The Current Debate: Beyoncé’s "Lemonade"

Read the conversations swirling around the pop artist's ambitious visual album.
Jacob Paul

It would be insufficient, writes Carrie Battan, to call Beyoncé’s Lemonade 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.” Battan’s description hints at what has so excited the Internet in the week and a half since Lemonade’s release: it’s not only a new Beyoncé album—it’s also her most personal work yet, and one that, as Ash Sarkar notes at the London Review of Books, is uniquely political:

“How has this happened? How has Beyoncé engendered such a deep sense of solidarity among women and the marginalised? Most reviewers have pointed out that Lemonade is Beyoncé’s most personal and political work to date, but few have interrogated how the album moves between the two. Lemonade is about adultery in the way that Moby-Dick is about fishing. As Ijeoma Olua has written, Beyoncé uses the pain of personal betrayal to highlight the political marginalisation of black women. I gasped as she summoned Malcolm X (‘The most disrespected person in America is the black woman’) to excoriate her cheating spouse.

Beyoncé’s heartbreak is her own, but Lemonade speaks to the experience of black women everywhere.”

At The Muse, Clover Hope posits that the personal is able to become political in part due to Beyoncé’s rigorous control of her public image. She chooses to tell her story, in Lemonade, within a space she herself builds out of a specific verbal and visual language:

“Being the vision and vessel for these grand ideas (an hour-long visual album takes a village) is a heavy weight, but Beyoncé had to do it. This is her gorgeous controlled force to make up for her chosen silence, for her exercising the Oprah clause in interviews and eventually forsaking public speaking altogether. She knows silence is as much a tactic as a necessity. And when it breaks, it’s something magical. Why not talk to us in a safe space then, of her own creation. The space is vast and others can hear us and sing along. But the language is specific. “Blindly in love, I fucks with you” and all that. And the spirituality is thoroughly black.”

Some of this language is precisely credited—the spoken word comes from the poetry of Warsan Shire—but much has already been made of identifying other potential influences, and it will undoubtedly continue to be rich critical ground. Wesley Morris, at the New York Times, offers the beginnings of a catalog:

“Visually, “Lemonade” invokes a lot — Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” “Carrie,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the car-smashing at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” But what its black-female spiritualism calls to mind is “Daughters of the Dust,” Julie Dash’s landmark tone poem from 1991, loosely — very loosely — about three generations, descended from slavery, and their migration north in 1902.”

At the New Yorker, Hilton Als adds another to this list: Octavia Butler. “In her stories and novels,” he writes, “Butler discussed time travel—that is, the phenomenon of how blacks had managed to make the journey from slavery to the modern world.” Lemonade, he suggests, “travels between the present—a world filled with police brutality, marital rage, and alienation—and a past inhabited by the Louisiana-based female ancestors her mother and thus herself are born from.”

“As Beyoncé sings, we see various shots of black mothers holding photographs of their sons—boys and men who have lost their lives to “accidental” police shootings. It’s in those moments that Beyoncé displays, most profoundly, what Butler called “hyper empathy”—the ability to identify with and feel the pain of others. Which, of course, has always been at the heart of black music, black style.”

Viewing Lemonade through theses lenses, whether they’re direct influences or not, reveals both the necessity and value of celebrating its vital cultural specificity. It’s a specificity that definitely involves issues of identity politics, and at times, that can seem to complicate the way we talk about it, as Kyle Turner notes at Little White Lies:

“Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ dropped two months ago, and countless YouTube covers popped up overnight, including one by Max Milian. To talk about the politics of a white gay man covering a song that is so rooted in the experience of blackness (“You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama”) is to enter into a complicated, dicey debate about how we navigate identity politics in contemporary popular culture. The argument is that the music is for everyone, but does it have to be?”

The question that Turner arrives at—who Lemonade is “meant for”—certainly bears weight in contemporary culture, especially as it relates to politics, including Black Lives Matter. But I very much agree with George Packer—writing at the New Yorker last month about criticism and race in the context of jazz and literature—that it’s a question that must be balanced within critical discourse, to avoid concluding that cultural identity alone has a determinate effect on critical or artistic capacity:

“Are haikus, then, the exclusive property of Japanese poets? Actually, Richard Wright wrote hundreds of them, as a respite from his more political work, and they were published posthumously last year. Vinson Cunningham wrote an essay about them in the Times Magazine: “[Wright’s] turmoil persists; the need to escape it, even temporarily, is as real for today’s black artists and writers as it ever was. How, after all, in the age of the Charleston church shooting and traffic stops turned losses of life, do you relay a set of increasingly brutal facts without succumbing to the broader culture’s hunger for ‘identity writers’ instead of whole humans?

It’s another way of saying that no one owns anyone’s culture, and that to believe otherwise is to deprive us of the human fullness and richness we all deserve. To reconcile this insight with an equally compelling American truth—that racial injustice is our inheritance and our responsibility—is the challenge for every artist and critic, black or white.”

There’s no question that Lemonade is uniquely Beyoncé’s—as Miriam Bale puts it at The Hollywood Reporter, “director, star and something more, Beyonce is redefining authorship.” But I would also argue that the way Lemonade incorporates collaboration reflects the point of view Packer describes. As Bale writes, “rather than having different directors each responsible for a video, as in [her last visual album] Beyonce, here each of the seven directors’ work is edited smoothly into one whole.” That’s a radical undertaking, and it’s one that pays dividends in part, I don’t doubt, because it combines, rather than partitions, the richness of a diverse set of human experience.

The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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