Review: Beyoncé turns lemons into a masterpiece

FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, file photo, Beyonce performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game in Santa Clara, Calif. After the recent debut of her visual album “Lemonade” on HBO, a Ticketmaster representative told The Associated Press on Wednesday, April 27, that the ticket outlet company saw searches forBeyoncé’s concerts increased by 116 percent compared to last week. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Limiting your interest in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” to pursuing the identity of “Becky with the good hair” is to do her work a great injustice. Beyoncé delivered a hymn of empowerment with this visual album. It is not about adultery, but it is about cheating. It is not autobiographical, but it is also not fictional. Reflecting on her personal experiences and her identity as a black woman, Beyoncé pours her heart out in the music, and as the last notes resonate, she proves herself to be more powerful than ever.

She is vulnerable with raw honesty and raging passion, and the result is an ode to the disrespected, unprotected and neglected black woman.

There are three components to the album: alternating music, poems and visuals to encompass themes of violence, abuse, race, Black Lives Matter, love, marriage, sensuality, loss and empowerment. Divided in several phases, “Lemonade” follows the different emotional stages of what at first appears to be a combination of Beyoncé’s personal experience with the adultery committed by husband Jay-Z, and her impression of her mother’s similar story. However, each tale acts as a hyperbole to deeper and more important issues black women endure every day. Each song represents a different stage of the emotional progression from denial to redemption.

The visual album opens with various shots of Beyoncé, first with cornrows, then with a head wrap, and finally, in an unambiguous black zip-up hoodie. “Pray You Catch Me” plays softly in the background of the first part of the film, Intuition, and reflects on the experience of suspecting trouble without the courage to seek it out actively. The song is an observation of the fear and reservation that comes with hints of a conflict.

The song pauses and multiple black women in white dresses stand in a New Orleans landscape as Beyoncé recites poetry composed by Somali poet Warsan Shire.

Shire’s poems deal with her experience migrating from Africa to Europe as well as sensuality and grief, themes that resonate perfectly with Beyoncé’s musical vision for this album. In an interview, Shire described her interest in telling the stories of people who are too often silenced or underrepresented. This collaboration now seems fated.

In the next shot, Beyoncé jumps off a building and into waters that both contain and drown her. The poetry turns to self-reflection, as intuition becomes denial. She emerges from the water in a yellow dress, looking like the African goddess Oshun of love, beauty and order. Strutting down a street with purpose, she flaunts her power and fierce passion. Delightfully combining playfulness and anger, she smashes cars with a baseball bat while singing “Hold Up.” The videography resembles the video installation piece “Ever is Over All” by feminist artist Pipilotti Rist, according to a Slate article, and the comparison is uncanny. The artist’s seemingly sweet and angelic appearance with a light blue dress and red heels contrast greatly with her actions, as she prances down the street breaking car windows with a metal bar meant to look like a flower. Delicacy meets violent rage in both cases and the result is striking. The reference to the perception of women in modern society, especially black women, makes a point about the silencing of their selfhood in favor of beauty. “Hold up, look at my glorious and emboldened fury,” Beyoncé seems to say as she swings the bat at the camera. 

#LEMONADE 4.23 9PM ET | 6PM PT | HBO

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Bringing us through the streets of New Orleans, the album takes a darker tone, as Beyoncé spits out the word of Shire’s next poem about another woman. Anger seeps through the words as she offers to wear the other woman as a costume and be “the perfect girl.” The anger is aimed at the ‘other woman’ but it is also about this expectation of beauty inspired by society and aimed at the male gaze. “Why can’t you see me?” brings in the issue of visibility. Malcolm X’s voice pauses the song, pointing out the invisible status of black women. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” picks back up with more animosity than before. Passionate anger is empowering. Malcolm X embodies this truth.

The notes of a song from the Swan Lake ballet cut in, a brilliant ode to the sad love story. The word “apathy” appears onscreen as Beyoncé describes her own eulogy, from the perspective of the one who killed her with deceit. Here lies the mother of my children, living and dead she recites, hinting at another controversy over her very personal song “Heaven,” associated with both the loss of her best friend and her miscarriage. Several poems from the movie hint at the concept of fertility and loss, resonating with the grief of the mothers who lost children to miscarriages and violence. There again Black Lives Matter can be found as an inspiration.

The ‘Apathy’ phase is by far the most surprising, opening with Serena Williams twerking in a black leotard and ending with the now famous line “Becky with the good hair.” Putting the Taylor Swift girl squad to shame, Beyoncé’s   group of influential black women such as Williams, Shire, Disney actress Zendaya, ‘Hunger Games’ star Amandla Stenberg, model Winnie Harlow, as well as the mothers of children killed by police forces, reminds us what women can do when they come together.

With ‘Emptiness,’ plays the song “6 Inch” featuring The Weeknd. Beyoncé surveys the streets from the backseat of a car with a red filter applied to the film. She sings about the work grind and making money with an undertone for independence in a slow and sensual way. The lack of strong emotions is noticeable in comparison to the rest of the album, although the fire burning behind her as she stands in silence when the song ends reminds us of the anger that cannot quite be quelled.

Turning to heritage and family, with home videos of families and neighborhoods, she recites a poem about the unequal relationship between a woman and a man. The man’s identity is ambiguous, husband or father, he is meant to represent the oppressor, the one who beats down and demands devotion without returning it. Beyoncé asks, “Am I talking about your husband, or your father?” and invites women to rethink the way they see the male figures surrounding them in order to break away from oppression. The jazzy sound of trumpets swoop in, joined by a country vibe that is so different from anything she has done before that one can’t help but nod along. “Daddy Lessons” is a ballad for the dads who made their girls tougher. With a direct reference to the second amendment along with home videos of black girls laughing and walking around the street, the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement is present once again in through a brilliant combination of music and visuals hinting at the need for gun control and the anxiety of gun violence.

Bringing a somber tone to the album, “Love Drought” comes on, with a procession of girls in white dresses walking through the water as the sun sets on a beach. Forgiveness follows: “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious” she says. She discusses heritage passed down from mothers to daughters, possibly referring to the reoccurrence of adultery for women in her family, but also addressing the oppression felt by black women through many generations. “Sandcastles” plays soon after, and Beyoncé sings with more emotion and honesty than any other song on the album. Intimate and melancholic clips of her and Jay-Z intersect with the shots of Beyoncé at her piano, reflecting on the forgiveness she is slowly accepting to give.

Only a few seconds of the song “Forward” act as a background to the powerful imagery appearing before our eyes. The mothers of police brutality victims sit in silence, looking straight at the camera as they hold photographs of their lost sons. The intensity of their stare is unavoidable; your attention is not required, but demanded. The issue of gun violence is impossible to ignore and the fight continues. Right on cue, “Freedom” begins to play, featuring Kendrick Lamar, and showing many women in white on a southern plantation. Their stars are unwavering; they stand as an empowered army capable of anything.

Love is the answer, or so does the last phase, “Redemption,” implies. Videos of happy couples join private footage of Blue Ivy and Jay-Z as a background to this song of empowerment through love and forgiveness. Formation is the last song on the album, providing the perfect thematic summary of “Lemonade.” The music video was released two months prior to the album to prepare us for the masterpiece that started streaming on HBO on Sunday. The heritage of racial conflicts, oppression, Black Lives Matter, black female empowerment, love, marriage and self-love are brought together in a visual album that should be noted as a turning point in pop culture and artistic activism.

Back in February, Kanye West released his new album, “Life of Pablo” during his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show. The performance highlighted the Black Power movement and references to the Syrian refugees crisis. Using music and fashion as his artistic platform, Kanye presented to the public an art activism performance like no other. What we are seeing today is a transition by black artists from music to art activism, bringing empowerment to all through visual art, music and performances brought together into a cohesive whole.

Lemonade is the turning point. It is a love letter from Beyoncé to the women in her family, to her heritage, to black women, and to herself. Beware world; a revolution of music and art activism is taking place before our eyes. Performance art is taking on a new form: empowerment.


Margaux Ancel is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at margaux.ancel@uconn.edu.