[I wrote this post for a private music blog my friends have together—yes, we are dorky like that—but since I haven’t blogged in awhile, thought I’d post here too. Mad props to Sarah for being my musical educator since college and for suggesting I give this is a try even though I’ve never been particularly into Beyoncé.]
Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was first released as a “visual experience” on HBO last month and then streamed on Tidal. As I mentioned before, I think the album really IS this video release, not just the CD (although if you by the CD on Amazon, it comes with the video). I hate to call the music video a music video because it flows seamlessly, almost like a movie that happens to be set to music. Cinematography is fantastic, editing, costumes, design. . .can the Oscars have a music category? :) “Lemonade” defied categorization in this original release because along with the visual effects & songs, it was interspersed with spoken poetry written most likely by Beyoncé, who co-wrote every song, along with a large team of writers. The poetry between the songs and extra clips in the middle of a song (like a speech from Malcolm X) elevate the lyrics. I highly recommend watching the film first—in fact Michael and I find ourselves unable to listen to the album without thinking of the spoken parts and seeing the gorgeous cinematography. In this respect I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Beyoncé created a new art form, unless anyone else has seen something like this. More performance art rather than, say, extended music videos that are spoken films like “Magical Mystery Tour.” End my propaganda.
For the purposes of writing this I’m going to use “Lemonade” to refer to the video, because it contains all the songs as they are on the CD, with just some added bookends and occasional interruptions. It’s no secret that “Lemonade” is B. trying to come to grips with being cheated on by Jay-Z. The ending of the song “Freedom” is Jay-Z’s grandmother saying “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to cool myself off. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Thus the title. . .out of being cheated on, Beyoncé made this work of art. I’m going to ignore cynical haters who say this whole album was a publicity ploy on the part of Jay-Z and B. They invented drama to sell an album. I think if you read the lyrics and see how raw it is, that interpretation is impossible.
There are several explicit references to her marriage throughout, and all songs (except the last) are preceded by an emotion/grief process that is flashed across the screen to set the tone for the next song. These loosely follow Kugler-Ross’ six stages of grief, as B. comes to grips with him cheating on her. Jay-Z is also in the video, and in an interview just before the release, B. said that she was nervous because “only my husband and mom have seen this.” (Along with some producers and writers I’m assuming). His knowledge and complete support of the project is interesting in and of itself, especially when you see how explicit and raw “Lemonade” is. I called B. a “prophet” in the sense that she opens so herself completely and through this performance art finds catharsis, while helping other women to do the same. For those of us who have happily never been cheated on, there is plenty of political, sexual, and social commentary to identify with here. It is beautiful when someone uses their suffering to create art; it is even more beautiful when that art simultaneously grounds us in reality (“Amen, sister!”) and transports us to dream of future sexual, political, and social progress. Visually, there are images of lovers as trees. The large cast is 100% black, with the exception of a black woman with vitiligo who appears throughout. A lot of the songs and spoken parts contain commentary on how black women are specifically vulnerable to men, and how black men prey on black women, discarding them easily after they’ve been used. The set moves between plantation farmland (and plantation homes) to modern-day parking lots. From 19th Century dress to B. in a barely-there bra and fur coat. Often when speaking of the subjugation of black people and women in particular, they are shown in white dresses/petticoats. I could probably do an entire post on the set design & costuming, but that at least gives you an idea. The 19th Century dress and plantation locations are definitely drawing us back to times of slavery. The spoken parts, grainy videos of black women talking about their lives, and songs like “Freedom” speak to the different ways in which black women are controlled and demeaned today.
I should note that the first song opens with B. on a stage, wearing a long black hoodie, her head shrouded and face partially covered. Her arms are pinned behind her back. In a later song, she is Nefertiti, sitting in the exact same position with her arms completely invisible. And in “Freedom,” what I argue is the actual last song of the album (the final two being more of a coda), she is back on stage, her arms are behind her but she is dressed in white. She sings “Freedom, freedom, I can’t move/Freedom cut me loose/I break chains all by myself/won’t let my freedom rot in hell,” at which point her hands are brought down to her sides. The stage is an interesting device as bookends to the album, she goes from a black shroud to the white of redemption & hope, and uses this performance of “Lemonade” (stage) to catalyze this process.
The two video clips below are the only ones I could find that weren’t crappy YouTubers trying to get famous by recording “Lemonade” covers. Although. . .speaking of covers, a few days after “Lemonade” came out, the Dixie Chicks performed “Daddy Lessons” on their tour, adding some extra fiddles and harmonies. This reminded me of Jimi Hendrix covering the intro to Sgt. Pepper days after it was released and improving upon it. I know. . .country stars playing Beyoncé? It’s hard to classify this album as hip-hop/R&B/rock/country, etc. because all the genres are seamlessly blended. Now going track by track:
Intuition (Pray You Catch Me) : The chorus: Pray to catch you whispering/I pray you catch me listening/I’m praying to catch you whispering/I pray you catch me
This is the shortest song on the album and is more of an intro. Poppy with some orchestral elements. It starts off with a glissando, and that same glissando is repeated at the end of “Freedom,” after Beyonce’s grandmother-in-law makes her short speech about making lemonade out of lemons. These glissandos are bookends of the album, and the last two songs (one of which does not have an emotion/stage of grief attached to it) are more of a coda. I love the puns of “catch” which are more readily seen in the video. This song reads a bit as a threat, because it shows a depressed Beyonce who ends up jumping off a building at the end of the song, with the last “I pray you catch me.” She hits the concrete, which transforms into a pool of water. So there is a “save me from myself” plea, and also a desire to catch Jay-Z cheating, as well as to be caught catching Jay-Z cheating, which is the more important sense of the word. Let’s face it: when someone wrongs us, there is no satisfaction like them knowing that we know.
Denial (Hold Up) : This is a catalogue of Beyoncé’s admirable qualities in contrast to those of other women competing for Jay-Z. The playful, reggae beat contrasts nicely with the bitchy lyrics. Beyoncé is on the verge of losing her shit but isn’t willing to be crazy/jealous yet. She strolls through a neighborhood that looks very much like where I lived in Brooklyn—Caribbean, friendly, lower-income. During the song she’s trying to pick an M.O. and finally picks up a bat and starts smashing cars & fire hydrants towards the end. Kids play in the broken fire hydrants. “How did it come down to this?/
Scrolling through your call list/I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’m a fuck me up a bitch.” Her sunny yellow, low-cut dress and the smiling faces of passerby (and kids!) may also be an illustration of “Denial.”
Anger (Don’t Hurt Yourself) : Prior to the song, B. speaks the following: “I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is no one I know has it. My father’s arms around my mother’s neck: fruit too ripe to eat. I think of lovers as trees, growing to and from one another. Searching for the same light. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.”
This was co-written by Jack White and he sings a small portion but adds a lot. Black Keys meets Janis Joplin meets T. Rex (during the “Let It Be” portion, all I can think of is Janis’ “Cry Baby”). Beyoncé’s voice is completely raw with what Janis called that talent of “getting under the music.” It will give you cold chills and really wish I could post the video here. Best song on the album in terms of production. “And keep your money, I’ve got my own/Keep a bigger smile on my face, being alone/Bad motherfucker, God complex/Motivate your ass call me Malcom X.” A speech from Malcolm X follows in which he talks about black women being the most preyed upon and disadvantaged members of society. This is followed by B. in a wedding dress, screaming into the camera with blonde hair and a whitened face. She looks a bit like a Kabuki actor. This reference to white women, a later reference to “you better call Becky with the good hair” and frequent appearances of the woman with vitiligo lead me to believe that Beyonce’s beef isn’t just with Jay-Z cheating, but cheating with white women specifically. In one spoken part later on she talks about how the legacy of her race is to betray black women. Men leaving black women. I think Missy Elliott would agree although she had a spunkier way of putting it. The chorus “When you hurt me/you hurt yourself” aren’t just a threat I believe. They are also a commentary on two-becoming-one. She says “When you love me/You love yourself. Love God herself.” and the last words are “You know I give you life/ If you try this shit again/You gonna lose your wife.” I don’t know what was intended by the lyrics, but this song is a good illustration of the vulnerability of relationships. Hurting her IS hurting himself in a literal sense.
Apathy (Sorry) : She speaks the following before the song: “So what are you gonna say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me? Here lies the body of the love of my life, whose heart I broke without a gun to my head. Here lies the mother of my children both living and dead. Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted. Most BOMB pussy who, because of me, sleep evaded. Her shroud is loneliness. Her god was listening. Her heaven will be a love without betrayal. Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.”
This is one of the most techno/dancy songs on the album. It’s started going by the name of “Boy, Bye!” Surprisingly light-hearted despite the heavy intro: “Stop interrupting my grinding/I ain’t thinking bout you/Middle fingers up/Hold ’em hands high/put it in his face/tell him boy, bye!” At the end of the video, she talks about taking her daughter and “being alright” just the two of them, and is dressed as Nefertiti. In the beginning of the video she and a large cast of women are dressed in traditional African (not sure which country) face paint, hair, and clothes.
Emptiness (6 Inch) : See video below. One of my friends thinks this is a commentary on abortion and I’m starting to think that too: the comments on feeling empty after sex, getting periods, being ruled by men, men “pulling out” before women get a chance to come, the hospital-like doors, the red lights (red light district), etc. . .but at the very least it’s about a working girl having power over men by “murdering” them with her sex and “working hard for the money/she grinds Monday to Friday/work from Friday to Sunday.” I have a lot to say about this song but since ya’ll can watch it would like your thoughts first! The tone of this piece is mournful rather than laudatory.
Accountability (Daddy Lessons) : Probably the funnest song on the album. Starts off with a long intro that is very New Orleans jazz, a little zydeco, then goes into more acoustic, gospel-style country. I believe the “accountability” is where she holds herself accountable for not heeding her dad’s warning that Jay-Z is “playing” her and that all men are posers. He taught her to protect herself. Interspersed with modern-day images are home videos of her with her family. The chorus is highly repetitive but sounds like a gospel ballad musically. In fact, it makes me want to raise my hands and say “AMEN!” “When trouble comes around/and men like me come to town/Oh my Daddy said shoot/My Daddy said shoot.” It’s also a tribute to growing up in Texas so we should all have fun with this one.
Reformation (Love Drought) : My least favorite song on the album, probably because musically and lyrically it’s too sweet. I like the sweetness of “Sorry” combined with its harsh lyrics, but if everything’s sweet as in this song “You and me could move a mountain/You and me could calm a war down,” it sounds like Mariah Carey or anyone else could sing this song. HOWEVER I will say it’s a nice breather, and without it “Lemonade” wouldn’t have great flow.
Forgiveness (Sandcastles) : Piano-driven ballad that really shows off her pipes. Video is her and Jay-Z in a house with some clips of their daughter, Blue. I couldn’t help but think of Fiona Apple when her voice cracks in the second verse. Without this second verse, it would be too sweet. “We built sandcastles that washed away/I made you cry when I walked away/And although I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby/Every promise don’t work out that way, oh, babe/Every promise don’t work out that way.” I love that the promise that doesn’t work out is her promise to leave him.
Resurrection (Forward) : Here is where forgiveness sets in and she tries to move on. This is entirely James Blake singing until the very end, and it’s the shortest song on the album next to the intro. My favorite line: “I love you more than this job/please don’t work for me. Forward.”
Hope (Freedom) : Video below. I think of this as the accompanying song to “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in the sense that it’s also a little bluesy and glam rock like the Black Keys. As much a commentary on her new freedom in a renewed relationship as a commentary on black women freeing themselves from oppression. I may be too “meta,” but the ballerina in the video struck me as a little like a prop—as if the creators wanted to reference old minstrel troupes. The rap by Kendrick is fantastic and a little glam rock at the end. I dig it.
[ENTER GLISSANDO AND SPOKEN LEMONADE PART MENTIONED EARLIER]
Redemption (All Night) : Makeup sex song. The video shows a lot of happy couples (wait, there are a couple white people!) kissing and touching. I used to hate this song but see it’s necessary to have a consummation of their renewed relationship. The trumpets add an unexpected ska element that’s refreshing.
Formation: The only song that does not have an emotion/grief process attached to it. I honestly don’t know what to do with this one as far as how it fits in with the rest of the album, although “When he fucks me good/I take his ass to Red Lobster” is probably one of the best lines in the album. Overall it’s a brag on how successful she is and how much money she has. The last lines are “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation/Always stay gracious/the best revenge is your paper.” I WANT this song to be ironic, particularly because it’s called “Formation.” Like “OK ladies, it’s a man’s world. We have to make lots of money to get respect.” In this way it reminded me of Missy’s “Gossip Folks.”
Here’s a link to the Superbowl performance. It’s lacking in vocal quality and some of the lyrics are taken out, but you get the idea.
Thus far I’ve only read All Music’s review of “Lemonade” and was hoping for a more robust and extolling review, but sometimes they put out an earlier review and a later one once the staff has had time to digest it. Excited to know what ya’ll think about this opus!