Beyonce’s surprise album packs a political punch


Beyonce released a new visual album over the weekend, Lemonade, surprising and delighting fans.

The music and accompanying visual album sparked frenzied conversation and a rush to decipher Beyonce’s messages online.

The visual album was released on HBO, followed by the music becoming available on Tidal and iTunes.

We break down five moments that have people talking.

  1. Black women empowerment
Michael Brown's mother (pictured) was featured in the visual album
Michael Brown’s mother (pictured) was featured in the visual album

Above anything else, critics and fans are describing Lemonade as an ode to female black empowerment. Black women of all ages are featured throughout the visual album, including Beyonce’s own mother and grandmother, who is featured at her birthday party talking about being handed lemons and making lemonade.

Elle editor-at-large and university professor Melissa Harris-Perry wrote of the album: “What would happen if we took the hopes, dreams, pain, joy, loss, bodies, voices, stories, expressions, styles, families, histories, futures of black girls and women and put them in the centre and started from there? Lemonade happens.”

Michael Arceneaux, a writer who reviewed both the album and its visual component for Complex Magazine, told the BBC the video depicts Black womanhood “in all its varied beauty”. At one point, she features flashes of black women, primarily in the South, as a quote from Malcolm X is read- “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

Kiana Fitzgerald, who reviewed the album for NPR, told the BBC “it feels like validation, it feels like black women finally have a champion.”

“You realise she realises that her experience is rooted within the black female experience.”

The mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, black men who were killed by US police, are featured in the video, holding photos of their deceased sons.

“People that look like both me and Beyonce are still in danger at any moment should we cross the wrong officer,” said Mr Arcenaux. “As painful as it is to be reminded of that, we have to be.”

  1. Marriage and infidelity
Throughout the album, Beyonce implies her husband Jay-Z has cheated on her
Throughout the album, Beyonce implies her husband Jay-Z has cheated on her

Allusions to Beyonce’s husband, American rap artist Jay-Z, cheating on her are rampant in the video, but the message is more nuanced than a simple tale of infidelity.

Beyonce sings of his betrayal with a “Becky with the good hair” – which many on the Internet deciphered to be fashion designer Rachel Roy, who Jay-Z is rumoured to have had an affair with – in the song Sorry.

“It’s so much bigger than the ‘Becky’ line—[it encompasses] her grandmother, mother and the shared experience a lot of women had,” said Akilah Hughes, a writer and comedienne in New York City. It is rumoured that Beyonce’s mother dealt with infidelity in her marriage, too. “We put up with a lot that we probably shouldn’t. It’s not a story about a one-time incident, it’s a story about people.”

The album begins with Beyonce talking about being “crazy” and “jealous”, and ends with the case for keeping families together with images and herself with Jay-Z and their daughter Blue Ivy.

3. Star cameos

SerenaAmong the famous black women making cameos or inspiring the visual album for Lemonade:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis, actress in the movies Beasts of the Southern Wild and 10 Years a Slave
  • Serena Williams, tennis star, who dances with Beyonce in a body suit
  • Zendaya Coleman, singer/actress/model
  • Amandla Stenberg, actress from the movie The Hunger Games
  • Winnie Harlow, former contestant for America’s Top Model
  • Chloe and Hallie Bailey, teen singers signed to Beyonce’s management company
  • Carla Marie Williams, British songwriter
  • Warsan Shire, Somali-British poet, whose poems served as interludes between songs
  1. Redemption and resilience
At the end of the visual album, Jay-Z and Beyonce are seen smiling together
At the end of the visual album, Jay-Z and Beyonce are seen smiling together

Much of the visual album includes lush imagery of the American South, evoking the Antebellum period and the roots of slavery, Ms Hughes said.

“I think it was a very overt homage, and a beautiful one, of a story we don’t like to tell in America – black people who are here have to call this home,” she said. Beyonce, an artist with massive commercial appeal, showcases black history in a way Ms Hughes describes as “interesting, refreshing and compelling.”

Black women appear in Antebellum-style dresses, against rural, tree-shaded backdrops.

“The South represents black women in all our complicatedness — we are as much impacted by the chains as we are lifted up remembering ourselves as queens,” Collier Meyerson, a reporter at Fusion, wrote of the South’s role in the visual album.

Ms Hughes called Lemonade the most emotional album Beyonce has ever released. At the end, she lays on a football field, showcases her family and shows groups of black women of all ages coming together and smiling.

“This video project forced me to halt the charade and to reckon with the brokenness of Beyonce. Is it possible Lemonade represents a more durable inheritance of strength?” Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, writes in Elle.

 5. Range of music genres covered

Beyonce is known for her R&B, soul, pop and hip-hop classics, but in Lemonade she showcases new styles, including rock and roll and country.

On the song Daddy Lessons, she rides a horse and samples a bluesy, country sound. On Don’t Hurt Yourself, she evokes rock ‘n’ roll with some help from Jack White and Led Zeppelin. Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig has a writing credit on the song Pray You Catch Me.

Other artists featured on the album include Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and James Blake, with more writing credits for Father John Misty, Diplo and Soulja Boy.

“When I first heard it, I was like, is she really going there right now? I feel like she finally stepped into what she could be,” NPR’s Ms Fitzgerald said. “She is finally where she needs to be.”


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