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"When Life Gives You Lemons": A Thematic Breakdown of Beyoncé's Surprise Album 'Lemonade'

We examine the trails and tribulations of Beyoncé in 'Lemonade.'

Sajae Elder

Whether it was the hordes of lemon emojis or the excited tweets all over your timeline, the release of Beyoncé’s sixth studio and visual album #LEMONADE were all that mattered over the weekend and likely for the rest of the year. With the follow-up to her 2013 self-titled album, Bey upped the ante this time by connecting each video into a seamless feature-length film that premiered on HBO in the U.S. Viewers from outside the states, myself included, scrambled between livestream and periscope links to stay in the loop in real time before they were taken off air after a few glorious minutes. On-screen titles break the feature into chapters, going through the range of emotions that would naturally come up in the face of infidelity, with the film heavily referencing a possible rough patch in her marriage with Jay Z.

As is often the case in a celebrity-obsessed culture, there's an inclination to take all of this very personal music as direct statements to be analyzed for gossip, as the immediate reaction shows, but of course, it's art and open to interpretation. Nevertheless, the hour-long project is a lot to take in, so we examined the songs and themes that thread through the visual album LEMONADE.

Intuition - “Pray You Catch Me”

After some pretty beautiful opening shots, it’s obvious we’re in Louisiana, a nod to Bey’s Creole roots. A short intro to “Pray You Catch Me” is followed by the first of many monologues, sounding like standard creative fare until she said “You remind me of my father, a magician. Able to exist in two places at once.” Her father and former manager’s infidelity is widely known, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that she's referencing her husband as a comparison. “I pray I catch you whispering, I pray you catch me listening,” she sings, hoping for concrete evidence & an opportunity to confront him. When she leaps off a building ledge and ends up diving into water, it’s explicitly clear this was about to get even deeper visually. Across pretty much every belief system, water is seen as a path to personal transformation and rebirth.

Denial - “Hold Up”

Swimming around an eerie underwater bedroom and coming across a sleeping version of herself, another monologue starts—this time with lines from Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s poem For Women Who Are Difficult To Love. Beyoncé finally emerges from the building, water cascading down the steps behind her before leading into the Diplo-produced, reggae-tinged “Hold Up.” This is also the point where voodoo and West African-based religious imagery starts to become apparent throughout, as a handful of in-the-know viewers pointed out and offered context for. The imagery, which sees Beyonce in a yellow dress, is reminiscent of Oshun, a badass goddess who wears yellow, governs over love and sexuality and laughs when exacting revenge. “What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you,” she sings while wielding a baseball bat named Hot Sauce from which no windshield, fire hydrant or camera lens are safe.

Anger - “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

Another nod to the singer’s Southern roots shows up in the form of a marching band and dancers parading through a busy street, as another monologue begins that is equal parts haunting and heartbreaking. “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine.” Beyoncé seems to be tackling the anger of her husband’s *cough* JAY Z *cough* infidelity head on, with words from Shire’s work making another appearance. It’s speculative whether she’s baring her soul to us or sharing a story of healing that resonated with her and shared some similar elements.

A dimly lit parking garage sets the stage for “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a Jack White-assisted track that finds her dabbling in foul-mouthed rock and even samples Led Zeppelin. “Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” A quick montage of different women around Louisiana is set against audio of a Malcolm X speech, where he states “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman,” making it clear the entire project is meant as a form of catharsis for not only Beyoncé but black women at large. Her persona has become more political, albeit in subtle ways, and her choice in imagery and content are a reflection of the shift.

Apathy - “Sorry”

Here we find Beyoncé on a bus surrounded by a dozen women all with striking and intricate white body paint done by Nigerian-American artist Laolu Senbanjo, whose art derives from a spiritual practice within Yoruba culture that connects the painter to the souls of his muses. Soon, the scene shifts to her being seated on a throne-like chair, Serena Williams dipping into her best twerk offering close by. The playful “Sorry” samples Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” and reads like a taunt from a jilted lover turned indifferent and unapologetic. “Today I regret the night I put that ring on.”

Throughout the piece, Beyoncé infuses the works of women from all over the African diaspora set against the backdrop of the American South; and we find her making these connections, whether intentional or not, to help her create something that speaks to her blackness as much as it does her womanhood.

Emptiness - “6 Inch”

The chapter begins with red dress-clad Beyoncé sitting in the middle of a ring of fire—another element that is representative of renewal just as much as destruction. After travelling down a winding hallway, we’re met with various scenes all in red which is a departure from the full colour or monochromatic set up of the songs before. Driving around the city at night, the focus switches back to Beyoncé performing the sexy mid-tempo track “6 Inch” to an empty room, with the Weeknd’s airy vocals alongside hers. “Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody's business / Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness," she sings, presumably talking about her husband’s nameless mistress. As the house is engulfed in flames behind her, she’s leaving her anger behind in its wake instead of carrying it with her to the next stage.

Accountability - “Daddy Lessons”

The focus shifts to both childhood and parenting as another monologue discusses the ways women become exhausted from emotional labour as wives, mothers, and daughters. “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” she asks, before launching into country territory on “Daddy Lessons.” Mixed with scenes of Bey journeying on horseback and examples of functional fatherhood, we get a glimpse of the singer’s own childhood as home videos of her with her father are juxtaposed with footage of him in the present with her daughter Blue. After parting ways with her father professionally in 2011, persistent rumours have run about of a personal fallout between the two as a result of his infidelity. In facing hard truths about her own marriage she’s able to work toward forgiving both her father and her husband; laying any animosity to rest in a traditional funeral procession.

Reformation - “Love Drought”

The dreamy “Love Drought” sees Beyoncé and an army of women march into the ocean, focusing on the healing qualities of both water and sisterhood. Raising their arms together in place, the visuals evoke another piece of Yoruba Orisha-based imagery centered around Yemaya, a healing goddess that protects both women and children. Where “Daddy Lessons” saw her reconciling her anger about her father, “Love Drought” is the realization that her marriage is worth saving. “You and me could move a mountain/ you and me could calm a war down,” she proclaims over the track’s wistful production. We also see footage taking place before Beyoncé’s much-talked about Super Bowl performance. As the family plays on the open field, we see calm between them all. Though not for certain, it’s possible this was a representation of the point that their marriage may have started to find real peace.

Forgiveness - “Sandcastles”

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Beyoncé is working her way up to forgiveness, but on her own terms. All of the reflection, introspection and healing work of the songs before culminate in “Sandcastles,” an emotional piano-driven ballad that finds Beyoncé herself on the keys in an empty room filled and sees the first appearance from husband Jay Z looking way more vulnerable than the public is probably used to. As an artist who’s built a career off street credibility, it’s a tender look at a man who once proclaimed he’d never give his heart to a woman. By allowing himself to be the target of the album’s anger and scorn, real or not, his vulnerability offers a brand new dimension to two artists who have always kept us at arm’s length. Written by Vincent Berry and Beyoncé, the lyrics find Beyoncé still pained but hopeful, her typically controlled voice nearly cracking as she asks “What is it about you, that I can’t erase baby?”

Resurrection - “Forward”

As passages from Shire’s work make their way back into the piece, we’re lead into “Forward,” which finds Beyoncé and James Blake trading harmonies to provide the haunting backdrop for the next few powerful scenes. “It’s time to listen, it’s time to fight/Forward,” they sing, adding the important step of letting go in the process of forgiveness. We’re met with different black women and girls sharing images of lost loved ones, including the actress Quvenzhané Wallis, civil rights activist Leah Chase and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown; black men who have died at the hands of police brutality. In this, Beyoncé shifts her focus from her internal issues and reaches outward, encouraging a form of collective healing. Bringing more of her Louisiana lineage into the fold, a girl dressed in traditional Mardi Gras Indian garb shakes a tambourine around an empty dining table.

Hope - “Freedom”

Enlisting Kendrick Lamar seemed like the perfect match for the visuals for “Freedom,” a rallying cry for black women with heavy gospel influences and pulsing co-production from Just Blaze. Featuring young and outspoken women like Zendaya Coleman and Amandla Stenberg, Blue Ivy and dozens of others, Beyoncé takes on the role of a preacher, sharing the stage with ballet dancer Michaela DePrince as the women gather for her message. She stands together with other black women who, by virtue of shared experiences she feels connected to. In Coleman and Stenberg we see a newer generation of artists who look to infuse their activism into their art or at the very least be open about it in the public eye.

“I break chains all by myself,” Beyoncé growls defiantly. “I’mma keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” For what might be the most powerful song on the album, Beyoncé is not only talking about her own liberation but making important commentary about the work that still needs to be done to address the systemic injustices that are still pervasive, particularly in America. Where she may have been subtle or seemed aloof to outsiders in the past, it’s clear Beyoncé has reached a point where she can be unapologetic about how she understands the world as a black woman.

Redemption - “All Night”

This is the point where it's made clear what the album is really about: resilience through love and healing, as Jay Z’s grandmother is seen giving a birthday speech where she says “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Sharing her grandmother’s own lemonade recipe, Beyoncé makes it clear just how much power exists between generations of women, and is testament to the resilience of black women in times of both collective and individual struggle. As cases of police brutality and the lack of justice served in their wake continues, the families left behind are the very embodiment of that resilience. While these ideas are universal and able to be felt and understood by anyone, it’s clear there’s an intended recipient of this ode.

In "All Night," Beyoncé revisits the horns of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” and finally opts to give the damaged relationship another shot. “Found the truth beneath your lies / And true love never has to hide / I'll trade your broken wings for mine,” she sings as she walks the through ruins. Footage of the normally private couple’s wedding is seen alongside other depictions of love including her mother getting remarried, various happy couples and even a pregnant Beyoncé before ending on a high note with the whole family.

“Formation”

While the visual album leaves "Formation" to the credits, the video (playing afterwards) was an early precursor to the major homage she paid to New Orleans with this entire album. Setting it in New Orleans gives it context as a distinctly Black and Southern piece of art that delves into betrayal, love, sisterhood, family and what it means to heal. It's a tall order even for an artist whose next move we all wait on with baited breathe, but the stunning visuals deliver more than anyone could have bargained for.

Similar to the stages of grief, #LEMONADE works through these important themes and emotions in a way that shows us a side of Beyoncé we’ve never seen before. Usually private and cautious about the parts of her life we get to see, she shares with us the details of her trials and tribulations on her own terms. Questions about the verity of the story have fueled curiosity over who “Becky with the good hair” might be, even pushing some fans to attack fashion designer Rachel Roy for seemingly implicating now-deleted Instagram post. Speculative analyzing of the videos create a spectacle of sorts around them, but it’s important to give room for artistic freedom and let these notions take a back seat to the work itself.

Honest, raw, and reflective, I saw myself in nearly every frame of #LEMONADE. It reminded me that black womanhood is magical, but not above some serious healing, and instantly felt a connection to the references to ancestral rituals and iconography that have remained preserved throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, connecting us to Africa whether we realized it or not. It's all a tall order even for an artist whose next move we all wait on with bated breath, but these stunning visuals deliver more than anyone could have bargained for.

Sajae Elder is a writer and digital content creator who "talks shit" on the podcast 'Gyalcast.' Follow her on Twitter.