Beyoncé is shy. In TV interviews, the Queen melts into a soft-spoken introvert—hands folded in her lap, tight-lipped on the nitty-gritty details of her private life. Some are quick to say that this offstage coyness is not only her personality, but also her branding strategy. In an era of overexposure, Team Bey’s tactic is visibility via concealment, stardom through distance. Beyoncé’s last TV appearance (that wasn’t for a performance or awards show) was in 2015 on Good Morning America when she announced a vegan diet. Her Twitter page has less than ten tweets. Her Instagram pics, though sometimes intimate (e.g. Blue at a costume party, Bey at an AirBnB), are mostly captionless.
Yet in the recent months, it seemed as though the tides had turned. Queen Bey blessed us with a deluge: a Super Bowl, a tour, a clothing line, two print magazine interviews. And then, teasingly, painfully, slowly, she finally gave us what we wanted, what we’ve been waiting for: Lemonade.
In the days leading up to its drop, we speculated: what is this cryptic collab with HBO? A documentary? A music video? A juice cleanse?
Lemonade is more than an album. Even Beyoncé’s own self-coined phrase of visual album feels insufficient to describe this work, because it’s not so much a marriage of image and sound as it is a divine, perfect collision of song, of sight, of written and spoken word. Smack in the middle of its first number “Pray You Catch Me”–a sleek piano ballad–the music fades to backwoods murmurs, unflinching Black women stand erect, and from Bey’s lips drip the incantations of poet Warsan Shire: “I tried to make a home out of you but trap doors lead to trap doors…You remind me of my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once.” It’s such an intimate moment that it feels like eavesdropping, but we can’t help but stare. We can’t look away. Like its teaser single “Formation,” Lemonade is laced with a layered panoply of sampled tracks, artists, and other cultural stock. It teems with unapologetic Blackness. It suspends time and space, crafting a gorgeous, haunting, atemporal world with Macbooks and monster trucks and moon phases. It has religious resonance. At one point, Bey spits, “I plugged my menses with pages from the Holy book.”
Beyoncé dives deep and gets dirty. She’s no longer hush-hush, but, instead, lays bare her much speculated marital un-bliss. We got a hint of this friction in her last album with “Jealous.” But Lemonade resurrects “Jealous” insomuch as it departs from the song’s smoothness and brooding quality. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” featuring Jack White, has edges that can cut, an ice hot cocktail of rock and R&B. The Queen’s pissed and disses her scoundrel, her sweetheart Jay Z, who later makes an appearance and is seen literally kissing her feet. She wails, “You can watch my ass twist, boy / As I bounce to the next dick, boy,” and it’s all so deliciously vulgar. Is this obscene? Profane? Dare cast judgment? This is a Beyoncé who does not give a sh*t.
On the other hand, the album’s catchiest hit “Hold Up” is the sunny Caribbean-inspired compliment to “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” At first, it seems to brim with the same attitude: Bey with a bat; no glass left unshattered. Yet, beneath the fury, there’s feeling. The cars aren’t the only things crushed. Here, Beyoncé (can it be?) is insecure. She rattles, “How did it come to this? / Going through your call list.” Even Beyoncé, the original single lady, who appeared immune to love’s woes, has gotten hurt. She gives a sh*t. She cares too much. In this way, like us mere mortals, Beyoncé proves to be a glorious contradiction, giving at the same time all the f*cks and none. But regardless, Bey holds nothing back. Lemonade is her smashing the tempered glass, the boundaries between private and public, the walls she seemed to work so hard to mount.
And then the personal bleeds into the political, because with Beyoncé being who she is–Black, female, pop star, mother, wife, daughter, human–the two are so inherently intertwined. For Beyoncé, success is a political act. Thus, Lemonade’s most poignant, powerful, brave apex is its final tryptich: “Forward,” “Freedom,” and “All Night,” where Beyoncé’s private pain and betrayal map onto the wounds of many. Although throughout Lemonade there’s no doubt that this is Beyoncé’s homage to Black lives, on “Freedom” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Black girl magic bubbles to the surface. The gospel-like march anthem conjures up dancer Michaela DePrince, actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya, model Winnie Harlow, and other Black girls and women. But this isn’t so much a squad rollout as it is a coven. There’s a witchy quality to the blending of the organ and drums, to the agitation and roughness that stir in Bey’s vocals. It makes a difference that these are Black girls and women who’ve endured, who’ve had to defend themselves, their excellence, and their bodies when no one else dared to. Despite it all, they “keep running / Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves,” an incredible yet everyday feat for these queens. This is a testament to the resilience of Black womanhood, a power that can only be likened to true alchemy.
At a minute and nineteen seconds, “Forward,” which features James Blake (or perhaps, more accurately, features Beyoncé not because she’s overshadowed, but because she only sings for the last thirty seconds) stands out as not only the shortest song, but also the most heavy, heartbreaking, tragic, sickening track on the album. There aren’t enough words to capture this elegiac hymn. It’s so goddamn short, which is the entire point. Black girls and women–in particular, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown–stare defiantly straight ahead, hands tightly wound around framed photos of their beloveds. Black men whose lives were cut prematurely short are honored. In the last verse of “Forward,” Beyoncé finally joins in, harmonizing, “Go back to your sleep in your favorite spot just next to me.” There’s an unresolvable tension here between the song’s mantra to move on and its desires hold on, a fissure that’s irreconcilable, that can only be scabbed over, that’s punctuated by the discord between the pure, sublime beauty of the track and the distorted electric buzz that closes out this melancholic lullaby. It’s a tension that never truly fades away.
Before the credits roll with its “Formation” finale, Lemonade seems to finish on an upbeat: people of all and every creed hugging, kissing in (though not necessarily unadulterated) joy in “All Night.” It’s the kind of ballad that makes you pine, weak-in-the-knees, that makes your legs twist, your stomach feel funny, that leaves you wishing you had someone to hold, someone you could “Kiss up and rub up and feel up.” The final, fuzzy image: Bey, Jay, and Blue dancing. The violins swell. It seems to be a restoration of the natural order, delivering a message of forgiveness and redemption. Is this truth or fiction? Personal or performative? It’s hard to say. Knowing Bey and knowing that we’ll never really know her, realizing that we’ll never really know the myth, the mystery, the monarch, the mother lord that is Beyoncé, it’s hard to conclude anything definitive. But there’s something about her final words, spoken, whispered low, “Oh, how I’ve missed you, my love.” It’s a small soundbite, the kind that can be easily overlooked, and yet speaks to Beyoncé’s sleight of hand. She takes a pain that stings and burns and festers and instead of avoiding it, she confronts it, taking ownership of the hurt and making it her own, on her own terms.
Here, Beyoncé pours out some of the finest work to date, the kind that resists genre, expectations, and easy outs; the kind that redefines the possibilities of pop. We’ll be drinking up Lemonade slowly and carefully for the long haul, savoring each song, image, and word until the very last sip.