'Lemonade': A Beyoncé Reaction Roundtable

MTV News basks in the glow of a uniquely powerful visual album

By Doreen St. Félix, Molly Lambert, Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Jane Marie, Teo Bugbee, Carvell Wallace, Jamil Smith, Amy Nicholson, and Simon Vozick-Levinson

LATE ONE NIGHT IN APRIL, THE INTERNET --- It's Saturday night. We could be anywhere in the world, but we're all here. Witness the power of Beyoncé. Let's talk about what we just saw.

St. Félix: I’d like to begin with Warsan Shire. Shire is a young Somali-British poet whose stanzas provide the connective tissue of Lemonade, from her “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love” and “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.” She’s credited with film adaptation, too. When Alexis Okeowo of The New Yorker profiled Shire last year, she said this of Shire's writing: “How much of the book is autobiographical is never really made clear, but beside the point.” That coyness, the dexterity to mess with the playfulness of biography and the seriousness of fantasy, is what struck me so hard about Lemonade the Visual. On her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fairly straightforward nonfiction manifesto. That text was declarative, universal. But poetry summoning the various limbos black women and their foremothers are suspended in, sometimes fictional and other times very real? That’s specific as all hell. Lemonade is against direct address. It’s such a story.

Madison III: Exactly, Doreen. Is this about her marriage with Jay? I doubt it. But maybe. Is it about Tina and Mathew? More likely. But the emotion it evokes, the juxtaposition between fantasy and reality, is so fucking powerful. I mean, it's essentially what black life in America is anyway: experiencing so much real pain that you need to live in and out of fantasies that are only tangentially connected to reality.

Wallace: It's important, though, that we’re allowed to believe it's about her and Jay, maybe even encouraged to believe that. By making it so clear — throwing a wedding ring, quoting lines from Jay’s public biography, literally saying “You will lose your wife” — she is really like, “Fuck every single syllable of that ‘don’t air your dirty laundry' bullshit.” The entire first half of the piece is about coming powerfully unhinged, about setting homes on fire (looking at you, Left Eye), and smashing cars with a bat (looking at you, every scorned woman who’s ever fucked some shit up with a bat). What's more unhinged than the most buttoned-up R&B star, and one-half of the most professional-acting, clean-cut, yacht-riding music royal family of all time, coming out and just straight being like, “This nigga cheated on me, fuck him"? Watching the first half of Lemonade, it's at least possible to imagine that April 23 is the first time Jay saw any of this, and that's surely part of the layered narrative of this piece. We get to imagine the terror, the knotted stomach, the dry mouth he would feel watching this — because we’ve all fucked someone over we shouldn’t have. That feeling makes the story jump out of the screen and into your body. It’s emotional 3-D.

Lambert: Warsan Shire! I found Shire’s poetry via Twitter a few years ago, and the fact that she ended up working on a Beyoncé album has renewed my faith in the Internet. Shire’s words take Beyoncé’s imagery to an entirely new place for her — body horror. I also wonder how much if any of Lemonade was influenced by the work of Kara Walker, whose giant sugar sphinx “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” Beyoncé and Jay Z took Blue Ivy to see in 2014. The visual album deals explicitly with Southern black female identity, with the intersections of race and gender — one of my favorite moments was the Mardi Gras Indian Queen blessing the table — bringing women to the forefront of a tradition dominated by men. After dwelling on the violence, sadness, and disrespect she’s been dealt for being such a powerful, magical presence, the film ends with that bucolic image of a black women’s commune. Beyoncé is taking over this genteel Southern world that was a historic site of evil and pain and making it into something beautiful, positive, and utopian.

Cills: Something that strikes me about that juxtaposition between fantasy and reality that Ira mentions is that Lemonade feels removed from female revenge tropes in music. Sure, she’s swinging baseball bats into car windows and the “goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness” lyric on “6 Inch” is Beyoncé at her creepiest, but if Lemonade is out for blood, it’s coming for it from so many nuanced, vulnerable angles. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite Beyoncé record (as it probably is for anyone!) but I’ve always loved her on B’Day, a record full of “dust to side chicks,” punk rock energy. Lemonade doesn’t scale that energy back — it thrives on songs like “Sorry” and “6 Inch” — but it also explores how it’s just as powerful a fantasy to fight to get that love back. I keep coming back to “Love Drought,” which has these devastatingly accessible verses (“10 times out of nine I’m only human”), and yet the chorus is an image of love so pure it could stop a war.

Lambert: I was trying to pinpoint why “6 Inch” was doing so much to me, and realized it’s because it’s the trip-hop Bey I’ve always wanted. That sample of Isaac Hayes's “Walk on By,” also used in Hooverphonic’s “2Wicky”! Trip-hop was full of jaded femme fatales declaring their revenge plans in intimidatingly deadpan fashion. Now I need a Yoncé "Glory Box" cover. (PS: I’m pretty sure the deserted brick fort where the visual album starts and ends was also Carcosa, because I am a True Beytective.)

Madison III: B'Day was vibrant and boisterous. I think my favorite album thus far has been 4, which was more laid back, with a grown-and-sexy, getting-lit-with-a-bottle-of-Hennessy vibe. This is a blending of those two sensibilities. It eschews radio hits for songs that make a complete album. Beyoncé cares deeply about how we experience her work as a cultural event, and an album full of singles would have felt off-putting, incongruous to what we were watching. As the story unfolded onscreen, I've never felt more tense, more thrilled listening to her music. It's otherworldly, even though she's plumbing very human concepts. In "Hold Up," she's carrying a bat and destroying New Orleans, but somehow it never feels malicious, or like her old-school jilted lover jams ("Ring the Alarm," "Irreplaceable"). She's like a goddess on an excursion from Mount Olympus, gleefully causing chaos.

Nicholson: Visually, Lemonade makes marriage look like a horror film. In these haunted homes, the paint is peeling, the bedroom is underwater, the creepy lightbulb is swinging, and the walls are on fire. There’s Beyoncé in high-necked white lace like a gothic heroine. And even though that no-good husband is out at the club, his invisible presence lingers like a ghost. Then there’s that hallway Steadicam shot that directly nods to The Shining’s gore-spewing elevator. Here, the hallway is already blood red, and Beyoncé swaps out murder for menstruation, blaming the moon “for the flush of blood, for men who are also wolves,” over echoey, slasher-film percussion.

Marie: I’m going to have to watch Lemonade like four more times, because I just cried through my first two viewings. Men are the worst. [NOTE TO EDITORS: THIS IS NOT HELPFUL BUT IT IS TRUE.]

Lambert: Look, sometimes you fall in love with a man who tells you "Me give my heart to a woman? / Not for nothin’, never happen / I’ll be forever mackin’." And when he tells you that he’s changed, you believe him, but maybe it turns out he was telling the truth the first time. It happens to everyone, even seemingly-perfect-in-every-possible-way women like Beyoncé! It’s obviously tough for Jay Z that he’s gotten so corny and his wife keeps getting cooler every year.

Wallace: Women at their greatest are better than men at their greatest. This is a fact.

St. Félix: I still haven't gone through all the liner notes yet, but the names and diversity of her collaborators keep stacking up. Lemonade is Beyoncé's thickest collaborative effort yet. She looked toward the South heavily — that underscores the Southern Gothic feel of the visuals — which we see in the songwriting credit for Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee and the samples from OutKast and folk-and-blues archivist Alan Lomax. And then there's Jack White, Ezra Koenig, Mr. Diplo.

Lambert: Looking through that list of collaborators, I’m disappointed to see that the only female producer on Lemonade is Beyoncé. (No disrespect to Beyoncé!) I’m stoked about Beyoncé flipping Led Zeppelin and reclaiming the Delta blues from white musicians, but I have to think there are female producers besides Diplo and Jack White who could have done that? Beyoncé sampling Led Zeppelin is cool, but Jack White being credited for sampling Led Zeppelin is not especially subversive, more like doubling down. But I’m being nitpicky, and there are female songwriters listed in the credits - Diana “Wynter” Gordon and Ingrid Burley, among others.

St. Félix: And the visual, which is a tableau intended to be inseparable from the album itself, is full of faces of black women known and anonymous, young and old, praying and menacing, mourning and reveling. This is a country with one population. There are the famous women who make cameos, evidence of Beyoncé’s transition into a mentor/protector for up-and-comers in the industry: Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, Parkwood signees Chloe x Halle, Ibeyi, Zendaya, and, of course, Blue Ivy. Serena Williams makes it clap alongside a reclining Beyoncé, and the pairing of the most powerful person in music and the most powerful person in sports briefly evacuates the world of all other meaning. Ballerina Michaela DePrince. Tina Knowles-Lawson, who probably served as the inspiration for the "Hope" chapter, grins at a newfound love. Lemonade gets its name from a speech made by Jay Z’s 90-year-old grandmother, Hattie White, whom we see celebrating. Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, and Gwen Carr cradle photos of their dead sons in their laps. Solange Knowles, who Beyoncé says taught her to speak her mind, haunts the whole thing. And that’s only the list of women seen because they are living. When I saw the Mardi Gras Indian circling the empty dining table, I immediately thought of the scores of black woman ancestors being conjured, too.

Nicholson: That early chorus of women in plain white dresses with long sleeves, all tangled up together like they’re sharing a straitjacket, felt like an image out of one of the world’s first plays: Euripides’s Medea, where a jilted wife murders her husband’s mistress and then kills her own children just so her cheating man is totally destroyed. That’s how long wounded women have asked what Beyoncé asks here: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” My favorite shot, which is really hard to pick, might be in “Daddy Lessons” when you see female pallbearers carrying a coffin that must weigh five pounds. It’s so light, they’re free to dance that corpse all the way to the cemetery -- they’re thrilled to shove that dead dude in the ground. It’s a quick, surreal image, but it says so much about how some widows find freedom after death does make their husbands part. But who wants to wait that long to be happy?

Bugbee: I love that she’s out here flaunting the eclecticism of her influences, to the point of crediting Animal Collective for two words in “6 Inch.” It’s been less than a week since we lost Prince, but this album’s willful experimentation, its disregard for genre, her disregard for any expectations of how she should sound, look, behave, feel — all of it feels like a natural lineage, and that it should be a woman to carry on Prince’s legacy of public artistry after his own advocacy for female musicians, from Wendy Melvoin to Sheila E., got me all caught up in my feelings, even more so than I usually am when it comes to Beyoncé. She plays the piano now. Her expansiveness isn’t limited to sound and image. Sometimes I wonder if Beyoncé became an artist because it’s the only profession that could contain (unleash? honor?) the vastness of her emotional experience. In the span of just 45 minutes, she’s angry, she’s vengeful, she’s proud, she’s hurt, she’s hopeful, she’s needy, she’s playful, until by the end she’s serene with the inner light of love, looking out into the world and finding beauty in every face, every fold of white lace. It’s not that the feelings she’s explored on songs like “Hold Up” or “Don’t Hurt Yourself” have disappeared, but like a prism that on one end breaks the spectrum of light into its individual waves, she’s arrived at the other side, every emotional color present, unified into an all-encompassing and pure light. This is what it looks like when a woman — a black woman — is given the space to acknowledge her wounds. Watch me, I’ll show you what it looks like to be whole.

Wallace: Teo, thank you for saying the words you just said. People are always like, “This GIF gives me life. These shoes give me life.” Well, a black woman given space, platform, air, camera, visuals, design, and beats to acknowledge her wounds and her recovery should give all of us life. The mere fact that Beyoncé can make WHATEVER THE FUCK SHE WANTS WHENEVER SHE FEELS LIKE IT is precisely how it should be. That power was not handed to her by birth or family. She earned it, snatched it from the hands of record executives and a white industry. Prince died owning his masters; Michael Jackson spent years locked in bitter battle for his. This is why it matters that no one could tell Beyoncé, “No, you can’t make an hour-long movie about smashing cars and burning mansions.” This is why the mere existence of Lemonade is justice.

Cills: I will say that for all the diversity in the liner notes, I think Lemonade works so well as a cohesive album. With Beyoncé, it felt like every song was its own island. When you say what your favorite song from that record is, it’s like revealing your star sign. Maybe it’s because I experienced it as a visual first, or how the lyrics throughout seem to fit into each other like a Rubik’s Cube, but Lemonade’s songs are strong in how they work together. It’s an album with a real story from start to finish, a record that requires you to get through the A side first to reach B.

Vozick-Levinson: As the new parent in this group, I just want to say that those images of Jay, Bey, and Blue playing together in Lemonade's final act damn near reduced me to tears, personally. That scene on the football field!

Lambert: I thought the happy ending felt kinda tacked on, like an afterthought to reassure you that Lemonade is not a visual album of divorce papers served to Jay Z.

Nicholson: But I did like that after all that bold art-house cinematography, the happy ending looked more like raw documentary. Those embracing couples of all colors and ages and combinations felt real. Maybe Beyoncé and Jay Z need another round of therapy, but love does exist. (At least for other people.)

Madison III: The ending felt earned to me. The river-walking sequence in "Reformation" was like a baptism. There was so much heartbreak, so much tragedy from sin in the first half of Lemonade -- but being black is not to wallow in misery. I saw that finale as accepting the sins of the past, coming to terms with an endless cycle that repeats itself, and coming out on the other side. "Freedom" and "All Night" are hopeful odes to the power of resilience, and they made me feel grateful to be alive. It's fitting that the visual experience ends with "Formation" over the closing credits, that the album itself ends with that song. Lemonade is a love letter to black women first and foremost, blackness in America second; "Formation" is the call to arms. We been through some shit, and it was rough, but now what we gonna do about it? It's time to get in formation.

Wallace: The ending felt entirely earned — but not by the forgiven, rather the forgiver. Whoever was being forgiven didn’t earn shit, and that’s important to remember. The forgiver forgives to clear her heart and be free of the toxicity of unreleased resentment. This is not a divorce notice. It’s a death threat. It is the God of the Old Testament telling you in no uncertain terms, “I can swing a bat and destroy your whole fucking planet. Don’t you ever forget it.” When I was a kid, there was a saying common to black fathers: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” It was even the crowning applause line on the premier episode of The Cosby Show, the apogee of Black Dadism. But honestly, a dad saying that is some bullshit. Those are mom’s words. Those are woman’s words. Those are Beyoncé’s words. (As a man, I don’t even feel comfortable calling her Bey anymore. It’s disrespectful. I should maybe go with Ms. Knowles-Carter.) This is “I made you. I can destroy you. Get your shit right.” This is a black woman’s notice to the country she built with her blood and pain. This is Toni Morrison's Paradise in music form.

Smith: Viewing Lemonade as a work of literature, I agree, is appropriate. The pieces speak well on their own but take on a different meaning as a whole. Its very construction is a metaphor for the complications of black womanhood, with a purity of expression that we’re unused to seeing. It’s what happens when a black woman has the power to exercise that kind of authorship, to tell her story in such an unvarnished fashion. Given those circumstances, Beyoncé understands that she’s about to be misunderstood. But she can’t afford to care.

The story she has to tell here is so personal, so Southern, the film feels like we’re peering into her insides. There are several obvious physical allusions, including an empty house lit in red that catches fire. But the most compelling moment comes earlier, when we see the drowned house of her former, artificial self breaking water, birthing a fuck-deficient Beyoncé who goes on to wreak havoc with happy anger. In lesser hands — those which might view black womanhood as something cartoonishly vengeful — that scene would’ve been trite. It’s auspicious, in a way, that we got to watch Lemonade while we were mourning Prince, perhaps the embodiment of the unapologetic musical artist. Like him, Beyoncé has made a powerful argument for black auteurs everywhere.

Madison III: If I can switch gears a bit — just because this album is wholly political, raw, and emotionally visceral doesn't mean it's not a Beyoncé record. Meaning: while it's pushing new artistic boundaries for her, it's also sexy as hell. "Love Drought" is an alien, otherworldly sex groove. "6 Inch" is a swagger-drenched soundtrack to some sort of Spaghetti Western brothel. The video for "Sorry" features Serena da Gawd Williams twerking and dropping it low and just slaying so much you wonder why she didn't release "Feeling Myself" by her own damn self. If Beyoncé was about taking control of her sexuality, then Lemonade is Beyoncé on cruise control at the highest possible altitude. Let's be thankful for that.

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