Review: Lemonade

Arenike Adebajo 2 May 2016

Widely considered to be one of the most influential artists of the millennium thus far, Beyoncé is no stranger to surprising fans. But Lemonade’s release provided a double blow of shock value – not only was it surprise album, breaking a media silence that lasted almost three years, but it also revealed a more personal, vulnerable Beyoncé, that fans had never been exposed to with such rawness, and so unapologetically. In Lemonade, Beyoncé pulls no punches, she is genre-less, timeless, and doesn’t shy away from being an ‘angry black woman’, actually embracing the term on her journey towards inner peace. What Beyoncé does so expertly however, through weaving her own experiences of marital infidelity into wider narratives of racial and gendered inequality, is to make the personal political, and the political personal; it is at this intersect that the magic of Lemonade lies.

Journeying through her own stages of grief, Lemonade takes us on a visual, musical and emotional journey. We cackle along with Beyoncé while she smashes up fire hydrants with a baseball bat in a glorious mustard-yellow dress; scream with her as she declares ‘if you try that shit again, you gon’ lose your wife’; and cry with her as she realises that within relationships, promises sometimes don't work out. She bravely elucidates so many struggles that can plague black women’s self-worth within relationships, a realm that is rarely touched upon in mainstream media. Lines such as ‘I bathed in bleach’, ‘I can wear her skin over mine, her hair over mine’ and ‘you better call Becky with the good hair’ ring true to many oppressive beauty standards enforced upon black women. I don’t think I’ve seen these ideas executed so emotionally and accurately since Viola Davis’ famous de-wigging scene in How To Get Away With Murder, a similarly vulnerable and harrowing moment of reaction to a husband’s infidelity with a white woman.

The prevalence of this theme further works to reclaim the often mocking stereotype of the ‘strong, independent black woman’, explaining its social and historical necessity along with embellishment from samples of Malcolm X himself, declaring ‘‘the most disrespected person 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.” It becomes explicitly obvious that Beyoncé’s personal relationship troubles exist within a framework of black female oppression. Life will give us lemons, and we have no choice but to be strong and make the best of our situation, and make lemonade.

One personal highlight is undoubtedly the upbeat and deliriously happy ‘Hold Up’, where Beyoncé manages to simultaneously pay tribute to Dancehall, Soulja Boy and ‘Formation’ itself, and tear Jay to shreds, questioning whether he would have even have been able to gain interest from other women without having ‘the baddest woman in the game up in your sheets’. Progress to ‘Sorry’ and we watch a cane-rowed Beyoncé eye-roll her way through Apathy, backed by what will most definitely be the breakup song of the decade. Reach ‘Sandcastles’ and weep at the delicate vocals of a more stripped-back, R&B, I Am…Sasha Fierce-esque Beyoncé as she slowly laments the damage done to her marriage. ‘Freedom’, featuring Kendrick Lamar, is epic, evoking pentecostal-church vibes for anyone who’s ever visited one; and by ‘All Night’, the album’s concluding song, we once again feel romantic intimacy, trust and euphoria reminiscent of ‘XO’.

Further testament to Beyoncé’s dedication to sourcing up-and-coming black creatives from all over the world is the album’s underpinning by the poetry of Warsan Shire, London’s former Young Poet Laureate; her highly evocative verse creates a sense of internal turmoil and struggle in a way similar to Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Rich with other similar homages and references, both implicit and explicit, Lemonade showcases both black and female collaboration, spanning time as well as space, with a theme of inter-generationality emerging particularly towards the end of the album. Appearances from Jay Z's grandmother herself, Blue Ivy, Serena Williams, Amandla Stenberg,  Ibeyi and the mothers of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, hit home how important collaborative resistance, strength and knowledge across generations and geography is for black women. It seems that for Beyoncé, the message of February’s single, ‘Formation’, still stands, solidarity is key.

Piers Morgan recently commented, in reaction to the glory that is Lemonade, that he yearned for the days of the “less inflammatory, agitating” Beyoncé. For me, this is the real beauty of the album: it’s become blindingly clear that at this point in her career and her life, she no longer wishes, or needs to dilute her ethnicity to make herself more palatable to a white society. She has conquered her industry, and now holds the immense power to make change for her successors, and all black women. If you want the new Beyoncé, you must accept her blackness as part of the package –it’s all or nothing.