Review: Beyonce's amazing truthbomb turns emotional lemons into 'Lemonade'
Is it okay for a critic to say, “I respect this work of art, and I am not fully qualified to speak to the profundity of the text?”
Because that’s where I find myself with Beyonce’s Lemonade, a remarkable visual album that she released under a cloak of complete secrecy last night. HBO made the one-hour program available twice on their channel during their free-preview-weekend, and it was also available for 24 hours via HBO Now, the app that I have. I don’t have cable, and I don’t like cable. I want the right to consume things a la carte, and anything I can do to support that media model, I do. I will pay providers for content, but I want to do it the way I want to do it. Because it was on HBO Now, I’ve been able to watch the film repeatedly, stopping it, grabbing some stills from it. It may be gone tomorrow, but for now, I’m enjoying it, and part of the enjoyment is realizing that I’m not getting everything it’s doing, and I’ll need help to get there.
I look at this film, this collaboration between Beyonce Knowles Carter and a fistful of filmmakers including Mark Romanek, Kahlil Joseph, and Melina Matsoukas, and I am overwhelmed by it. It is powerful and it is personal, and it is full of cultural touchstones that are not mine. Tonight, I’ll be reading as much as I can about how other people are reacting to it because I’m genuinely curious. I would love to have it decoded and digested by writers who share more common cultural ground with Beyonce, and I am also excited to read how other people in my own position react, people coming at it from the outside. That is one of my favorite kinds of art, art that challenges me to adopt a perspective that is not my own. I can react to it in my way, and I know that my reaction is not universal. And yet, there are things about it that I found immediately moving, immediately pulling me in
There’s a credit for Warsan Shire for “film adaptation and poetry,” and that immediately sent me looking to see who Warsan Shire is. That’s a big accomplishment right away for Beyonce, that sort of spotlight on another artist. She has some great guests here, like Jack White and Kendrick Lamar and James Blake and Father John Misty and Diplo, and everything feels like one coherent piece. It’s hard to imagine where the seams are between the work of all of her collaborators. The full list of directors also includes Todd Tourso, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jonas Akerlund, and Knowles Carter herself, and I have no idea who did what. I care, but I also don’t care. This is presented as a single thing, and that’s how I watched it. Three times. Start to finish. And watched that way, it’s staggering.
Last night, I was suffering from crippling insomnia, as I so often do. And so when I discovered at around 11:00 PM that HBO Now had an XBox One app finally, I downloaded it and immediately opened it. That’s when I found out about Lemonade, and that’s the first thing I watched on it last night. I had to play it quieter than I would have liked because my sons were both sleeping, but even so, it sounded amazing right away through my surround system. My Sunday afternoon experience with it was much louder, and even more impressive. It is a terrific experience, first and foremost. Even if I wasn’t startled by the lyrics and by the emotional landscape it charts, I would be impressed on a sonic level. It’s a gorgeous piece of work overall.
The first shot is her, face obscured, arm blocking her. We see her hair, her ear, but there’s this revving up, this building energy. Like an engine starting underwater. Then silence. Natural sounds only. A few chords, a chorus of sighs. And when we see her again, she’s onstage, in prayer. The first track, appropriately titled “Pray You Catch Me,” jumps right into things, and I was taken aback by how stark it is:
“You can taste the dishonesty
It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier
But even that’s a test
Constantly aware of it all
My lonely ear
Pressed against the wall of your world
Prayin’ to catch you whispering
I’m prayin’ you catch me listening
I’m prayin’ to catch you whispering
I’m prayin’ you catch me
I’m prayin’ to catch you whispering
I’m prayin’ you catch me listening
I’m prayin’ you catch me”
Oh my god. That fear, that anxiety, that suspicion. It’s immediate, and then it leads into the first spoken word section, titled “Intuition,” which is what I assume Shire contributed to. And I find a lot of the spoken word stuff in the film harrowing on an emotional level. That first song sets a tone, and every piece of this builds on it.
“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. Where do you go when you go quiet? You remind me of my father, a magician, able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 AM and lie to me. What are you hiding? The past and the future merge to meet us here. What luck. What a fucking curse.”
Honestly, she out-Malicks Terrence Malick with the way she’s structured the overall piece. This is a beautifully organized trip through truth and imagination, stark reality and big visual metaphor, and the expert balance of all of it is what I find really impressive.
Another verse of the song, another spoken word section. And now it’s building. Now there’s some fury creeping in. There’s an entire sequence set underwater, and it’s fantastic, all building to the question she’s afraid to ask. “Are you cheating? Are you cheating on me?”
I think “Hold Up” may be my favorite song in the entire piece, and the accompanying imagery is when you realize just how furious and bold and incendiary this thing might be.
“Something don’t feel right
Because it ain’t right
Especially comin’ up after midnight
I smell your secret, and I’m not too perfect
To ever feel this worthless
How did it come down to this?
Going through your call list
I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’ma fuck me up a bitch
Know that I kept it sexy, and know I kept it fun
There’s something that I’m missing, maybe my head for one
What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy”
As she struts down the street, spilling out of a yellow dress that is all ruffles and curves, baseball bat in hand, she is threatening and gorgeous and powerful, and it’s one hell of an image. It’s amazing they kept this album totally under wraps because of the intense emotional ground she covers and the sheer scope of the production. There were tons of extras, tons of things that could have leaked. But nope. She managed to reveal the entire piece at once, the way she wanted to, and it’s taken as a whole that the real power of it is revealed. For example, the chorus of “Hold Up” is built around a direct quote from the song “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but just saying that doesn’t really give you any idea what the song, produced by Diplo, sounds like or what the film feels like as you’re watching it. Beyonce takes the line “they don’t love you like I love you” and she turns it and twists it and explores it in a way that is both playful and painful at once. There’s some self-laceration here, just as there is fury towards the man who has hurt her and the women he did it with.
And then she turns around and says something in the next spoken word section that I found chilling:
“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. We can pose for a photograph, all three of us, immortalized. You and your perfect girl. I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is that no one I know has it.”
She looks back into her past, into the relationship between her parents, and draws connections to the hurt she’s feeling now, and that building fury erupts into a song built on the skeleton of “When The Levee Breaks,” with Jack White turbo-charging it, with Malcolm X dropping truthbombs in the middle, and with Jon Brion coating it in honey somehow. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is ferocious, and if you stopped here, you might think that Beyonce had burned her marriage to the ground, happily and without regret. That amazing anger then turns playful and almost taunting in “Sorry,” which has a truly infectious chorus:
“Middle fingers up, put them hands high
Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye
Tell him, boy, bye, middle fingers up
I ain’t thinking ‘bout you”
Serena Williams twerking to that has got to be one of the most unexpected images of pop culture in 2016 so far, and considering what a furious party anthem it feels like, it’s bracing to hear the spoken word section that precedes it. “So what are you going to say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me?” she asks, and again… the spoken word is so intense, so emotionally raw, that I feel like I’ve intruded by listening to it. Considering how carefully (and justifiably) she protects her family’s privacy, this is almost too much, almost too confessional.
Unless it’s not at all. I mean, I’m assuming that this is all drawn from her actual experience, but I don’t know that for a fact, and it doesn’t change the work either way. I’m curious to see how people digest this record. Is it going to be as a tabloid moment, or as a work of art, transformative rather than simply offering up a window? “Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.” It’s quotable and powerful, and it shouldn’t just be immediately turned into articles that try to shame the possible players in the drama. I don’t care who “Becky with the good hair” is, except in the sense that it’s an amazing line in an amazing song.
The Weeknd shows up on “6 INCH,” the first song on the album that isn’t about the infidelity in a direct way. Instead, it’s about her taking control of her own life, her own identity, her own money, her own business. There’s a badass Isaac Hayes sample down in this song’s DNA, a Hal David/Burt Bacharach hook hidden in there, and there’s a powerful carnal undertone to the visual representation of this particular song. Beyonce is such a powerful sexual icon, and the idea that anyone could make her question that power is amazing, until you take a step back and stop viewing her as an icon. She is a person, a woman, a wife, and there’s nothing about who she is as a performer that gives her some special pass or that makes her immune to the same heartbreaks as anyone else. Then there’s a devastating left turn into country music for “Daddy Lessons,” which feels like an incredibly important piece of understanding the record overall. I think there’s something important being said here about how we learn to ask for the love we think we deserve. Part of my feelings of failure in my personal life is fueled by my parents as an example. They have been together since high school, and when I watch the way my father tends to my mother, and when I see the way my mother leans on my father, I am flattened because that is love on a level that I find both inspirational and daunting. My life is defined by phases and stages, while theirs is a constant. I hold myself up to the standard they set, and it is clear that Beyonce does that with her own father, with the way her mother and father’s marriage collapsed. She asks a string of hard, personal questions, and follows them up with “Am I talking about your husband or your father?”, which I find wrenching.
What becomes so moving to me in the second half of Lemonade is the realization that after fury and after all of this emotional violence, there is potential for forgiveness. That’s the part that I find most amazing. There is a song in Act II of Hamilton about forgiveness that destroys me, and there is something about the power of forgiveness that I find is almost too big to be dealt with effectively in art. How to do you demonstrate what it really means to forgive, to move forward, to live with someone every day who has hurt you in some deep and permanent manner? The answer that is implied in the final stretch of Lemonade has to do with the day to day accumulation of moments and details. Showing up. Being there. The choice that is made. It takes such staggering strength, but it’s as simple as deciding what to focus on. The one choice and the one moment and the one decision that caused the wound? Or the multitude of moments of joy and love and connection that we pile up from day to day? I don’t know the truth about Jay-Z and Beyonce and their life together, and it doesn’t remotely matter. As a work of art, this feels honest and confessional, and it is moving because of the artistry with which Knowles communicates this hurricane of emotion. It is ferocious, and the truth of it is larger than the biographical detail of one particular marriage. What she says and how she says it moved me as someone who still has trouble admitting that he failed at marriage. Something so important to me, so central to my sense of who I am, and I screwed it up. I did it poorly. I have had good relationships in my life, but the most important one I had as an adult before last year ended in failure, and that is something that haunts me. I am kept awake by it some nights, and I should be. It’s significant. I look around, and I have friends who have never been married. I have friends who are storybook happy for real. I have friends who struggle at it, who have stumbled but who have stuck it out. And I can’t judge any of those marriages, and that’s not what Lemonade is about. It’s not about judgment. It’s about the experience.
Lemonade is just plain great art, and the title makes me laugh. It feels like she took some seriously painful lemons and she made lemonade that is memorable and nourishing. This is no mere pop album, no mere collection of possible singles. This is what I always love most from pop stars, a moment of something more. Transcendence. As we write our hearts out about what we lost when we lost Bowie or Prince this year, let’s also write our hearts out when we see someone swing for the fences, the full force of their pop iconography behind it, that same iconography at stake. And the final image of the entire thing is a shot of the family together, and Beyonce reaches out to cover the lens, to take back their privacy now after this intense sharing, after this emotional scourging. She opened up. She showed us the cycle of pain, the way we are taught what to accept in love by the people who love us first, and she showed us the fury she felt at finding out she was living out the cycle after all. She showed us just how deep the hurt went. She showed us that choice to heal, that choice to forgive. And then with her final two lines, “The audience applauds, but we can’t hear them,” she closed that door again so they can now get on with whatever their life is. Only they know how they got there and where they’re truly going.
I doubt I’ll ever subscribe to Tidal, but if the platform offered up more work like this, more big swings that felt like they were actual unique art, then maybe I’d change my mind. As it is, I want to know if I’ll be able to buy Lemonade as a physical artifact, as a Blu-ray or a CD. I don’t really stream music. I buy it, and the same is true of most movies. However, if something only lives as a streaming item, then this certainly feels like the kind of thing that makes a service worth a subscription fee.
UPDATE: TIDAL reached out to me to clarify how this is going to work. You can stream the album from TIDAL if you're already a subscriber, or you can download the album for $17.99 from the site, and you can also download the visual album, and if you do, you'll be given a 90 day trial to TIDAL along with that. It will remain streaming on TIDAL in perpetuity after this, and they pointed out to me that you can stream offline. Once you've opened your stream, you no longer need wifi open, something they pointed out that most streaming services do not offer.
If you haven’t seen it, it really is worth tracking down.
Lemonade is available now on Tidal, and should be available on iTunes at midnight.