Album Review: Beyoncé—“Lemonade”

By Savana James

If you’ve been on the internet in the last few days, chances are you’ve seen the wave of lemon emojis, Jay Z memes, and aesthetic GIF sets celebrating Beyoncé’s latest release, Lemonade. Beyoncé has blessed the world again with 12 fresh tracks, accompanied this time by an hour long film, premiered on HBO and Tidal. Lemonade is a huge leap from Beyonce’s previous visual album release. The tracks, linked together by prose and stunning imagery that elevates the messages and meaning of her album, as Beyoncé presents maybe her most honest lyrical album yet. She doesn’t dance around the album’s personal themes, the largest one being cheating within her marriage. She explores her subsequent anger and sorrow, which turns to forgiveness and growth, and ultimately empowerment.

I have to discuss both the film and album as one here because the two rely on each other for meaning. I’m not saying that the album is not stunning as it stands alone. The songs are remarkably fresh, as Beyoncé pushes the boundaries of both her sound and her content. Some stands outs include the reggae bop “Hold Up”, the saucy rock fuelled “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, and the Texan country jam “Daddy Issues”. She has some amazing features as well, including a verse from The Weekend on the female-celebratory track “6 Inch”. James Blake sings almost all of the entirely too short track “Forward”. (Seriously, why isn’t this song at least five minutes long?) The best feature on the album is Kendrick Lamar on “Freedom”, which is possibly the best song on the album. It’s a powerful rap-meets-gospel tune that asks for the freedom of black lives, and is perhaps the most socially important song Beyoncé has ever done. As a stand alone album, Beyoncé has presented some amazing tracks with stunning lyrics and great production, all while pushing outside her usual pop sound.

Though the tracks themselves are great, the real impact and meaning of this piece comes with its visual presentation.  At surface level, you could view this album as Beyoncé telling us a personal story, a stark insight into her marriage and feelings around it. It’s the imagery that changes these meanings and gives them context. Everything in the film, from the visuals to the prose, presents the idea that this album is about something bigger than just a personal story. Lemonade is not just about Beyoncé the person, but Beyoncé the woman. This is a piece about womanhood. This is a piece about female experience. This is a piece about femininity. Most importantly, this is a piece about being a black woman. I am saying black woman exclusively.

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Album art for Lemonade

The presentation of black women in Lemonade is more than an aesthetic choice. The black woman is pivotal to Beyoncé’s story, because Beyoncé is a black woman. Beyonce takes her experience as black female and makes her life story a wider narrative for all black women. There are some standout moments throughout Lemonade that showcase this transformation from personal to communal. For example, when she sings “Daddy Issues” about her relationship with her father, but delves into a wider exploration of a woman’s relationship with the men in their life.  (“Did he convince you he was a God / are you a slave to the back of his head? / Am I talking about your husband or your father?”). My absolute favourite moment in Lemonade is during the track “Sorry”. The song sounds like a fun tune about having no cares and not thinking about your man. But meaning changes when presented alongside visuals of Serena Williams, one of the most policed black female bodies in the media today, shamelessly flaunting her sexuality and owning her black femininity. When paired with images like this, the meaning behind Beyonce singing “I Ain’t Sorry” becomes about more than just her relationship troubles. It’s important to note the role of womanhood, specifically black womanhood, that dominates Lemonade. This films visuals takes Beyonce’s experiences and marries them to images of black womanhood, putting the black female narrative it in the spotlight.

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy Lemonade if you’re not a black woman. You can feel empowered by “6 Inch”. You can dance to “Sorry”. You can bop along along to “Hold Up”. (I’ll be personally offended if it doesn’t become 2016’s summer jam.) But you can’t watch Lemonade without realizing it is about a specific type of experience. An experience not all groups are a part of. And this is part of the album’s “problem.” This is why I’m angry at the Jay Z memes and comments on Rachel Roy’s Instagram. This album is about so much more than Beyonce’s marriage. But at the same time, I totally understand the meme reactions to this piece. These reactions are reflective of  Beyonce’s wider audiences interaction with her black narrative. These things happen when black narratives become the dominant one. Black narratives are not easy to consume or face when you’re not black, and it becomes easier to focus on the albums more conformable face. It’s easier to discuss Jay Z being a cheater and speculate who “Becky with the cool hair” is than it is to look at the shots of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s mothers holding the photos of their slain sons. It’s easier to enjoy songs like Hold Up and Sorry than it is to listen to Freedom and know Kendrick and Beyoncé sing for a freedom a large portion of the population don’t have to question having. It’s these feelings that make Lemonade a difficult piece, and a vitally important one.

So this review is a shout out to the old white men of the world who think Beyonce is too concerned with being “black” now, as if she hasn’t always been. I want you to sit there and enjoy your discomfort as Beyonce sings her black female story loud and proud. I hope everyone in the world watches Lemonade. I hope people wonder why it moves some people, and why some people can’t seem to find its impact. I hope people look at the black women in this film and see their beauty. I hope they realize Beyonce’s feminist message being specifically for the black women is okay. I hope those who are uncomfortable with this film ask themselves why. I hope people wonder why audiences more comfortable discussing Jay Z’s infidelity than black womanhood and the oppression of black lives. I hope people question why an album and film about womanhood has been largely boiled down to a conversation about the man. I hope Beyonce’s blackness generates conversations, because that’s the point of art like this. Its these conversations that open up these narratives, makes them possible, and moves us forward. With this album and film, Beyonce has taken her life’s lemons and made a glass of lemonade.

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