A Love Profane

On 'Lemonade', Beyoncé's visual album

When a member of the congregation stands up with visible conviction, the assembled make way. The choir drops down from its vocal heights, and the prayer leader beckons the witness to come forth to profess their testimony. That display of coordinated grace, so generous, is the church stripped from its pride, its glamour. In the clearing, strength is renounced and weakness invited. As a young girl, I marveled at the women who strode up to the altar, how big they seemed while confronting their problems, though in those moments, I know now, they must have felt small. There’s a moment of testimony like this near the end of Lemonade, on the track “All Night,” framed by the strings’ heavy increase:

They say true love’s the greatest weapon

to win the war caused by pain, pain

but every diamond has imperfections

but my love’s too pure to watch it chip away

oh, nothing real can be threatened

true love breathes salvation back into me

with every tear came redemption

and my torturer became my remedy.

Visually, here, Beyoncé is without her women. They had flanked her throughout much of the Lemonade visual: Frame after frame of women communed — in nature, outside of quaint plantations, in New Orleans — leaving little interpretive possibility that this project was anything but a corrective to the blasphemed images of black women in America. That it was anything but an honest testimony of how our love for our own has been made profane. Serena Williams, acting as a fantastic sentinel, twerks next to her, tongue out, during the bouncy, gloriously unapologetic “Sorry.” The dancers on the bus, striped with white Yoruba paint, guard her while she threatens self-destruction. Later, she asks, dramatically, “Are you aware you’re my lifeline? / Are you trying to kill me?”

Poetry by Warsan Shire, a 27-year-old Somali-British artist, frames the film as narration; Shire's sensual and macabre verse is the language Beyoncé uses to express fantasies of brutality. “All Night,” too, sounds like a psalm. Her words echo the parallelism of the love songs in the Bible, because the loss of love is a crisis of faith in this album. Torturers are remedies, love is weaponized. In her clearing, in her fight, Beyoncé submits to an education about the nature of redemption: The love that hurts is the love that saves. It’s a profound switch in the spirituality of the album, which, up until that point, prefers destruction and threats. At this point in the film, a montage of couples, smiling triumphantly, fills the screen as the bass revives in the last third of “All Night.” We are nearing the bend in the river. It was so hard to get here. We see Tina Knowles-Lawson in the arms of her new husband, having just exhaled. She looks so much like her first daughter, and the daughter like her.

This is what our mothers mean when they warn us that we will one day act like them. They mean the men in our lives will one day act like our fathers. They mean this wretched, beautiful inheritance. They mean knowing the full range of night, a time when we kiss up and rub up and feel up on him out of love, and for insurance. Marriage is often seen as something rigid, contractually and as a metaphor — there are only ever two sides, two stories. Beyoncé’s own past songs about official unions seem two-dimensional now, in the face of Lemonade’s emotional honesty. As much as the role of wives is invoked across the songs, familial unions between women are the ones given visual country. This goes past clichéd ideas of empowerment, of the accessible feminism Beyoncé herself espoused on her self-titled album almost three years ago. It reminds you of Alice Walker’s definition of womanism: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility.” Something about the window infidelity opens — the space to contextualize one’s self outside the confines of a romantic heterosexual relationship — invites Beyoncé to seriously know a matriarchy. Her mother. Her husband’s grandmother, Hattie White, who gave the speech that gave Lemonade its name. The women who toiled centuries before, now ghosts in the beautiful plantation.

Lemonade — categorically a visual album like 2013’s Beyoncé, but run through with the sensibilities of literature, poetry, and painting — begins with another prayer, the kind the paranoid make at night, in “Pray You Catch Me.” A prayer for validation of the emotional violence you intuit, based on the emotional history you’ve studied. You know, “Daddy Lessons,” and real recognizing real and all that. At its base level, it is a demand for flesh. But the trauma of infidelity is about much more than matters of adulterous fucking in Lemonade. Black women in America are cheated out of spiritual and material things. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X says, toward the middle of the film. Was he talking about structural injustice there, or about interpersonal love? Lemonade confirms they are inseparable, and it is a relief. “Freedom,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, an artist who’s been elevated as a bellwether for how music should address injustice, improves on male-centered mainstream messages of black liberation. “Freedom” insists that men recognize where they have failed in this respect: “‘Cause I need freedom too!" Beyoncé cries out. "I break chains all by myself.” The song shames them, too, for how their betrayal has compounded on the chains history dealt.

We are expected to take the swindling, gulp the misery down, and keep on moving. Beyoncé refuses. She jumps off the building and sinks into an ocean of feeling. She comes up to a whole aesthetically meticulous world created just so she can destroy it before building it back up again.

It’s an exhilarating indulgence, the unbridled emotional release that underpins the first majority of the project. In “Hold Up,” Beyoncé stomps through an idyllic downtown, destroying cars and surveillance apparati with a bat named “Hot Sauce.” There are countless examples of visual wit like this in the film, courtesy of its seven directors and devoted creative direction. Possessed monster trucks smash a street full of vehicles, and we can’t help recalling the two-year-old footage of her sister Solange blowing up, also under surveillance, also wearing citrus. Then, Beyoncé was famously photographed smiling broadly over her limousine after exiting the elevator, as if nothing had happened. Taking the misery, gulping it down, all while we watched. Autobiography is certainly not the only source informing the Lemonade narrative. It is art, after all. But that smile recurs here — this time crazed and directed, it seems, to both a husband and the watchers.

My favorite visual accompanies “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the album’s ode to aggression and profanity and warnings: Beyoncé with cornrows and slicked-down baby hair and Yeezy wear that sticks on her thighs. At one point, a declaration of humility — “God is God and I am not” — flashes onscreen. The biggest rock star on earth takes our delirious fandom seriously enough to admonish us. We call her God. She wants to remind us that she is not, that she is human and has problems, and that no matter how hard she works, she, too, can lose her faith in things.