When Beyoncé surprised the world with her self-titled album more than two years ago, it was praised not just for its musical inventiveness, business savvy, and overt feminism but also for how it depicted Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marriage: It was the singer at her most unabashedly sexual but within the bonds of matrimony. For listeners with a more traditional view of romance, the lyrics portrayed a couple who had done things the “right way”—getting married before having a child, staying together to raise her, and balancing work with family while remaining massively successful. For progressives, it was a radical, woefully underrepresented take on marriage, that even after being with the same person for years, you can still be crazy in love and have surfbort-riding, limo-driver–scandalizing sex—not to mention full gender equality. It was the perfect melding of the two sides of the singer that we’ve come to know over 15-plus years and the two sides of her that are most at work inLemonade: The safe Conservative Beyoncé and the more adventurous Provocative Beyoncé.
Conservative Beyoncé has appeared many times in both real life and her music. She has existed as long as we the public have known her, and she aspires to be part of a traditional, monogamous marriage as if it were as much a right as equal pay. In songs like Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” as well as her own “Me, Myself, and I,” “Irreplaceable,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé has carved out a particular (if not entirely unique) space within the genre of wronged woman anthems. Demanding her man be faithful and treat her right (“Why don’t you love me when I make me so damn easy to love?” she’s pleaded), her melodic earworms of heartbreak and feeling unloved resonate with listeners, especially women.
On the flip side of that same coin, when Beyoncé isn’t being wronged, she’s all in. There’s the borderline-obsessive ode “Dangerously in Love” (“You are my raindrops, I am the seed/ With you and God, who’s my sunlight, I bloom and grow so beautifully”) and the subservient, arguably regressive Destiny’s Child hit “Cater 2 U” (“What you wanna eat boo? Let me feed you/ Let me run your bathwater, whatever you desire, I’ll supply ya”). In “Upgrade U,” she compares her relationship with partner Jay Z (who guests on the single) to the Civil Rights Movement—“ran by the men, but the women keep the tempo.”
Lemonade stands in both these grand traditions, gorgeously produced and sung with the passion and conviction of someone who’s been through some stuff. What is the Caribbean-tinged “Hold Up” but a slowed-down version of “Ring the Alarm,” with airhorns instead of sirens and a video inspired by Michael Jackson’s “panther dance” instead of Basic Instinct? (“What’s worse: Being jealous or crazy?” she sings in voice over, while giddily wielding a baseball bat.) Likewise, “Sorry” serves as a slightly more DGAF update to “Freakum Dress” and “Jealous”—tracks about putting on your hottest dress and hitting the club to make your man feel the same kind of insecurity that you’re feeling (all while never breaking your vows). On “Sorry,” her middle fingers may be upraised, but she still finds a way to plug Jay Z’s official brand of Cognac.
In her world, cheating is the ultimate sin, one that begets smashing car windows and torching the whole neighborhood. It’s akin to murder—at one point, in monologue, she imagines the poetic, overwrought eulogy that her husband will give at her funeral after having “killed” her. She reflects back an American culture that largely feels the same way about romantic relationships. It’s why the public obsesses over the nanny who breaks up a celebrity marriage, giving the female half of the onetime power couple a magazine cover devoted to her “rebound.” It’s why, when famous couples do talk about having an “agreement,” an “arrangement,” or anything that might give off even a whiff of an open relationship—the public balks.
If we are to treat Lemonade as autobiographical—and by using imagery of her real husband, family, and friends, she’s certainly inviting such a reading—then this is Beyoncé’s tell-all cover story, if she were the type of celebrity to give tell-all cover stories. And the portrait Beyoncé paints of herself conforms to one of the oldest stereotypes, that of the wrathful scorned woman. Beyoncé isn’t just enraged by the prospect of her man having slept with another woman. It consumes her:
Did he make you forget your name?
Did he convince you he was a god?
Do you get on your knees daily?
Do his eyes close like doors?
Are you a slave to the back of his head?
Am I talking about your husband or your father?
It seems fitting: The real Beyoncé (at least as presented to us off stage and in the media) has herself lived a sheltered life, one that manifested itself most clearly as such in the carefully curated HBO documentary Life Is but a Dream a few years ago. In one part, video footage of a private gathering with close friends and family for Jay’s birthday revealed that the two started dating when she was 20 years old (which would have made Jay around 32). “You taught me how to be a woman, you taught me how to live … you’ve given me so much in life,” she gushes. Later, she says he taught her how to be an artist and not to compromise her artistry, and continues to gush about how she feels about him and how lucky she is—a love like that is “every woman’s dream.” It’s an odd peek into their lives, at once adorable and romantic but also a little bit creepy and sad. Though they’re on equal footing now (in 2016, Beyoncé is easily the more culturally relevant artist), the way in which their dynamic initiated feels so old-fashioned as to be right out of a fairy tale or Greek myth. (Even the title of that documentary came from a children’s song.)
Yet, on Lemonade, the more radical Provocative Beyoncé comes out as well—radical, at least, for a mainstream pop star of her stature. As many others have noted, she marshals an array of powerful signifiers of blackness: the voice of Kendrick Lamar, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, costuming that seems to evoke Yoruba culture, the poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, and cameos from other recognizable black women who have been outspoken about their blackness (Serena Williams, Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg). She also focuses on the tender bonds between women—mothers and daughters and granddaughters—harkening, as Miriam Bale writes for the Hollywood Reporter, to the works of black female filmmakers like Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons.
She also evokes sankofa, the Akan-language word that has been translated to roughly describe the act of looking backward to the past in order to move forward. (Recall one of the lines from her voice-over, “The past and the future merge to meet us here.”) And through the narrative she’s played out for the media lately (first with “Formation” and the Super Bowl, and now Lemonade), it specifically calls to mind, for me, Sankofa, the 1993 Haile Gerima film that remains one of the most haunting, brilliant depictions of the Atlantic slave trade. In it, a black American model who is on location in Ghana for a photo shoot in the Cape Coast Castle (once used to hold and transport slaves) is whisked back in time and turned into a slave by an old man named Sankofa, who implores her to remember where her ancestors came from. By the end of the film, when she has returned to the present day, she is enlightened and much more in touch with her roots. One could draw a parallel—if a slightly skewed one—between the film and Beyoncé’s own journey toward her public embrace of black social justice. She, too, has shown a willingness to look back to her own past, with the Southern gothic aesthetic (the women in long dresses, the willowy trees), the words of her grandmother, and the documentary-style footage of contemporary Southerners. And by the end credits of Lemonade, she’s landed on healing and understanding.
It can seem a bit at odds, the way in which Lemonade brings these two themes together—one that is self-serving and individualized and the other that is communal and collective for a very specific group of people, i.e., black women. It’s a line she’s straddled before, but here the mixture is especially potent. In the middle of the scorching, Jack White–co-produced “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” for instance, the film pauses to connect her marital strife to Malcolm X’s ruminations on how the black woman is “the most disrespected” person in America, while showing footage of random women on the street. Is Beyoncé, she who runs the world and commands respect on a global stage, really going to act as though her husband sleeping with someone else represents a much bigger problem in the form of black womanhood pillaged and ignored?
She does, and—while messy—on some levels, it works. If Beyoncé is extraordinary in almost every way possible, it doesn’t mean that she can’t feel and experience the most common of emotions—anger, jealousy, indignation. It doesn’t mean that, when flaunting her black pride, she won’t still get deemed, ridiculously, a racist. And she follows in a tradition of art for and by black women (Waiting to Exhale, The Color Purple, For Colored Girls) that has revealed that heartbreak and pain often carries with it more far-reaching historical implications for black women than they do others. (As rabid fans comb through social media in search of the latest supposed “Becky,” it’s the last part of that “Sorry” line—“with the good hair”—that is the most loaded: She’s drawing attention to a long, troubled history of beauty ideals that have helped to devalue black women in society’s eyes.) For better or worse, the idea of forgiveness and keeping a family together, even in the wake of deceit, can be especially important to the black woman, and Beyoncé is not immune. Lemonade is full of revelations, but this may be the most surprising one of all.