Beyonce is an event. Her projects are black holes, sucking up the space and time around them at a dizzying pace. She’s become the rule and the exception. The one pop star with a capital “P” that can tote the powerful nexus of feminism, America and America’s great sin in both of her cosmic hands. Who can encapsulate the struggles of the most disrespected people in America: black women. And yet light a path to reconciliation inside the inner and outer worlds of their shared lineage and narrative. Whether the infidelity comes from Jay Z or Matthew Knowles or whomever; whether the fractured inner-world given as penance to the great tide of women our country has produced but not ever kept, her second “visual” album, Lemonade speaks to those promises unfulfilled, uncounted, waiting to be honored and baptizes itself in the murky poignancy of cheating and being cheated. Out of trust, out of hope, out of the promise of new lives and old moments. All of them now to be rewritten. This, a most personal admission, is strange from Beyonce and yet it’s dazzling.
Everyone remembers the elevator incident. A grainy video showed sister Solange laying H-town hands on the serenely coiffed Jigga. The video went viral. Then the theories behind the incident did, too, as everyone wondered whether or not there was trouble in paradise. Whispers of Dame Dash’s ex-wife Rachel Roy snuck around the web. Rita Ora’s face popped up, too, if only for a moment. Paradise? No. Resilience? Yes.
Split into three acts, the album opens with her husband’s secrets spilled. Each song moves through her courses of grief, from the acceptance and anger that permeates “Pray You Catch Me” on down the rabbit hole to the pillar of strength “Sorry.” “Sorry” is particularly ear worming, bells softly chiming around the chorus. But the song does so much, showing how emotions can shift in the blink of an eye. From, “I ain’t sorry / Boy, bye” and “ He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” to “Let’s take a toast to the good life / Suicide before you see this tear fall down my eye.” Act 2 begins with “6 Inch,” enticing The Weeknd’s symbolic woman: dazed, unaffected, strong, intoxicating. Someone whose savagery can only be matched by acceptance. In this act, ending in the gorgeous “Sandcastles,” Beyonce finds a way to work through the broken promises of her younger self (“Daddy Lessons”), which sees her reclaim country to great effect, and then reclaim redemption. “Sandcastles” itself is a stunning piano ballad, but the imagery of Jay Z, her adulterous hubby rubbing her ankle as if that is the only space left she trusts him to love, is haunting. The third act crescendos with the James Blake assisted “Forward,” which reeks of sainthood as his voice moves the mood toward the tabernacle. The reconciliation is complete on “All Night,” for now. But Beyonce’s territory is more than just the body of relationship. It’s the politics of that body, not only susceptible to defilement by those who count black women as something dangerous and foreign, but by those they count as familiar, whose lines remind them of their fathers and their brothers.
Unfaithfulness, an issue everyone can understand is the album’s cause. That single nod sends this record into the stratosphere, as Beyonce is so tight lipped there have been an army of think pieces devoted to the lack of any real access journalists and their outlets have in the web age for that issue, her silence remains at the center. Yet, that fact does not dominate the LP. It’s the veracity of the sounds and artistic achievements of the visuals (a marquee that screams “Loveless,” a bat named “hot sauce,” multiple scenes of loving, simple sisterhood, a Jay Z who’s reticent, a speech about turning lemons into lemonade) weighted by her admission but not sunk by it, which stretch into what becomes a feast of genres, both musical and literary, tackled with absolute mastery. She’s the most resonant, the most complete and fascinating star in the world.
The video portion of her jaunt through the fragility of promise is layered with yoruba imagery from Laolu Senbanjo, the poetry of belonging and misplacement of Warsan Shire, and the madcap magic of the American south. Beyonce now is not just from the southern United States, but of it. Painting herself in the regalia of its cultural contradictions and washing herself in the saltwater of its dashed dreams. She turns a tumult of contributors into a tapestry. Boots is once again apart of the fray, but there are many others. From variant collaborations with Brooklyn multi-disciplinary artist Melo X, to more traditional names like Kevin Garrett, Diplo, Wynter Gordon, The Dream, and Mike Dean. Then there are the oddballs. Scraps of undercurrent taken from Ezra Koenig, Father John Misty, and Soulja Boy. Of course, the features: Jack White (The White Stripes), The Weeknd, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar. But there’s more and more. Her cup overflows.
Lemonade is transcendent not only because it sheds a light on the voices and struggles of the black and brown women relegated to telling their stories by candlelight, suffering from estrangement, but because it highlights how that voice (through every genre and darted through with real grace) is literally everywhere and apart of everything. It is both album and manifesto, and illustrates the true power of art. The power to conjure back from the dark the voice of people the world has chosen to ignore.