A Queen Bleeds: Beyoncé’s Transcending Emotion On Lemonade
The most fascinating and frustratingly opaque window we’ve had into Beyoncé and Jay Z’s relationship is the infamous elevator footage that surfaced almost two years ago. Beyoncé’s sister Solange attacked Jay Z for reasons still unknown and speculated about, while Beyoncé did nothing but pick up the things strewn about the elevator floor from Solange’s person, resulting from the raging barrage of kicks, punches, and verbal daggers thrown.
Beyoncé didn’t quite do nothing, though. Willingly letting something happen and doing nothing are two different things. She stepped in to separate them once and could have continued to be a buffer, but decided not to. Her name wasn’t mentioned in the statement issued a few days following the scuffle, and only Jay and Solange had to “assume their share of responsibility.” The statement was said to come from the three of them, but Beyoncé’s voice was noticeably absent, much like her conviction in the elevator. She seemed most comfortable when the three snapped back into cool-calm-and-collected mode, with all the tension left in the car to ride back up and out of sight.
It was a glimpse of Bey and Jay — magicians of privacy — at work. Like all good magicians, they have kept hidden almost all details of their private personae. The only tangible evidence that an actual relationship exists is in the living, breathing form of their daughter, Blue Ivy.
But now, Beyoncé has finally spoken up — maybe not about the elevator incident in particular, but about her relationship with Jay. She’s chosen to break the magician’s code and air out the couple’s dirty laundry on Lemonade. Queen Bey is at her most raw, vulnerable, revelatory, and wounded on her sixth solo album. Never before has she allowed us to see her licking her wounds, or even know that she’s suffered them. But the blood on her tongue adds potency when she uses it to display her strength and power through healing.
Jay Z’s infidelity and deceit are the catalysts for the bare Bey we receive on Lemonade. She directly addresses him on numerous occasions with visceral emotion behind every moment — rage, confusion, confidence, acceptance, forgiveness, or any other reaction spawned by Jay’s apparent betrayal. We have felt these emotions from Bey in the past, but never this forcefully, and usually with the awareness and intent to lead to the empowerment of all women, to transcend the individual. In the past, she’s used the combination of employing an everywoman voice/character and giving quotable, social media-ready directives as a heroine. But Lemonade has her directly addressing Jay in her own voice with all the feels she normally keeps cryptically just below the surface, and rejecting the same catchy emboldening she’s propagated herself.
You can feel her work through the disbelief, embarrassment, and helplessness of being cheated on from the opener “Pray You Catch Me” with the direct, sincere question “What are you doing, my love?” It continues on “Hold Up” when she says, “I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless/ How did it come down to this?/ Scrolling through your call list/ I don’t want to lose my pride, but I’ma fuck me up a bitch/ Know I kept it sexy/ I know I kept it fun/ There’s something that I’m missing/ Maybe my head for one.”
We can also feel that initial shock turn into anger, doubt, sadness, depression, and eventually strength. She questions the same ring she encouraged “all the single ladies” to demand with threats like “Keep a bigger smile on my face being alone.” It takes her four songs to return to the anthemic inspiration of “Middle fingers up/ Put them hands high/ Wave it in his face/ Tell him boy, bye” on “Sorry.” She spends more time in her own true feelings on this album than she has in her entire discography combined to this point.
To see an entity who’s normally above human frailty hurt and bleed internally is enough to make this album Beyoncé’s best, but in true Queen Bey fashion, there are levels to this shit. She knew how to frame this album so that it’s not only excellent, but an immense moment with maximum potency and currency.
In the Lemonade visual album/film, directed by Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, Malcolm X intones, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” A handful of the many mothers of black men killed by police — including Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others — appear on screen holding photos of their lost loved ones.
By framing this album through that literal and figurative lens, she’s successfully subverting the male-dominated conversation surrounding the endangered black male and focusing the attention on the black women who mourn, celebrate, motivate, and survive them. The most resonant voices fighting for the plight of the black male in America musically as of late belong to J. Cole on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, Common and John Legend on “Glory,” and D’Angelo on Black Messiah — all black men. (And of course there’s Macklemore.)
Black men should rightfully speak on the state of their brethren, but the black women who support them are often ignored due to the emphasis of the black man’s endangerment. That is not to say awareness shouldn’t be at an all-time high, as this is a crucial, defining time for the vitality of black men in America, but just because black women aren’t in as much danger of being murdered by police — or each other, or the prison industrial complex — doesn’t mean they don’t suffer the effects of those things. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in his gripping article exploring the effects of mass incarceration and police violence, the strife does not end when a black male body is toe-tagged at the morgue. The women who support those men take mental and emotional beatings that last much longer than those from a police baton. And far too often those beatings are at the hands of black men who learn from their environments — with reinforcement from misogynistic lyrics — to disparage their women.
Beyoncé, in a way only she could, has turned the conversation to those who are devalued and dehumanized when no one else in the mainstream — male or female — is doing so. Through her intensely inward revelations, she speaks for black women holding it down for black men when things get rough. When she sings lines like, “Let me see your scars,” or, “Nine times out 10 I’m in my feelings/ 10 times out of nine I’m only human/ What did I do wrong?” she may be speaking to Jay, but she’s also speaking for black women everywhere who are loving and supporting black men. I think of Brandi consoling Tre after a racist confrontation with police in Boyz N The Hood. I think of bell hooks when she boldly asked/proclaimed, “Ain’t I A Woman?” I think of Ntozake Shange and all the colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is not enough. I think of my mother teaching me how to combat racism and bigotry in the first grade when I earned a trip to the regional spelling bee but was passed over because I was a black boy.
Bey also positions herself to be seen in relation to black men without being dominated or defined by them. She likens herself to Malcolm X in her power to motivate her man on “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She entertains the thought of a black version of Bill Gates — man or woman — on “Formation.” She questions what her father taught her over the sounds of her Louisiana and Texas roots on “Daddy Lessons.” She features four men on the album, and none of them steal the show, including Kendrick Lamar, who is the strongest advocate for the black male in the mainstream today. Instead, on “Freedom,” he raps, “Mama don’t cry for me, ride for me/ Try for me, live for me, breathe for me, sing for me.” He puts himself in the hands of a woman to protect him from “six headlights waving in my direction” and “5-0 asking me what’s in my possession.”
Considering how personal this album is, it’s surprising that none of it is alienating. And not because Bey and Jay are working through infidelity, or because the album has a nice arc that ends in something of a resolution. In most moments, it’s more a desperate flinging of paint in the direction of the canvas because you can feel the artist get caught up in her emotions. Ultimately, this gives Lemonade a universal appeal, expanding beyond Bey, beyond black women, beyond women, beyond men and women, and extending to anyone who is capable of love and empathy. To anyone who has had to make lemonade from their own lemons.