another. Black women have always been one another’s sword and shield.
Where Beyoncé videos often seem to show a heliocentric view of herself as reigning queen of Black Beauty, Lemonade shows her vulnerability past the serviceable cis-het claims: She is shapely. Iconic. Sensual. Desirable. Utterly attractive. The perfect woman?
It’s not a simple thing.
As Beyoncé intones, “I whipped my own back and prayed in dominion at your feet” before she asks “are you cheating on me?” I feel her. When she says “always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper” in “Formation,” I feel subtly manipulated. How does the line go: Don’t hate the player hate the game?
Is she an ingenious businesswoman? A betrayed wife? One or both? Neither? Are she and Jay Z opponents or spouses? Scorned lover and business partner? All of the above?
As I study Lemonade and its various elicitations, I wonder as Beyoncé works through her sorrow will she continue connecting it back to “folks”: one thousand girls raise their arms? Can this be the starting point next time? Or will she continue to play Hera to Jay Z’s Zeus?
Perhaps she and Hillary Clinton have something in common, after all. Hillary Clinton pandered to black voters by mimicking Beyoncé saying that she, too, keeps hot sauce in her bag. Now that we know hot sauce is a bat (not a condiment) it reminds me of Hillary throwing the White House lamp at Bill’s head after the headlines revealed that he was fucking his intern, Monica Lewinsky. Great women can be brought low by their men.
Shonda Rhimes gives Bey a shout out. Scandal aside, Lemonade is most poignant for me when it highlights the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyoncé shows the mourning mothers of slain, unarmed, black men. Mike Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden still holds anger and grief in her almond-shaped eyes. Tears slide down her face.
When she is political, I see places where Bey can change binaries, a re-education of our senses. In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison wrote, “Everyone wants a black man’s life.” Where are the mothers of slain black women like Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd? Who wants the wool the silk the coarse the refined the dark and the light of black womanhood? As long as black men tell black women we should look like white women we will be at war. And as long as black men live in fear that their daughters might look like them we are forsaken. As long as black people are called unbeautiful we are in white supremacy’s crosshairs. White people cannot save us. We must breathe life into ourselves, see our worth and worthiness.
To conquer a people you kill their gods. Beyoncé’s weigh station is the Black Diaspora. Its roots and routes return our divine feminine goddesses. Despite this, I am not seduced by the sumptuous visual spectacle of a gorgeous woman rationalizing loving an unworthy man, even if he eventually humbles himself and worships at her feet as we see with Jay Z in “Resurrection.” I want to be taken over by Beauty, Justice.
There is an allure to fidelity in romantic love.
Every Beloved knows her heart will be cured: salted by tears of death, separation, desperation, joy. Nothing is forever. Despite such oracle, love is our only remedy for life. As Beyoncé invokes Jesus, I realize she is telling plenty of Black women that we probably will share the same man (if men are your thing, spiritually or sexually). After that, I see a long line of black women stretched out kneeling to pray, pale soles facing out connected to black foot bones, anklebones, backbones, and skulls. Sole to soul. Heel to heal. As above, so below. Every woman should make god in her image. A new resurrection.
I'll appreciate the allegorical lesson in Lemonade. Its “black sutures curling on the side of the bath.” Every wizened woman I know has found herself baptized on the Isis Step, remembering her great loves, piecing them together into a crazy quilt, a beautiful story: a Life.