Review Summary: Whoo boy...
I am not a black woman. Despite being raised by one, and in tandem with one my own age, I have no special insight into the experiences and specific sentiments of black women. So, for the purposes of this review, I talked to my twin sister. I talked to her about this project because, in truth, it’s intimidating. From the word go, Lemonade
’s fiercely political imagery made it untouchable. It quickly became an emblem of black womanhood in the same way that To Pimp A Butterfly
became a symbol of “woke” blackness last year. To critique it is to critique the causes it stands for, the lives it seemingly lends value. This is the trouble with political albums in our modern political climate--they invite discussion, but silence criticism. To critically engage with them is to sit quietly and listen. So that’s what I did: I listened to this album, and I listened to my sister. I’ll do my best to weave her sentiments into this review alongside my own feelings regarding the actual music here. It’s gonna be a bit long and more than a bit rough, but it’s necessary.
The black woman is a vessel. Unlike almost any other demographic or entity in this nation (the US), the black woman has been vilified, victimized, validated, and vivisected. Her physical features are denounced as ugly only to be appropriated in trademarked lip glosses and padded panties. Her emotions are ignored unless they are violent, at which point they are lampooned as bestial and uncouth. For the black woman, the only societally accepted position is subservience. She can adorn your cooking supplies and clean your house. But in music, she is free. Since the advent of the African Diaspora, music has been a method of resistance, a method of unleashing the stifled anger and righteous indignation inherent to the black female subject position. And in that, Beyonce’s latest follows a long line of wonderfully dissonant and transgressive acts that looked to give voice to the black female experience. But where Nina lamented the struggle and Billie bemoaned the losses, Beyonce turns her critique inwards, focusing more on the black community as an increasingly fractious body. Lemonade
stands not just as an examination of a black woman’s position in society-at-large, but also the ways in which black women are asked to acquiesce within their own communities.
Beyonce approaches this task from a fairly common angle. In popular music, women usually occupy a couple of distinct roles. There’s the tease, a sexually free woman whose music serves to titillate and to transgress. These are your Nelly Furtado’s and your Beyonce
-era Beyonce’s. Rihanna, for the longest time, has occupied this particular role, and most female artists unfortunately are forced into a version of this role that lacks the distinct agency that comes with experience and industry pull. The second most common role, and the one that Beyonce steps into this album, is the role of the woman scorned. Adele is and always will be here. The woman scorned occupies the area of overwrought ballads and rubbery club tracks dedicated to gaining independence and perspective. But there’s an interesting subtext in these roles that rarely gets explored extensively. Implicit in each of these roles is a reliance on a masculine presence, a dependence on the physical or emotional presence of a man to make the narrative work. The tease needs a capable masculine onlooker to lend her desirability. Jay Z plays this role in Beyonce’s 2003 hit “Crazy in Love,” and Timbaland plays the same role on “Promiscuous.” The role of the man in these contexts is bad enough, as he reduces the woman to simply an object to be desired. But the man’s role in the narrative of a woman scorned is more insidious. In these narratives, men serve as the animating purpose behind everything going on. The women of many of these works (especially songs by artists like Adele) possess no individual characteristics outside their own despondence. There’s a notable difference between songs like “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” where our male protagonist is allowed to access perspective and gain wisdom through his despondence and songs like “Hello,” where the female protagonist is almost solely dependent on the implicit male.
It’s important to know all of this as context, because it helps to illuminate the true brilliance and audacity of Lemonade
as a project and as a balancing act. For black women in music, there is always a subtext of masculine oppression. Even songs ostensibly about independence and liberation boast male features or the implication of a masculine presence. For the few who do dare to challenge this, trouble comes in the form of lower sales, no industry backing, or critical backlash (remember, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” was banned from most radio stations and got her dropped from her label). So when Beyonce crafts an album that manages to employ the tropes of the industry in the service of deconstructing and dismantling them, it’s quite notable.
From a sonic perspective, Beyonce does a number of really interesting and exciting things. Aside from employing some of the best and most distinct artists of this generation (you’ve got reviewer-favorites James Blake and The Weeknd, in addition to a veritable feast of black artists and luminaries like Amandla Stenberg, Ibeyi, and Warsan Shire who showed up in the film), Beyonce eschews the intimate soundscape of her self-titled effort and goes for an eclectic and varied set. Bey here manages to lend excitement and distinction to the milquetoast trap-soul of contemporaries like Bryson Tiller (“Love Drought”), moan anxiously with one of the masters of the art (“Forward”) and reach soaring grace notes unlike almost anyone else in popular music (“Sandcastles”). Despite this cornucopia of genre stylings, the album manages to sound coherent and narratively complete thanks to the album’s laser-like focus on the travails of the modern American black woman. In this focus, the album finds its animating force, and Beyonce’s commitment lends much of the album’s slower and more contemplative moments an added depth.
And commitment is key here. As we’ve seen with two major Tidal releases this year, lack of theme and coherence can undo even the most well-produced albums. The Life Of Pablo
loses power as it abandons its religious themes for two-thirds of the album, only to half-assedly return to them on the next to last real track (“Wolves/Frank’s Track” is really the last track on TLOP
, the rest are bonuses). On Anti
, Rihanna’s themes of self-empowerment and cultural integrity fall flat as she desperately tries to either mimic the bombast of Beyonce or the narcotized apathy of Abel Tesfaye.
But Beyonce’s triumph comes in her avoiding of these pitfalls and her excellent curation. The themes of the album, fidelity, community, and liberation, ooze forth from every track on this album. On many of the tracks, the themes are almost comically self-evident. On “Freedom,” Bey belts “freedom, freedom, cut me loose!” On “All Night,” she sings that “my love was stronger than your pride.” But on the other tracks, the themes become messy, entangled in a web of nasty emotions. And this lends the album an interesting topography. Pretty much all of these tracks inspire a number of emotions. The cathartic gospel of “Pray You Catch Me” will have you speaking in tongues so long as your voice isn’t choked out by the tears that come with putting the pieces together and discovering the heinous infidelity of a partner. You pray for it to not be true, you look to God and ask what you did to deserve such cruelty. On “Daddy Lessons,” you’ll be stomp-clapping like a native Southerner. But the lyrics don’t just tell the story of Mr. Knowles’ impressing on his daughter. They also tell a more subdued story of minor abuses and neuroses. Her father taught her not just how to shoot, but how to see the signs of dishonesty. He taught her how to judge men not based on his word, but based on his own nefarious actions. Realizing this turns “Daddy Lessons” into another entry into Beyonce’s catalog of betrayals. The dreary piano of “Forward” doubles as a call to arms and a reconciliation. On the one hand, James Blake implores the listener to fight for a way forward in the political sense, a plea to end the violence against black lives (the film serves as textual support for this, as the faces of Sybrina Fulton and Lezley McSpadden stare into the camera, holding portraits of their murdered children). On the other, Beyonce welcomes her lover back into bed and pleas for a way forward.
Throughout much of this album, Beyonce’s emotional narrative mirrors a greater political narrative. This is where the dismantling comes into play. Lemonade
isn’t just an album about a woman who’s been cheated on, it’s about the black woman in the abstract. The black woman who, for generations, has been beaten and raped and diminished as a human. The black woman who can only find agency in the rights and progress of the man she’s married or the children she’s beared. Lemonade
charts this distinctly post-Diasporic journey as she goes from praying for a “whisper” to “breaking the chains all by [her]self.” In “6 Inch,” she takes a traditionally subservient role (the working girl), and lends her a strength independent of the men she serves. She makes her own money; she runs her own life. She owns the club. She slays everyone. The Weeknd’s verse lends support to this in an interesting way. It's classic Weeknd, as he talks about this woman’s affinity for Hennessy and ecstasy. But context is everything here, as Beyonce lets us all know that this woman works all the time to get what she has. Her vices are earned in the sense that they’re the only reliable thing she can depend on. “Stars in her eyes/She fights for the power, keeping time/She grinds day and night.”
What all this amounts to is a narrative that intricately marries Beyonce’s unique struggle with infidelity at the upper echelons of fame to the perennial struggle for legitimacy and power that black women face in all aspects of their lives. It’s in this interplay that Beyonce’s true message becomes clear. The fight for liberation and legitimacy is also the fight for unity and solidarity. The reunification of Beyonce and Jay Z, more than anything, is an analogue for the healing that needs to take place in the black community. As movements like Black Lives Matter have taken root, so too has a power struggle within black revolutionary politics. The black women who codified and popularized the movement have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep it exclusive. This denial of access has lent itself to an increasingly insular movement, one that has begun to decry some of its more prominent faces (Deray Mckesson, a prominent activist who’s earned Beyonce’s stamp of approval via Twitter follow, has recently been lambasted by people he used to march with as he runs for mayor of Baltimore, and Shaun King has been criticized for his outspoken support of Bernie Sanders). In this, the movement has lost much of its guiding force and devolved into an almost farcical series of disruptions, doxing, and demonization. In airing her personal anger and grievances, Beyonce hopes to lend perspective to people who see the fight for equality as a friendless fight.
One of the more poignant things that my sister told me in our discussion was, to paraphrase, that what hurts more than anything is finding out that the people you thought supported you are actually more hateful and against you than your perceived enemies. And in this, we see an important emerging aspect of black life. Black women lead the nation in entrepreneurs. Black women now make more on average than black men, despite the gender pay gap. More families are led by black women and more black women are going to college. In short, black women are ***ing killing it. But in that comes a familiar struggle, wherein men denigrate the accomplishments of women in an impotent attempt at saving face. It’s this struggle that Lemonade
addresses head-on and in no uncertain terms. For Beyonce, black women and black men have a single shared desire, a shared goal that nothing should distract us from. We should be a united front, a mixed army fighting in the pursuit of progress. Unfortunately, things have gotten out of hand and our focus has been lost. But there’s hope, and with Lemonade
, Beyonce’s telling us all to regain Formation.