Fans have long suspected trouble in paradise in the Carter-Knowles home. The Jay Z infidelity rumors finally came to a head at a Met Ball after-party on May 5, 2014, when protective sister Solange physically lashed out at her brother-in-law in an elevator, all while Beyoncé quietly watched. Later reports indicated that Solange might have been expressing some aggression over Jay Z’s “too close for comfort” friendship with designer Rachel Roy, the ex-wife of his ex-pal Damon Dash, and Solange was spotted giving Roy a piece of her mind at the aforementioned after-party. Bey and Jay’s 12-year relationship has been riddled with similar reports of infidelity, with mysterious sources and tabloids listing alleged mistresses from Rita Ora to Rihanna.
Well, Beyoncé isn’t standing quietly in the corner any longer.
Lemonade, Beyoncé’s mysterious Saturday night HBO drop, is a surprise visual album unlike any other (and she would know… she invented the surprise visual album). The hour-long, deeply immersive experience is split into 11 “songs.” The air quotes indicate my inability to confidently label them as such—each song, beginning with spoken word verses that read like poetry or prophecy—is more like a chapter, as befitting this genre-bending masterpiece. The drama unfolds fairly linearly, outlining Beyoncé’s evolution from jealousy to suspicion to outright war.
In “Intuition,” Queen Bey haunts empty cabins and wanders along the edge of a building, daring herself to fall into the city. “Where do you go when you go quiet… You remind me of my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me. What are you hiding? The past, and the future, merge to meet us here. What luck. What a fucking curse.”
She takes up again with the visual imagery of “Formation,” crashing from the skyscrapers into the water. She burst from the water into the oversaturated, film-grainy streets of New Orleans with one question: “Are you cheating on me?” And now we’re in this.
Runway-walking down the street with a baseball bat and a mission, Beyoncé smashes cars and starts fires. Literally. This opening chapter features some of the most gossip-worthy lines. Choice sound bites include: “I don’t want to lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch” and “what’s worse, looking jealous or crazy… I’d rather be crazy.” Grinning, she stares dead into the camera and takes a big swing at it, and the scene goes black-and-white.
In “Anger,” Beyoncé is in a skintight gray sports bra, grey high-waisted leggings, long blonde braids, and fur. Fittingly, she is not playing around. “Who the fuck do you think I am. You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy. You can watch my fat ass twist, boy. As I bounce to the next (dick) boy. And keep your money, I got my own.” A Malcolm X voice-over tells us that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” Oh yeah, if you thought Lemonade wasn’t ALSO going to be a manifesto about black femininity and racial identity in America, you thought wrong. Beyoncé is gracing a parking garage with her presence in a full-on wedding dress, letting us all know that, “when you play me, you play yourself.” She adds a little aside for Jay Z, in case he hasn’t gotten the memo yet (can someone give Mr. Carter their HBOGo login info already?): “If you try this shit again, you’re gon’ lose your wife.” And then she drops her freaking wedding ring.
“Apathy” opens on some truly bomb spoken word, as Bey honey-croons “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.” If using biblical verses to call out your husband’s side hoe is wrong, then who would ever want to be right?
Serena Williams joins the party for a good old-fashioned girls rule, boys drool banger. From women in tribal paint on a school bus to ladies in decadent Southern dresses, Beyoncé is accompanied by crews of beautiful black women everywhere she goes, helping her deliver zingers like “suck on my balls,” “put my deuces up,” “middle fingers up,” and “tell him ‘boy bye.’” “Apathy” also features one very concrete clue, a la Drake’s iconic “Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree” reference: for Beyoncé, it’s the incredibly shade-laden line “he better call Becky with the good hair.” Sorry, Becky, but your life is in the Beyhive’s hands now.
In “Emptiness” and “Loss,” we plunge deeper into Beyoncé’s sadness and anger. Decadent Southern interiors turn red and light on fire as the house she has built literally crumbles. Between the club banger beats and intricate white-collared corsets, it’s easy to get distracted from what we’re really watching here: the decimation of a marriage. Behind all the middle fingers and posturing, there’s a sense of witnessing, and an intimacy so powerful that Beyoncé’s dramatic, almost apocalyptic fire/water imagery feels apropos. It’s a burning, a drowning. And if Beyoncé’s biblical imagery and taste for happy endings holds any sort of promise, it’s of a baptism, or even a full-fledged resurrection. Move over, Yeezus.
“Accountability” adds further layers to the racial politics that Beyoncé has been brewing ever since the world discovered her blackness. Images of black maternity and childhood flash across the screen, some real, some enacted. Beyoncé recites, “Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth. Teach me how to make him beg… Did he convince you he was a god? Did you get on your knees daily… Am I talking about your husband or your father?” We’re momentarily released from the confines of a marriage into a wider world of family inheritance and cultural critique. Then the acoustic guitar comes in and ushers in a true miracle: a Beyoncé country song. Dressed as a Southern belle, Beyoncé sings about her daddy, guns, and the Bible. She rides a horse in blue jeans and croons “my daddy warned me about men like you.” This is Bey at her most subversive and powerful, subtly recycling country music tropes and re-signifying them through the visual landscape of Black Lives Matter.
“Reformation” is a lush, living pop song. Catchy and light, it’s set to a backdrop of statuesque black women dressed in gauzy priestess robes, wading into blue waters. In “Forgiveness,” Beyoncé is back in the here and now, sitting at a piano with headphones on, and belting a full-on, gospel chorus-accompanied ballad. She’s ushering us right along toward an emotional and musical crescendo, singing, “Now that reconciliation is possible, if we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.” We see Bey and Jay in bed together, face-to-face, cuddling and cherishing one another. She’s wearing her ring again, and he literally kisses her feet. Let’s just take a minute here to acknowledge the sheer badassery of a woman who convinces her husband to grovel on-screen in an album that’s all about his lying, cheating ass… especially if that husband is one of the most respected men in the rap game.
In “Resurrection,” we return to “Formation” visual motifs: Mardi Gras Indian garb, the mourning of young black men, and of course, black girl magic. Black women, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, hold pictures of their lost sons in their hands. Social justice activist and millennial icon Amandla Stenberg joins Beyoncé in her pursuit of capturing black excellence onscreen. “Hope” strengthens this proposed lineage between black girls past and present, with Beyoncé performing on stage for a group of women in Southern dress. “Lemonade” is just as much a love letter to these women as it is to Jay Z: black girl drummers in braids, ballerinas in elbow-length gloves, mothers, wives, grandmothers. And on “Redemption,” Beyoncé speaks directly to the women who made her: “Grandmother, the alchemist. You spun gold out of this hard life.” We flash to footage of Jay and Bey at their wedding, playing with their daughter, and getting inked with matching tattoos; these moments are intertwined with other black lovers, young families, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives.
Lemonade is an ode to strong women, black love, and everyday magic. With the help of silence, poetry, beauty, fierce clothes, music, Blue Ivy, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, and Quvenzhané Wallis (to name a few of her collaborators), Beyoncé creates a fantasy world out of the broken pieces of her reality. In the end, it’s her most beautiful, personal, political, powerful, and expansive work to date.