Originally published on newyorker.com
Early this month, Beyoncé gave her first extensive interview in nearly three years, appearing on the cover of Elle magazine. Never much of a talker, she didn’t say much. No matter. Anything she could have expressed—about her music, her upbringing, her parents, motherhood, her relationship with herself, her pain and resilience, her views on black female power, and especially her marriage to Jay Z—was put on display Saturday night. Forget surprise albums and rogue rollout methods; “Lemonade” is a revelation of spirit.
It would be insufficient to describe “Lemonade,” which aired on HBO, without much preceding fanfare, as an album. The project is also a piece of spoken word, a narrative film, a map of cultural reference points, and a window into the soul of an icon whose inner life has always seemed just out of reach. What Beyoncé obscures in her everyday public life she makes relentlessly clear on this project. Her relationship with her husband, Jay Z, which at a distance is a seemingly divine union of power and joy, has in fact been a tortuous journey; a bottomless well of pain, and, in turn, artistic fuel. “Lemonade” is the product of a brutal tension: a woman who has been deified by the entire world and yet cannot secure the love of the person closest to her. Last time around, Beyoncé announced herself to the world as a feminist. This time, she takes that label, turns it inward and intensifies it. “Lemonade” declares that misogyny is at its most potent and complex within the bonds of love.
She makes no bones about it. “Are you cheating on me?” Beyoncé asks, just after jumping off the top of a building and landing in a body of water. The project is presented in chapters based loosely on the Kübler-Ross model of grief (denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, and so forth). The first half is heavy on anger, a vicious map of accusation and vitriol levelled against her disloyal partner. It is so jarring that it prompted a flood of Twitter users to wonder whether “Lemonade” would double as a divorce announcement. “What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you,” Beyoncé says, as she walks through the street smashing car windows with a baseball bat, wearing a fluffy canary-yellow dress. At one point she prompts her husband to imagine her dead body before him, slain from the pain of betrayal. “You’re my lifeline and you’re trying to kill me,” she utters later. Nothing has ignited Beyoncé artistically like this pain has: “We can pose for a photograph,” she whispers during a spoken-word interstitial, bloodthirsty. “All three of us, immortalized—me, you, and your perfect girl.” It is difficult to overstate how much indignation and emotional clarity emanates from these songs. If this is all just a performance, a way of stoking the public’s endless fascination with their relationship, it’s a wild feat of storytelling.
But while the album is Beyoncé’s most naked and personal yet, “Lemonade” is also a collage of collaborative artistic effort. Even more so than her last record, she draws from every corner of popular music, new and old, to make a rich potpourri of songs. She also combines sounds and imagery from many eras to salute black life, invoking the antebellum South, Malcolm X, and the young victims of police brutality over the last three years. But while the material is heavy the production is often feather-light. Among her collaborators here are Diplo, the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Jack White, The-Dream’s Terius Nash, Animal Collective, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She samples Soulja Boy and Led Zeppelin; she sings the blues. In the past, Beyoncé has sparked controversy by lifting images and ideas from other pieces of art; when the Internet takes its collective close read in the coming days, “Lemonade” will certainly generate more. Once again, she has compiled a long list of video directors to help execute the project, in addition to recruiting a number of actresses and friends to appear in the video (none of whom distract from the star for a moment). One cameo is Serena Williams, who appears during a fierce celebration of a song, “Sorry,” on which Beyoncé sings: “Me and my ladies sip my D’USSÉ cup / I don’t give a fuck / Chucking my deuces up / Suck on my balls / Pause / I had enough.” Beyoncé, the only woman on earth who can rebuff her husband with a smirking reference to his own brand of cognac.
Although Beyoncé has called on a diverse group of collaborators, her younger sister Solange is notably absent from “Lemonade.” This is a curious fact, given that Solange is responsible for the most damning mark on Beyoncé and Jay Z’s public record. In 2014, she was captured by surveillance film in an elevator after the Met Gala, unleashing a mysterious fit of violence at Jay Z. The footage is chilling not only because Solange is so physically explosive—kicking, punching, clawing, screaming, and resisting the force of a bodyguard—but because Beyoncé stands by and watches the whole scene, eerily placid. Solange may not appear on “Lemonade,” but her spirit looms large. Some collaborators are Solange’s friends; some of the footage was shot in New Orleans, where Solange moved, in 2013. There are shots of a group of solemn black women dressed in fanciful white dresses, calling to mind the photographs taken at Solange’s wedding. Most crucially, the project channels the rage that was on the display in the elevator that night, the footage that prompted the world to speculate about the state of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marriage—and presumably caused Beyoncé to go into a self-imposed partial media exile for years. Last night, Beyoncé finally responded to the questions that went unanswered after that night. She seems to be saying: Yes, Solange had good reason to unleash herself at my husband like that. She did not explode in vain.
And yet “Lemonade” is not so simple as a tale of a woman scorned. At some point the project turns away from Jay Z and toward the broken marriage between Beyoncé’s parents, making you wonder whether she was talking about her mother and her father the whole time. She builds a striking image of marital strife as familial heritage, references her father’s arms around her mother’s neck, and presents footage of both herself and her daughter, Blue Ivy, with her father, Matthew Knowles. “My daddy warned me about men like you,” she says, drawing a complicated line of pain and distrust that bridges generations.
As the project unfurls, you cannot help but wait for the tone to shift from despair to hope. And because she is Beyoncé, whose perfectionism extends to the bonds of her personal life, it does. Jay Z, the subject of so much spite and fury, enters the frame about two-thirds into the project. We see the back of his neck, his hands stroking Beyoncé’s bare calf, he and his wife in a cautiously loving embrace. The project shifts quickly toward redemption; there is a heavy-handed image of a baptism, along with footage of Jay Z and Beyoncé getting matching tattoos on their fingers. “My torturer became my remedy,” she says, “so we’re gonna heal.” This moment is designed to signal relief. But there is a spirit of defeat here—love and hope cannot hold a candle to what she has shown us with her pain. There is a sense that Beyoncé is yet again pulling the curtain closed after letting us see so much. Healing means retreating back into herself, her soul made elusive once again.