Give It A Spin: Beyonce’s LEMONADE

This post will feature a few more photos than usual because Lemonade is as big a visual artistic achievement as it is a musical one. By now Beyonce’s Lemonade “visual album event” is just over a month old and I’m surprised at how not every single one of my friends have gone out of their way to watch or listen to the whole thing; but I shouldn’t be, many more people are yet to listen to the album than have listened to it and even less have watched than who will watch. If either of those applies to you then this is where I convince you to drop everything and give Tidal your credit card info for a trial (not that they pay me to do so). Alternatively, you can purchase Lemonade over on iTunes because I’d maybe buy it on Blu-ray if I could, it’s that good.

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Beyonce no doubt gives us many things to consider with Lemonade, but the overarching theme is that love takes time; and when it comes to a love supreme, a love built over time, one Becky doesn’t have to be the end of it. However, repairing a broken heart — as unexpected to both us and Beyonce that she would even be in a position to need to — takes a great deal of time and effort too, but is possible. Having been handed lemons Beyonce rages and exacts her revenge via psychological warfare, but rediscovers love in other refreshing, reaffirming forms by the end of the hour. Here we’ll explore my favorite tracks, lines, and images that make Lemonade so effective, especially after repeat viewings and listens.

Before we get too far along I’ll mention that the music you hear with the Lemonade “visual album” is different from the music you hear on the traditional album. In a sense, some of the music that accompanies the Lemonade visuals are remixes with poetry and other instrumentals between the tracks. This dimension paired with truly daring directorial choices in editing, cinematography, and costuming to frame and convey singular concrete images via scenes carefully layered within one another; then destroyed, rebuilt, juxtaposed, and recontextualized, makes Lemonade an unprecedented work of art in any format.

Lemonade opens with an image of Beyonce in a real position of vulnerability as “Pray You Catch Me” plays as its opening track. Beyonce sings, “I’m prayin’ to catch you whispering / I’m prayin’ you catch me listening,” repeated with subtle variations, which is intriguing in itself but then the track unexpectedly is cut, poetry is introduced, and we get a title card.

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“I tried to make a home out of you
but doors lead to trap doors
a stairway leads to nothing
unknown women wander the hallways at night”

The poetry centered above and elsewhere in this post is sprinkled throughout Lemonade. Some is the adapted poetry of Warsan Shire, whom Beyonce reached out to and collaborated with in creating the poetry for Lemonade based on the strength of Shire’s warsan versus melancholy (the seven stages of being lonely), a collection of spoken word poetry Shire self-released via Bandcamp. It is incredible in and of itself and I encourage you to stream or purchase it, think of it as an extra feature.

Then “Pray You Catch Me” returns and gets a full play. As for the song itself it’s co-produced by James Blake, who does static emotion like no other. Beyonce herself is anything but, so Blake’s presence here and later on “Forward” is especially felt. With video the song is more tender, even though Beyonce’s lyrics and facial expressions aren’t.

The end of the video cuts to Beyonce in a black wedding dress standing at the edge on top of a building. She jumps and at the critical moment she splashes into deep water and we get a new title card.

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“I tried to change, close my mouth more
tried to be soft, prettier, less awake”

A normal person would be drowning but here Beyonce is floating, not concerned with breathing, statuesque, both stunned and stunning. It’s brief and in the early going but these underwater scenes and movements are the ones I’m most curious as to how they pulled them off.

“I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses
with pages from the holy book
but still inside me coiled deep was the need to know
are you cheating on me?”

“Are you cheating on me?” was a big moment during the live airing of Lemonade on HBO because it confirmed what the audience had speculated for a song (what some had speculated for years) and set Twitter ablaze at the time. On the album it’s “what are you doing my love?” Either way that last line is a great setup for “Hold Up” where Beyonce proceeds to skid into the scorned lover curve all the way through to sweet revenge fantasy.

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Beyonce emerges from the underwater room of emotion and onto a bustling Louisiana street to express herself. When I first heard “Hold Up” I knew Beyonce meant business but, of course, the moment I first heard this is forever intrinsically linked to images of Beyonce gleefully grabbing a bat from a kid and smashing car windows with it until she decides a monster truck would be more effective and/or fun. This is (some of) the genius of Beyonce: by providing the visuals up front and making them confident and vengeful, by being in complete control in every sense, wielding her literal creative and imagined destructive power as she sees fit, she is able to paint a vivid and inarguable portrait of her persona as she sees it. Tradition and social norms be damned, Beyonce will not be silenced or reduced.

The beat for “Hold Up” kicks off with a heavy tropical vibe produced by Diplo with some additional production from Ezra Koenig, who contributed the interpolation of “Maps” by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs for the chorus, among other things. It goes: “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you / Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you / Back up … / Step down…” it’s both luck and a stroke of genius. The beat and Beyonce’s yellow dress and face are so upbeat and carefree. The wind is blowing her free-flowing hair and matching dress as she is textbook definition fucking shit up. She even busts the window of the open spa advertising free facials, that too is a form of worship.

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Beyonce continues, “Can’t you see there’s no other man above you? / What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you.” A question Beyonce poses that I’ve thought about a lot and honestly don’t have an answer to is when she asks, “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? / Or, like, being walked all over lately?” Neither is good, crazy is probably better, but what she’s getting at is that she/women shouldn’t have to be either — it’s that men make them so, and she’s not wrong. And that’s not even mentioning the straight savage second verse.

At the end of the song Beyonce swings her bat and hits the camera which hits the ground. The colors snap black and white then she hops in a monster truck. Here’s a time where we get a little bonus tinny piano sound that’s very horror-esque. The sounds of a marching band are layered underneath and it’s truly haunting as we get a new title card.

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“If it’s what you truly want I can wear her skin over mine
her hair over mine
her hands as gloves,
her teeth as confetti,
her scalp, a cap,
her sternum my bedazzled cane.”

That’s murderously creepy in its specificity. Of course, Beyonce is not out here snatching wigs or otherwise scalping side-chicks or it would be news, but, the point is, she wants us to know that she would — message received. This is followed by shots of women in a circle performing some sort of seance in a parking garage.

“I think of lovers as trees
growing to and from one another.”

“Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can,” are the famous last words which becomes an extended lead in for the third track, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”

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“Don’t Hurt Yourself” is probably the most outwardly badass of the songs and visuals. Chief among them even on first viewing is Beyonce’s backup in the garage. Her crew, just three deep this time, rock afros and similar outfits but don’t move much at all, mean mugging while Beyonce rocks braids and a fur over compression ass kicking gear. “WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I IS?” she sings and eventually screams as a refrain and it’s hard not to at least mouth the words along with her.

Some of the more daring visual editing is done toward the end of this track. The camera jumps around the garage, cuts from color to black and white and back, shifts aspect ratios, and surprises with close-ups. Beyonce appears all the way demonic in a new wedding dress. Among those cuts is the declaration that “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” a quote from Malcolm X, as well as a shot that reads in all caps “GOD IS GOD AND I AM NOT,” both bold reminders lest we forget.

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“What are you going to say at my funeral
now that you’ve killed me?
‘Here lies the body of the love of my life
whose heart I broke without a gun to my head.’”

First speaking to her husband Beyonce then puts words in his mouth. It almost amounts to a curse when you consider the combined power of the rest of her company of voodoo children, extravagantly face and body painted and expertly choreographed on the bus. As with the water room from earlier, I am down with every movement on this bus, especially Beyonce’s facial expressions. This comes just after casually tossing out the idea of wearing another woman’s skin and it’s, in a word, sensational. It’s a moment for Beyonce to say this is all the shit you’ll miss. She throws “ashes to ashes, dust to side-chicks” as the amen in closing just for kicks. Again, cutting last words.

Contrary to the other songs, “Sorry” grew on me with more audio only listening. I originally thought of it as neat but better with the visuals, and still think of it that way, but the gap is closer than I first thought.

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The visuals continue in black and white as the beat drops hard (as it often does throughout Lemonade). We see the large front porch of a southern mansion, more women in afros lining the halls like when things get real in The Godfather and there are way more goons hanging around just in case a war breaks out. Then one of the best to ever do it, international tennis star and American icon Serena Williams strolls in out of nowhere just to twerk away at the hand of the queen, no fucks given, which is the real essence of the song and this section.

Towards the end Beyonce switches it up with her most regal Egyptian look cut around the hardest robot dance ever to fit the machine-like breakdown. Her last lines: “you better call Becky with the good hair,” she delivers twice, in case you missed it. I feel like I don’t need to go into that right here, right now, right? In case you missed it, all that nonsense was best explained here.

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“Sometimes when he’d have her nipple in his mouth she’d whisper,
‘Oh my god that too is a form of worship’”

The title card for “Emptiness” is perhaps my favorite title card shot for the way the words blend into the light in black and white. The “Redemption” title card later is the other. This section features some of the sharpest poetry leading up to “6 Inch”; my favorite video and the strongest track with a nifty guest spot from The Weeknd.

“6 Inch” samples Isaac Hayes’ classic “Walk On By” and turns it into a song about the woman doing the walking. Black and white turns to black and red as a tracking shot leads us down a dark hallway toward a little red rectangle too low to be a functional window and the muffled beat grows.

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Cut to Beyonce in red in car, the rearview mirror blacking out her eyes, the record scratches and restarts. Cut to a red room, there’s Beyonce in a wedding dress, swinging a lightbulb around like a mace, then we rejoin the lyrics where we were before the scratch. It’s a remixed version of “6 Inch” that Beyonce should release along with some others. Here Beyonce completely flips the black hoodie vulnerability she offered up in the opening scenes on its head and owns the same stage in a new outfit and a pair of six inch heels to go with it.

The cuts pick up toward the end during breakdown, which I’d say is my favorite part of this my favorite track. Beyonce sings, “Stars in her eyes / She fights for the power, keeping time / She grinds day and night / She grinds from Monday to Friday / Works from Friday to Sunday.” Setting aside relationships, grinding, working, and stacking one’s paper is a valuable mantra for all, but particularly for women who for a long time were discouraged from doing so. The beat jumps into double time and the lyrics repeat, building and building and building, and then Beyonce burns it all down.

Beyonce walks out of the room, sets the whole place on fire, and cooly walks back down the hallway with her hair up in a leotard cut wedding dress. She then stands outside with her goons, each of varying hairstyles and outfits, including Beyonce.

Once again Beyonce ends with a super strong outro to punctuate the track. She sings, “Oh, boy, I’ll make you feel / You always come back to me,” then flips the backup singer sample “walk on” into an eventually yearning “come back” repeated seven times to close the track.

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I often talk about (or at least think about) how albums are organized and placement is so key. Considering “Pray You Catch Me” feels more like an introduction, the heat Beyonce brings in Tracks 2, 3, 4, and 5 back-to-back with variety within the overarching theme of “fuck you” is crucial and impressive. When you break down the lines it’s even kinda scary, but I bet she’d rather we think of her, and all women, as nothing less than a great force to be reckoned with as opposed to timid or just another mad black woman.

The next title card represents a shift in the focus where we begin to explore the why and how now, the next steps now that we’re over the justifiable anger associated with the what and the who. The back half of Lemonade isn’t quite as strong as the front, being locked in for a whole hour is draining, but I recommend it. From here I’ll just briefly touch on some late favorites.

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“Daddy Lessons” may be my least favorite Lemonade track by default but it is illuminating. Here at the midway point Beyonce sets the scene,”Texas, Texas, Texas,” not in the present, but tells a story that informs her current disposition. The poetry in the visuals also turns its focus to motherhood and family and eventually stereotypical patriarchal power dynamics, the kind that foster infidelity.

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“Daddy Lessons” is essentially about the cycles and histories of infidelity that are in a way pandemic in the black community, but are relevant to all communities, really. I think there’s an especially different feel listening to “Daddy Lessons” on the album as the accompanying visuals again make the song softer; but the visual album also speaks more clearly to history’s role in our larger societal struggles with commitment. Or, considering black communities specifically, this song and the whole back half of Lemonade serves to highlight what the stigma of and reluctance to divorce despite the presence of infidelity (and/or in some cases domestic violence) does to the women these men say they love.

Also of note, on the visual album the image of Beyonce throwing the ring at the end of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is shown in reverse for a split second just before the next title card which also lasts about a second. The shot of Beyonce on the ledge in the opener “Pray You Catch Me” is also in reverse if you take a look at the traffic on the street below.

“Why are you afraid of love?
You think it’s not possible for someone like you.
But you are the love of my life.”

There’s something to take away in those last lines of poetry before the next track; I repeat the first line every time I hear it. Men by and large do a bad job letting love in, and we do an even worse job of giving love in return. Why? Alas, Beyonce continues with the dopest beat drop on an album full of dope beat drops on “Love Drought”, which features even doper lyrics.

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“And you’re caught up in your permanent emotions / All the loving I’ve been giving goes unnoticed / It’s just floating in the air, lookie there,” is a right hook to the ego and kicks off the song in a way that’s befitting of the beat and the rest of the lyrics don’t let up. Everyone’s talking about the drums on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, which are of a hip-hopified Led Zeppelin dopeness; but the drums on “Love Drought”, (presumably) computer programed by Mike Dean, are doper. She closes with the chorus, full of things she and her husband could do, but it’s not “would stop this love drought” until the end. It’s not my favorite, but the song is dope.

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“Baptize me…
now that reconciliation is possible.
If we’re gonna heal
let it be glorious.”

“Sandcastles” is a good example of a track where seeing the visuals first is important to the context of the song as well as how it’s received. It’s not necessarily a make up song, not nearly as internet meme-able without the visuals. The lyrics themselves make Beyonce’s struggle and sincerity in seeking reconciliation unquestionable to me.  It’s all past tense until, “What is it about you / that I can’t erase, baby?” right in the middle. At the end, “And I know I promised / that I couldn’t stay, baby,” is a begrudging admission that their love is real, true, and stronger than his pride, as she gets into on “All Night”.

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Here the visuals take another turn as we wrap things up on Beyonce’s farm, which features a wide variety of women of color — further highlighting the variety and combined power of the most disrespected group in America: the black woman. It also serves to further emphasize the power of family and the importance of having a community of peers that doesn’t necessarily involve men. That they are women who farm is just another layer.

The “Forward” track on the visual album has an extra distorted opening that I really like and wish was part of the album version. The accompanying visuals add depth to contrast the sparseness of the track and are also very touching.

Afterward we cut back to black and white and only get a tease of the “Freedom” baseline. We then jump back to color and there’s just muddled drums as Beyonce recites poetry. Then we cut back to black and white at the farm, the camera does slow rise through the crowd but is focused on Beyonce on a stage. The drums skid out and eventually the camera is centered on Beyonce as she sings the first verse and bridge a capella. Then the beat drops hard and extra loud for the chorus and cuts just before it’s over to emphasize “hey, I’ma keep runnin cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”

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The chorus is the most powerful thing in a song full of powerful individual moments and lines and calls to action. You feel it when it hits each time because the song builds toward it each time. It’s hard to not want to chant along with her when she sings, “Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move / Freedom cut me loose!”

Also on the visual album there’s just a sample of Kendrick Lamar’s guest spot. As a result you just get his most deranged To Pimp A Butterfly self, which is the right amount of energy. This is opposed to the album version where you get an entire verse before it it’s all said and done, which isn’t bad, it’s just a little long.

“Grandmother, the alchemist,
you spun gold out of this hard life,
conjured beauty out of this hard life,
found beauty where it did not live,
discovered the antidote in your own kitchen,
broke the curse with your own two hands.”

I can’t not mention the clip of the grandmother who 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 way she pauses as she’s reading and everyone guesses her last word but she says it anyway kills me and I’m sure anyone who has a black grandmother who speaks in that manner feels the same.

The last track “All Night” is full of final thoughts: “Nothing real can be threatened”; “Our love was stronger than your pride”; and separately devastating even though it’s the next line, “Beyond your darkness, I’m your light.” The last, last words: “How I missed you my love.”

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Regardless of what you have to say about Becky(s) or Jay Z or Tidal, Beyonce rises above it all because she murdered everybody, burned it to the ground, returned to her roots, stayed true to her sisters, rediscovered love, and we were her collective captivated witnesses. Those who go through the ordeal of seeing Beyonce live continue to participate in an even deeper, shared stadium experience. That’s the goal these days: make a work of art that’s transparent and empathetic on a level that earns our sustained attention. Some works even rise to a level that deserves our careful and obsessive dissection. Lemonade is that which is worth at least a few uninterrupted viewings.

Aside from expressions of personal growth, Lemonade also represents the next logical step in Beyonce’s creative evolution. Building on her self titled 2013 album Beyonce, the music and the visuals are even harder to separate in the audience’s mind and are themselves strung together more cohesively, more cogently; no words are wasted and she deploys repetition with devastating effectiveness.

In terms of differences between the album and the visual album, Beyonce’s lyrics are sharper without the poetry interspersed; but add the poetry and the visuals and the result is a much more complex balance of tone which morphs from visceral fury to loving tenderness in an emotional, somewhat exhausting hour.

It doesn’t matter if any of this is true. It’s juicier if it’s 100% true, but that’s too much to assume of any artist. It’s more fun to take Beyonce at her literal word, but it’s clear that the art rises above her own personal marital issues. Through Lemonade Beyonce provides all the bat swinging, establishment burning gifs one could ever need to spark a widespread spiritual agency revolution in humans of any gender, but particularly in black women: the most disrespected group in America. Beyonce is evolving, constantly, while encouraging the same of others, and that’s an ability and power few artists have. I can’t wait for Kendrick Lamar’s next album to also come with a video for every track; Beyonce has shown him and everyone else how it’s done, twice now.

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