Reminder that Lemonade is Still an Outstanding Work of Black Music and Art

Music has long since offered people a way to express themselves in ways that regular conversations and semantics cannot. Much like poetry, music’s appeal can be heard and spread throughout all different cultures and people, whether it’s a classical piece from centuries ago, or a cookie-cutter pop track on the radio today. R&B music, short for rhythm-and-blues, is impactful in its musical messages due to its origins in African-American communities to express feelings and messages of emotional labor and even racism. Houston-born singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, simply known as Beyoncé, is one of the genre’s most distinguished and celebrated figures, and has found the capacity to perfectly articulate those emotions whether it’s joyful club bangers like her hit “Single Ladies,” or the pure heartbreak and rage she poured into her latest solo project, the 2016 visual album Lemonade. Lemonade is a picture perfect example of that form of musical self-expression revolving around the topics of the emotional turmoils of love and womanhood as a black woman.

Photo via The Hollywood Reporter

The album is a mixture of different genres, each carefully curated and picked to serve the emotional state of the lyrics and musical content. The rage stemming from infidelity can be expressed through the gritty hard rock genre like third track “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” where she screams at the top of her lungs directly at her lover to remember that she’s not the one to mess with, coupled with the visuals of her in a parking lot with an extravagant fur coat and throwing her own wedding ring at the camera, to the musically upbeat reggae track “Hold Up,” accompanied by visuals of Knowles in a frilly yellow dress, skipping willy-nilly down a street with a baseball bat, busting storefront windows and car windshields. Clear cut musical-visual juxtaposition. In stark contrast, the downtempo baroque opening track, “Pray You Catch Me,” carried by Knowles’ caressing yet worrying vocals, is less about rage but more towards the anxieties and heartbreaks of a relationship. The vocals are hushed and suspicious, she’s in pain, she can outright smell her lover’s lies on his alcohol-ridden breath as the first verse states: “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier.”

The middle part of the album, from tracks 4 to 6, is more apathetic, leaning on the feelings of independence and self-healing through dismissal—dismissal of all things related to that lover. The rap-singing female empowerment track “Sorry” hits that perfect level of dismissal, as Knowles quite literally and explicitly states that she no longer is thinking about her lover and that she encourages other women who are experiencing similar turmoils to stick their middle fingers up and just “tell him, boy, bye!” The following track “6 Inch” is where Knowles has officially moved past the pain and the rage and is focused on one thing and one thing only–getting that money. "6 Inch" is quite possibly the darkest song on the album, owing to its grungy, broody alternative R&B composition. The red-tinted visual accompanying the song connects to a house being set ablaze, morose, brooding women in a darkened room as Knowles swings around a lightbulb, as well as riding around the city in a luxurious limousine. Knowles growls about setting goals for herself and achieving them without the need for a lover and making him crawl back to her, as well as expressing her raw sensuality symbolized by the six-inch high heels she mentions in the chorus. The next track sees Knowles switching gears into a genre she's never really step foot in before. "Daddy Lessons" is the Houston native's first dabble with country music. This track sees her taking lessons from her childhood and applying them to the concepts of infidelity found in the album–this connects to Knowles' own parents splitting up due to her father Matthew Knowles' own infidelity issues, making this song another expression of the emotional turmoil women experience. The song sees her telling her lover that her own father warned her about getting involved cheaters much like him, and that to protect herself against men like him, singing: "He told me when he's gone, 'Here's what you do / When trouble comes in town and men like me come around' / Oh, my daddy said shoot."

The next three songs can be categorized as relating to forgiveness. The raw minimalist piano ballad "Sandcastles" sees Knowles singing about her lover having relationship and infidelity problems represented by building sandcastles that wash away with the waves. She promises her lover that she can't stay for him any longer, she expresses that not all promises work out–including her own leaving him. She reassures him at the end of every verse: "When every promise don't work out that way, no no, babe / When every promise don't work out that way." Not all promises, good or bad, work out the way we wanted them to. The interlude track "Forward" transitions from forgiveness into moving forward for brighter horizons. The duet between Knowles and British singer James Blake has them woefully and hoarsely singing about moving forward towards a goal they have for each other. She informs him that he can finally come back and sleep next to her because she feels ready to open up to him again and put aside the past. She's hurt, she's grieved, she needs to move on but she needs him too. She's put too much on the line to truly and completely let go of him, unlike her previous intentions in "Sorry." She's ready to take his hand and go forward.

Image courtesy of Beyonce Knowles-Carter 

The final two tracks that serve as the closing of the album's themes before the hit single "Formation", pay their tributes to black womanhood and celebration of blackness. "Freedom" is an outright protest song. It calls for African Americans to be set free from pain and to be liberated. The song gets its point across from the get-go, with the harsh instrumental–featuring gospel, blues, and rock elements–suddenly jerking your ears from the soft instrumentals of the previous two tracks. The track wants everybody to pay attention to what Beyoncé has to say. She harshly sings in the chorus: "Freedom! Freedom! I can't move / Freedom, cut me loose! / Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? / Cause I need freedom too!" Over and over, she wants to be set free, she wants to be liberated, she wants the black woman to be liberated too. The accompanying visual segment sees her at a plantation gazebo, solemnly singing to a crowd of black women–the crowd also featuring the mothers of black men shot by police, bringing attention to the string of racist police brutality incidents happening throughout the years preceding the release of the album. The track ends with Jay-Z's grandmother Hattie White speaking at her 90th birthday party, alluding to the album's title of Lemonade. An old black woman who has seen the trauma that has happened to her people from the Jim Crow days, to the police brutality shootings of today, but still she soldiered on. She says: "I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. / I was served lemons, but I made lemonade."

The next track flips the mood to a more positive and upbeat atmosphere. "All Night" is a love song, which Knowles has dedicated to being at her lover's side all night long after all that they've put each other through. She's heard his lies but found the truth beneath them, she's seen his scars and is willing to help him heal. They've moved forward and found their freedom, now they want to be with each other all night long. She as a black woman has soldiered through the treacherous relationship elements that seem to surround the men and women of her people and they've found love again. All they want is to be together all night long, and that's all that should matter to them from then on: "They say true love's the greatest weapon / To win the war caused by pain, pain."

I believe that no essay can truly provide the words of what an experience musically and visually this album is. This is realizing how an entire body of work can speak to a person who may not have Beyoncé’s lavish lifestyle but can feel her pain. Words and themes travel across oceans and speak to different souls who’ve had similar experiences. Lemonade is more than just an album. It’s a raw experience. It’s a concept, it’s serene, it’s tough, it’s heartbroken–Lemonade is black womanhood.