This could be your first thinkpiece on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or it could be your 18th. Whichever the case, let me start by getting a few things out of the way. I have no idea who Becky with the good hair is and I don’t have any light to shed on the elevator incident between Solange and Jay-Z. Instead, this is a collection of thoughts about Beyoncé’s cinematic record, my experience watching it completely unaware of the internet’s reaction and my interpretation of what I believe is a masterful work of art.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a visual album, or as I like to think of it, an extended music video.
It’s a theatrical and dramatic masterpiece comprised of separate chapters created for each track on the album and pieced together into one holistic experience. The videos are separated like acts in a play. Preceding every act is the title, not of the song on the album, but the description of a visceral feeling, the name of the emotional stages Beyoncé went through that inspired her to make the record.
“In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3AM and lie to me”
The visual version of Lemonade opens up with “Pray You Catch Me”, a soft and gentle prayer-like track in which Beyoncé invokes a sign to trust the feeling in her gut, the tug that tells her something isn’t right. Her voice is heard reading the words of Warsan Shire from her book of poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love.” Foreshadowed is a truth we might discover later on Lemonade – not just of her lover, but her father too. At this moment we can feel the heaviness that comes from the uncertainty of intelligence and instinct being at war with each other, “my lonely ear pressed against the walls of your world / prayin’ to catch you whispering.” Images of Beyoncé standing at the edge of a building’s rooftop. The scene is suspenseful, the first of many gut wrenches ripples through our stomach, she jumps off and we gain a poignant thought; this is Beyoncé acting out every desire, every inclination she could have possibly had while experiencing one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person. She is bringing to life each of the fleeting thoughts that we’ve all had and yet weren’t brave enough to entertain. Uncomfortable as it may be, there are events that have happened to us which are beyond our control and make us believe we want to die. The woman before us is not pardoned of this feeling.
“I tried to change, closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake”
When I hear these words I can’t help but think of my own struggles with feeling difficult to love. I think of the time I was asked ‘why can’t you just be nice?’ by an ex-boyfriend. I thought of my younger self, always questioning why something was okay for my brothers and yet not for me. I thought about how I rebel so ferociously against the unrealistic standard that women should always be kind and gentle. The second track on Lemonade, “Hold Up” features parts taken from a demo originally inspired by The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and written by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Keonig while in a studio with Diplo back in 2014. The track also builds upon a demo written by indie folk darling, Father John Misty. “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you” she sings while smashing car windows and causing a fire hydrant to spew water all over the road. “I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless” – with these lyrics Bey has begun to question her self-worth, a musical goddess who is often seen as the epitome of confidence has turned into one of us, as she vacillates between denial and suspicion. The singer then considers her involvement in the implied infidelity, was she cheated on because of her own actions? Did she somehow cause this? The feelings all too familiar to anyone who has ever been cheated on. Refusing to let self-blame consume her, she quickly pushes the thoughts out of her head with “know that I kept it sexy, know that I kept it fun.” The next line lets us know just how crazy she’s feeling “there’s something that I’m missing / maybe my head for one.” Beyoncé concludes she would rather be crazy than walked all over.
“If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine”
A sparse xylophone melody and the faraway warmth of jazzy trumpets take us into the third act. Beyoncé’s voice turns bitter and chilling as she speaks, using gruesome imagery to express the phase of coping with adultery when the cheated-on compares themselves to the cheated-with. Those of us who have experienced a betrayal like this know what it’s like to have wished to look like someone else, praying we could make a physical change to capture our lover’s wandering gaze. Beyoncé begins what is one of my favorite tracks on the album “Don’t Hurt Yourself” featuring Jack White. “Who the fuck do you think I is? / you ain’t married to no average bitch, boy” she croons in a powerful Brittany Howard-esque rasp. Measured guitar plucks build up tension until Beyoncé explodes with anger, her face turning ugly and full of rage “when you hurt me, you hurt yourself” Jack White’s voice blends with hers in a brilliant, but surprising hybrid. The track continues as she tells her lover he can keep his money, she doesn’t want it because she’s got her own, but then concludes with “this is your final warning / you know I give you life / if you try this shit again / gone lose your wife.” Beyoncé takes off her wedding ring and chucks it at the camera. It’s here where I feel disappointment for the first time. For all the indignation and fury Bey has portrayed up until this moment, hearing there is an “again” for the man who cheated on her makes me feel annoyed and irritated. This is Beyoncé, you don’t cheat on her, and she doesn’t give second chances. What happened to the “everything you own in the box to the left” woman I had come to know?
“Her heaven would be a love without betrayal”
In a single line of poetry we see Beyoncé’s vision of the ultimate reward; not to portray an image of a perfect life, as so many have accused her of, but instead to love without disloyalty. The track “Sorry” which could have been more accurately titled “Sorry, Not Sorry” explains she isn’t embarrassed of letting the world know she was cheated on, in contrast, telling her story gives her power. Long gone are the days of “I’m not gonna diss you on the internet.” Tennis champion Serena Williams joins Beyoncé twerking in a bodysuit and commiserating over half-assed excuses from Bey’s cheating man “lookin at my watch, you shoulda been home / today I regret the night I put that ring on.” When the video cuts to an image of Beyoncé sitting on the ground I finally get the moment I’ve been waiting for “I left a note in the hallway / by the time you read it I’ll be far away” she continues, “me and my baby we gon’ be alright / we gonna live a good life.” Here she’s dismissive, no longer angry, but instead ready to make the difficult choice of leaving. Before she does however, Bey leaves a stinging “he only want me when I’m not there / he better call Becky with the good hair.” Which I see less as an attack on someone named Becky and more as a jab at a black man who believes sleeping with a white woman is the ultimate sexual conquest.
“Grief sedated by orgasm, orgasm heightened by grief”
The walls of a red hallway are “kicking like they six months pregnant” a nod to her collaborator, The Weeknd. The fourth act a result of emotional exhaustion that is birthed from caring too much. The throbbing gets louder and we are rewarded with the smooth and seductive coos of in “6 Inch” in which Beyoncé withdraws from the drama by escaping to the club, regaining her sexuality, putting back together her self-image and ultimately realizes she’s “worth every dollar.”
“Did he bend your reflection / did he make you forget your own name / did he convince you he was a god?”
We learn that perhaps Bey’s father cheated on her mother, she looks to her mother for answers on how to deal with her own husband’s affair. One of the most interesting and exciting songs on the visual album “Daddy Lessons” is a country song unlike any I’ve ever heard. It starts with jazz trumpets then gives way to Texas twang as Beyoncé sings about the lessons her father taught her.
“Why do you consider yourself undeserving? / why are you afraid of love / you think it’s not possible for someone like you / but you are the love of my life”
This is the beginning of the new beginning. We learn that Beyoncé perhaps wants to rebuild the broken relationship between her and her cheating husband. Here she is not completely convinced the relationship can be saved, but we hear through the music, her heart opening again, positioning itself to intercept whatever signals of remorse are sent in her direction.
“Baptize me / now that reconciliation is possible / if we’re gonna heal / let it be glorious.”
The recurring fire imagery is back, this time it is contained in a small log fire in a hearth – no longer frightening, but comforting instead. Nina Simone plays on a distant record player, a Kintsukuroi bowl sits on a table symbolizing the Japanese art of repaired pottery; something can be stronger and more beautiful for having been shattered to pieces. The act begins with Beyoncé plays a woeful piano melody. “Sandcastles” is my least favorite Lemonade song. It’s lackluster and although it’s supposed to be heartfelt, it feels out of place on the record. It’s intent perhaps to be simple or raw yet it misses the mark. Although the track does highlight a pivotal moment on the journey, Beyoncé explains how as we grow older, wiser and our lives more complicated, it becomes difficult to keep the promises we made to our younger ourselves “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay baby / every promise don’t work out that way.”
“You are terrifying and strange and beautiful”
Actresses Amandla Stenberg (who is so stunning she takes my breath away) who most would recognize as “Rue” from the The Hunger Games movie and Quvenzhané Wallis, from the moving film Beasts of the Southern Wild, join the large group of women standing outside a plantation to take a photograph. The voice of English electronic R&B artist James Blake stutters as “Forward” begins, he laments “best foot first just in case”. This portion of the visual album featuring women separated into what feels like past and future; before life has handed them tragedy and after. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin holds a photo of him, looking strong and determined. Lezley McSpadden can’t help but let tears fall down her face while she holds a photo of her son Michael Brown, we feel tears fall down our face. Finally, Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner holds a photo of her son as she stares into our souls. The moment serves to illustrate the incredibly difficult first step out of grief, a backbreaking decision to not let our circumstances define us, while Blake makes it difficult to feel anything but the deepest sorrow.
“A flower blossoming from the hole in my face”
The suspense is held for a few minutes before the image of a happy baby on a bed by the window breathes life into us again – a sign of renewal, a reason to move forward. My favorite track on the record “Freedom” bursts through. Beyoncé sings the first lines a capella, “I’m telling these tears ‘go and fall away, fall away’ / may the last one burn into flames.” With the first hit of the chorus “freedom! freedom! / I can’t move! / freedom cut me loose!” the anthem crashes into focus – it is powerful and moving. The boisterous bang of a drum makes our skin explode with goosebumps. Beyoncé’s voice is growing from deep in her gut. Kendrick Lamar amplifies the intensity of the track, spitting lyrics about what it’s like to exist as a black man in the current state of racial tension in America, “seven misleadin’ statements ’bout my persona / six headlights wavin’ in my direction / five-o askin’ me what’s in my possession.” The energetic chant is motivating, it instantly makes you want to get up and get out of whatever mess you’re in and fight back, not with violence but with empowerment and knowledge. By the time Beyoncé sings “I’ma keep runnin’ cause a winner don’t quit on themselves” we are captivated by her vigor.
“You spun gold from this hard life / conjured beauty from the things left behind / found healing where it did not live”
Birds chirp as Beyoncé reads the instructions for a simple lemonade recipe. We see Hattie White, Bey’s grandmother-in-law, reading into a microphone at her 90th birthday party, “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Through this emotional rollercoaster we have witnessed this character transform from Beyoncé into a woman who was tortured and back again, using forgiveness to return to her true self she decides “so we’re gonna heal”. Twin singers Ibeyi, best known for their catchy song and stunning video from last year’s “River”, pick vegetables from a garden as Beyoncé humbles herself, asking her partner to “make the women in doubt disappear.” The lyric “the audience applauds but we can’t hear them” suggests she is no longer concerned with how the world views her relationship, it is hers and his, untouchable from the outside. The final track on the album begins, “All Night”, a beautiful and moving ballad with vibrating guitar tremolo, captivating strings and healing brass melodies. “Our love was stronger than your pride.” A bassline throbs throughout the track which perhaps serves as a call back to 2013’s “Drunk in Love” with similar “all night” lyrics. She sings “they say true love is the greatest weapon to win the war caused by pain,” and we learn Beyoncé has decided the only way to move passed this painful experience is to fall back in love. She allows herself to breath a second chance into a person she believes is worth it and so must we allow her to without judgement or resentment. “How I’ve missed you my love” is the last thing she says before the credits roll.
Not only did Beyoncé’s Lemonade inspire so many feelings deep from within me, it’s a movie I want to watch again and again. After an hour of watching Beyoncé, I did not grow tired of her and I was always ready to learn where the journey took me. Along the way Beyoncé has smartly chosen the most appropriate collaborators to tell her story – musically and otherwise. She gives us powerful, blown-out rock from Jack White when she’s angry. She partners with the Weeknd when she wants to party her pain away. She showcases James Blake when our heartstrings are meant to be pulled because his singing is sadness vocalized. When we need to be reborn and invigorated she chooses Kendrick Lamar as an alarm to wake us. Every bit of this visual album was meticulously crafted and included precise details difficult to spot with only one view.
Beyond the theatrics of Lemonade, however, lies the story of pain, loss and rebirth.
While some might feel that being cheated on by someone you love is not the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person, the most fair fact of life is we too will have our own trials to go through, acidic fruit served to us all. The burdens of some are bigger than others’, but to the person living it, these obstacles feel larger than life. These hardships serve as threats to who we are and everything we have come to know about ourselves, they make us question our sanity and purpose. What we can take away from this cinematic work of art is that to forgive the person who inflicted pain on us is not weakness, it is strength. To show love while in agony is not denial, it is fortitude. To choose hope instead of running away is to add sweet to the sour. While you may not agree with her politics, Beyoncé shows us that making Lemonade from lemons is a feat reserved for only the bravest among us.
Melissa Vega is not one of those people that needs coffee every morning but one of those people that needs music every morning. There’s just something about trumpets sounding while the sun is rising that gets her out of bed every day. She wonders if her love for music will ever be a talent she will actually realize beyond being really excellent at singing in the shower. She can be summed up in a single lyric from Wilco’s “She’s a Jar”: “when I forget how to talk, I sing.”