Who Cares About Becky with the Good Hair?
To make Lemonade all about her potential marital troubles is to once again yoke Beyoncé's success to her husband—and to stay mired in the madness that this album was built to expose and transcend.
The magnanimity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is no longer human. It is no longer ours to decide the limits of, or to judge, or to take for granted. Her giving-ness—her ability to know what we want, what we need, and gift us a better version of something we already have as the bridge between the two—has transcended the kinds of transactions to which basic social constructs prescribe. This is Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth album, her second “visual album,” and an imperfect promise of looming perfection: a masterpiece of self-reflection, it insists that Beyoncé is our greatest living pop star because such is self-evident. To quote Soulja Boy, as she does: “I look in the mirror, say, ‘What’s up?’”
If, in the wake of Prince and David Bowie’s deaths, we are given space to proclaim how these icons allowed us to embrace our weirdness, our Otherness, Beyoncé insists that the archetypes we struggle against—some of us so much more than others, and not of course by choice—can be mined, can be dug into, to speak to higher truths. Universal truths. This is what she gives us; let’s talk about it with all of the hyperbole.
In fact, whether Lemonade is about a very real infidelity on the part of Beyoncé’s very real husband/soul-mate (and by extension about past infidelities in B’s bloodline), or whether it’s a carefully plotted bid for the duo’s streaming service, TIDAL, to finally ascend above the likes of Spotify or Apple—this hardly matters. To resent Beyoncé for such a possibility is to balk at the result of her circumstances, sincere or contrived or not: she has given us Lemonade, and on Lemonade she provides us with exactly enough. No more Instagram drama or Twitter tattle-telling or social media speculation—the multi-media of Lemonade is all we get. Our presumptions are worthless, and gossip goes nowhere—or rather, it turns inward. If we dwell on the “truth” of Lemonade’s framing conceit, not only do we once again view Beyonce’s success (and self-worth) through the machinations of her husband’s success (and self-worth), we also vitiate the precise power she grasps and then wields here. Why should we care whether the album’s story is “true” or not when it is so technically, musically, lyrically, and emotionally honest and well-thought-out and experimental and visceral and abundant with ideas?
On “All Night,” which comes near the end of the album and brings with it the grace and emotional weight that any good finale should at the end of the accompanying film, Beyoncé pulls the indelible horn line from Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and owns it. With help from Diplo and Rock City, she abbreviates it, punches it up, transforms it into a martial declaration instead of a smoky score to a night’s worth of seduction. She cajoles it, without malice, to enact her will. It may take a few listens to intuit what’s happening, because one of the best melodies from one of the best tracks on one of the best hip-hop albums ever made has been so recontextualized it’s only subcutaneously recognizable, but once it clicks (and it will), once what’s on the tip of your tongue finds relief, the rest of the song makes sense. Meanwhile Beyoncé’s gorgeous refrain of “All night long” is so exultant all else around it is nothing but beholden to her voice. All is at her command.
On “All Night”, Beyoncé makes the through line of an indelible Outkast song feel like a trumpet riff from a late-’90s Reel Big Fish deep cut. Both of these things—both the type of fodder a mall-punk ska band has made unflaggingly for two decades without change and a crowning achievement from one of hip-hop’s truest experimental pioneers—can carry equal weight, as the song demonstrates. It’s simply a matter of perspective, as Beyoncé benevolently reveals: given the right lover, one can be just as important to one person as the other is to another. What is the point of pop music if not to draw lines between disparate loves, to show countless pockets of people the many ways in which they—we—are so unexpectedly, intimately connected? Love what you love, there’s no shame in that, she seems to be assuring us. So she gives it all to us without judgment. It’s all formative anyway. And then comes “Formation,” as if to say, “Now that you’ve sussed out your many pieces, owned your origins and figured out the many ways in which your psyche twists and turns, let’s get this shit regimented. This is how a movement starts.”
If we dwell on the “truth” of Lemonade’s framing conceit, not only do we once again view Beyoncé’s success (and self-worth) through the machinations of her husband’s success (and self-worth), we also vitiate the precise power she grasps and then wields here.
Earlier, on the endlessly listenable “Hold Up,” Beyoncé culls the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” and Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On” with the guidance of Melo-X’s reggae-toned influence, somehow roping in both Father John Misty and Ezra Koenig without once letting them stand out, as they’re often wont to do, from the rest of the pack. She denies them—“Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you”—and in the Lemonade film and liner notes this is labeled as “Denial,” the point early in Beyoncé’s emotional journey at which she can’t yet accept that her devotion could possibly be betrayed. In the film she breaks windshields and fire hydrants. On the album she breaks up all ideas of guest spots and sampling etiquette. The word “interpolation” could have been invented to define how Beyoncé and The Weeknd introduce Animal Collective to the apocalyptic sheen of “6 Inch.”
Later, on “Freedom,” Kendrick Lamar assaults the latest guest verse in what is an astounding two years for the emcee, who is now seemingly past having to care about or distinguish between what’s his best or worst or passable or whatever. Which is maybe the point, because beside him Beyoncé is triumphant, rendering “white flags blue,” transforming surrender into action, marching into “riot”—“I’ma riot through your borders / Call me bulletproof.” When Kendrick counts down the atrocities of systemic racism with the fervor of a communist decrying the 12 Days of Christmas, Beyoncé reminds him that oppression is a matter of so much more. And in the world of her film, men (and white people for that matter) are mostly nowhere to be found, their absence a total relief.
One track earlier (“Forward”), accompanied by James Blake, she finds the energy to break the chains she’ll envision in “Freedom.” In a song that could easily fall to one of Blake’s own albums, she steps out, revitalized by her partner’s dulcet calm, while in her film, a chorus of black women move together into the surf of a body of water, baptized but also maybe just cleansed, their silhouettes almost opaque as they face the waves before them, hands joined. Not vessels for our hopes or expectations or desires, they’re more like tabulae rasae, their own destines awaiting manifestation, with Beyoncé by their sides just as she was by the side of her white-man friend James Blake, using her own experience to show them: there’s still so much to come, and so much to be.
Hyperbole stacks. Throughout Lemonade Beyoncé speaks of a relationship—her own, with Jay Z, we have no reason not to believe, you know this, you know all of this already—but more plangently she speaks of, sings of, and revels in her identity: as a woman, as an African American, as a Southerner, as a celebrity, as a mogul, as a human person of inhuman benevolence. In talking about Lemonade we must talk about ourselves, and so: I am none of that. (Duh.) I am the furthest from that, or at least far from that. And I want to keep that distance, to acknowledge it, to know my place on the fringes of the inimitable glow emanating from Beyoncé’s molten starcore, to be appreciative that though this woman speaks of and sings of and revels in experiences and lives which I would never dream of claiming, let alone understanding, her brilliance burns brightly enough that even on the outside I can feel the warmth of what she’s doing.
I suppose that what allows me to write about things I barely understand is that Beyoncé probably expects me to. She is in complete control of how Lemonade is received. Through a dark time in her relationship with her admittedly true love, she looks back at every aspect of herself and sees a person who can, will, and should exact the kind of near-deistic control reserved for people who are destined to surpass their organic boundaries, to wield such control nobly. I’m not convinced that Jack White should get anywhere near “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” so often does he confuse lo-fi chaos for complex aggression—but what do I know when Beyoncé insists otherwise? I’m not really onboard with the alt-country ode of “Daddy Lessons”—but who am I to pick apart the artist’s seamless fusion of her many roots? Whether we align more closely with Outkast or Reel Big Fish, Beyoncé is willing to speak to us from the perspective of a person falling into either category. We should do the same for her and the music that made her. She gives, we receive, and each of us feel as if we’ve gotten what we deserve. This, I think, is justice. It’s right. She’s right. I pay attention because I stand at the borders, and in Lemonade Beyoncé’s assured me she’ll soon come to knock them all down.
Though Beyoncé speaks of and sings of and revels in experiences and lives which I would never dream of claiming, let alone understanding, her brilliance burns brightly enough that even on the outside I can feel the warmth of what she’s doing.
Hyperbole pays off. In Lemonade Beyoncé renders a portrait of the way people should be: graceful, eloquent, ebullient, and forever looking inward, looking backward, to discover the ways in which we can each move forward. “Always stay gracious,” she advises at the end of the album, “Best revenge is your paper.” She forgives her husband because she loves him, but also because she is in control of her destiny, and he will not decide it for her. Understanding stems from that, but better yet, so does reconciliation, so does the imperative to know oneself, to embrace not only where one comes from, but where one fits within the ebb and flow of the so-called grand scheme of things, one’s own ebb and flow concentric within that greater start and stop and start again. Goddamnit: the name “TIDAL” makes a lot more sense now.
It’s true: no one will love us like Beyoncé loves us. It’s a very godlike thing to say. So maybe it’s for the best that in her film a title card appears stating, “God Is God I Am Not.” Good to know. Beyoncé knows that what she’s giving us is more than we could ever give back. She’s giving us the ability to know ourselves through knowing her. Hold up: your hands, middle fingers, everything—ask questions, take a stand, pause and embrace that which you are lucky enough to have. Look in the mirror, say, “What’s up?” It’s Beyoncé looking back: “How I missed you, my love.” FL