In Lemonade, her new and celebrated hour-long visual album that was released without prior publicity or promotion, Beyoncé makes a departure. The storyline is personal, for she draws on the experience of the women in her family as well as her own problems as a black woman. Inspiration for the album title is close to home: Hattie Smith, rapper Jay-Z’s, grandmother was known to say “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Indeed, the release casts light on Beyoncé’s marriage and Jay-Z’s infidelity and therefore hits a raw nerve among her fans.
It also shatters public perceptions of the star because the feeling is that a different and more artistic persona is on display here. First, she is able to be vulnerable, forthcoming, and relatable to her audience as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—a wife and mother rather than an entertainer. Secondly, this is not just the upbeat mainstream Pop/R&B act meant to continually top the charts. The sound of Lemonade is not genre specific. Rock and country music, to take an example, live together in the album, while unconventional collaborators abound, including guitarist Jack White, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Father John Misty, Animal Collective, and Led Zeppelin.
Sales took off globally immediately after the release, which included a conceptual short film. Nearly half a million units were quickly cleared with more than one hundred million streams. But this is half the story, and the album is arguably destined to become important in popular culture for other reasons.
Beyoncé is fuelling a very special narrative in her latest production. She uses Malcolm X in her lyrics to suggest that a black woman is the most disrespected and unprotected social archetype in America. But she drives the point home more personally. In her song “Sorry’” she refers to an alleged extra-marital affair by Jay-Z. The track is anything but apologetic and the lyrics are tinged with bitterness. The ending, “He better call Becky with the good hair”, led to a rush in social media to uncover her husband’s alleged paramour. It is hard to think that this was entertaining for Beyoncé to do. And she could have made money too with a different, more commercial, song. But in a world that seems to crave for authenticity, Beyoncé chose to portray herself as one of many victims sharing a common problem which, although seems exacerbated in the black community, is instantly recognizable outside it.
Moreover, although the songs on the album focus on the marital strife and tumult that Beyoncé has faced, the amalgamation of the visuals and the spoken word in the feature film morphs the piece into a much broader statement.
Imagery, costumes and gatherings of women of all ages allude both to Latin American immigrants and African Americans in the U.S. Fundamentally, the album was released following a fervently debated and widely viewed Super Bowl 50 performance in which she sang her single Formation, a nearly militant declaration of her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The video features a young black boy dancing in front of police officers, Beyoncé herself symbolically sitting on a sinking police car, and dancers wearing berets reminiscent of the Black Panther movement.
Clearly, Beyoncé is in her thirties and became a mother in 2012. In all likelihood she is quite a different person than the twenty-year old pop sensation she once was. Whereas some, including ex-CNN host Piers Morgan, have questioned her motives, suggesting that she may be opportunistic, it appears that she has simply evolved as more socially conscientious individual. For example, Lemonade goes into great detail about her personal life, including glimpses of her wedding, as well as Jay-Z and her daughter Blue Ivy playing together; it is natural to draw the conclusion that this is her own proud moment as a black woman. It is also significant that Beyoncé has made a deliberate decision to associate with the Black Lives Matter movement. This is quite unlike her, because in the past she steered clear of inflammatory topics lest she alienate some of her diverse fan base.
It must be remembered too that over the years Beyoncé has also managed to garner support for her own brand of feminism. She has, after all, exuded much a professionalism, grit and ‘girl power’. She appeared at the Video Music Awards Ceremony in 2014 and performed under the glare of the word ‘FEMINIST’ written in giant lights behind her. This, notwithstanding that for a long time she branded herself as the “girl-next-door” with blatant sex appeal, and that feminists argued that her overt sexuality perpetuated a patriarchy that traps women (Dangerously in Love, the title track on her first solo album, is a good example).
Therefore, in a career that has longevity already, this latest transformation of Beyoncé is not completely unexpected. Entertainers and artists are human and will often take new positions as times change. Events in America this year were polarized by the perception of racism in law enforcement and well-known African American leaders in the public eye could hardly stand idly by. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset has said that the self of every man–or woman– is a product of circumstances (“Yo soy yo y mis circumstancias”). This seems right for Beyoncé. There is, of course, nothing wrong making money if you can change the world for the better.
By Natasha Patel
1. Pareles, Jon. “Review: Beyoncé Makes ‘Lemonade’ Out of Marital Strife.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 May 2016.
2. Coscarelli, Joe. “Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Debuts at No. 1 With Huge Streaming Numbers.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 May 2016. Web. 12 May 2016.
3. Morgan, Piers “Jay-Z’s Not the Only One Who Needs to Be Nervous about Beyoncé, the Born-again-black Woman with a Political Mission.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 26 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 May 2016.