Beyoncé broke the internet late Saturday night (April 23rd), and as the world bathes in the afterglow of another surprise offering, it’s important to recline and contextualise it all. Titled ‘Lemonade’, the original presentation debuted on premium-cable channel HBO, a trusted partner and premier choice for the singer, given their collaborative relationship on the self-produced documentary ‘Life Is But A Dream’ and 2014’s On the Run Tour special. After the expertly curated affirmation anthem ‘Formation’, and the subsequent performance of said track at the Superbowl back in February, radio silence ensued, what was the ever elusive songstress brewing next? Would ‘Lemonade’ continue the risk-taking of her self-titled release?
The consensus was that 2013’s ‘BEYONCÉ’ was a deft exercise in shifting a paradigm from a perennial and bankable pop starlet to an arresting artiste, eschewing the conventions that had stifled Beyoncé’s creativity. Placing the emphasis on the ‘album’ and a coherent body of work, and producing one of the defining records in the new millennia, the cynic in us would not be remiss in asking if ‘Lemonade’ could follow the legacy of ‘BEYONCÉ?
‘Lemonade’ is an altogether different beast. A beast so intricately constructed it requires repeated viewings to digest all there is on offer. Presented as a short film, the project directed by Kahlil Joseph and Bey herself (and a whole host of co-directors and cinematographers), contains visceral imagery, spoken-word narration and a multitude of zeitgeist reference points. At the core it follows the tempestuous journey of a scorned woman and the stages she goes through in her process of healing and self-preservation. A few minutes in, it’s clear that ‘Lemonade’ is a triumph of spirit, Beyoncé’s spirit, on display in raw, uninhibited HD.
The scorned woman is by no means an original trope, but the ways in which Beyoncé presents her version of the effects of marital strife, cuts deep and hard. For arguably the most famous woman in the world to put all her cards on the table, in all its bare glory, makes the record infinitely more compelling. A cleverly realised motif, the infidelity she so painstakingly explores, could be her own or her mother’s. Our bet is both. The common denominator is the reverberations that travel through familial ties and generations, her experiences may be personal but the effects are universal.
Opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’ is home to the most candid confessionals to date. The stark lyric “I can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath” sets the tone of despair as Beyoncé deals with the immediate effects of an unfaithful lover. Diving into a trippy, underwater abyss, she recites Somali-born Warsan Shire’s vivid incantation. The final words of that segment, spoken in her husky southern drawl cut like a knife, “are you cheating on me?” What follows is what could be the sleeper hit of the summer, ‘Hold Up’ — an airy, reggae-tinged number, one that sees Beyoncé as a women possessed, marking the territory around her man. Lyrically she destroys all of his credibility, and broadcasts all his deepest insecurities (ouch!). The effect is hallucinogenic, the supporting visual featuring a canary yellow, Cavalli-clad Bey gleefully destroying Chevys and windows with her most prized possession, her baseball bat (the “hot sauce” in her bag). ‘Hold Up’ is a precursor to the demonic Jack White collaboration ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, the heady delirium before the storm. The latter is a testament to Beyoncé’s versatility; no pop artist in the world right now would be able to tackle a full-bodied rock number whilst retaining her bluesy undertones. Rasping the line “Suck on my balls, I've had enough," it feels as if you’re being anointed by something so pure — pure rage.
‘6 Inch’ with a guest verse from The Weeknd continues Beyoncé’s fearless foray into alt-genres, billed as the spiritual sister to 2013’s brilliant ‘Haunted’. The Weeknd provides his signature brand of nihilism, his presence a mere support act for Beyoncé who growls and coos about the importance of female autonomy and priorities in a world that objectifies the way a woman should exist. Accompanied brilliantly by a monochromatic red filter in the video, the star dressed in virginal white lace gown lies lifeless in a bed, invoking hefty themes of prostitution and the voyeurism of the female sexuality. Still in a feverish mood, ‘Sorry’ features Queen of the sporting world Serena Williams twerking up a storm while Beyoncé looks on like a Madam, proud of her creation. It’s another dazzling feminist club anthem, but with a grittier underbelly, the production off-kilter but no less invigorating.
The second half of the record slows in pace and her voice reaches new extremes and new pains. It grows open and raw on tracks like ‘Love Drought’, featuring a siren-like vocal in the chorus as she grapples with the limitations of her love. The overarching aesthetic shifts to pre-Civil War America, an ode to Beyoncé’s Southern ancestry. Connecting her personal pain to the ordeal of her ancestors, she succeeds in not making ‘Lemonade’ hedonistic but instead a wholly relatable experience. The primitive and communal bond that women share in their experiences as mothers and wives. The resilience and reserve of the African-American community in an overwrought socio-political climate brilliantly realised in the Kendrick Lamar-assisted ‘Freedom’. A war cry of liberation, stomping and defiant. If you don’t relate to being a minority, you relate to matters that pertain to the heart — the possessive streak we’re all afraid to unearth, the cold stab of heartbreak, the no-fucks attitude post breakup, and the thing we find hardest to do: forgive. Whether Beyoncé actually forgave, or if she is still grappling with the notion now, it’s evident she found some inner peace as is showcased through the celebratory ‘All Night’.
‘Lemonade’ is Beyoncé at her most benevolent, and her most unadulterated. Treating her blackness not as an affliction but a celebratory beacon, ‘Lemonade’ is a long overdue, cathartic retribution.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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