The first time I heard Beyoncè’s sultry vocals I was 13-years-old, a precocious teenager listening to R&B well advanced for my years. It was 1998, the precipice of baggy jeans, backwards-baseball-cap wearing fashion coming to an end to be replaced with the ghetto fabulous glamour of Sean John, Roca Wear and Baby Phat. Destiny’s Child had their breakout single, “No, No, No” grace the airwaves and my young ears were blessed by the wildly harmonic tunes of Beyoncè, Kelly, LaTavia and LeToya. Music was at its peak that year with Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill subsequently dominating radio stations over the summer.
In the quartet that was Destiny’s Child and the hip hop crooning of Lauryn Hill, black femininity was put on the world stage in a way it never had been before. Back then, near the turn of the millennia, we were no longer just cotton club, blues singing women of the night. We were unapologetically lyrical, using music as a declaration of our unrestricted womanhood.
Of course at 14, 15, and 16-years-old I wasn’t able to fully grasp the concept of not allowing a man who couldn’t pay my bills to waste my time with his presence. But, for more than four years Destiny’s Child offered anthem after anthem, thereby sojourning my adolescence into young adulthood.
Anyone who followed the group at that time could easily detect the innate stardom in Beyoncè who sang lead vocals. So, it was no surprise to any of us when in 2003 she strutted through the streets of God knows where flaunting new hair and red pumps while belting out that she was crazy in love. What did come as a surprise—we would learn—is that she was singing about hip-hop savant, Jay Z.
For former Destiny’s Child fans we readily embraced Beyoncè as she carried the torch for delivering heartbreak theme songs and ain’t putting up with this one-liners. Beyoncè became the prophet for fed up black women around the world, providing us a lowbrow version of feminism that didn’t need thesis in scholarly journals to be relevant. She showed us that we could shake our booties whilst having babies then getting back to business without missing a beat. To be a Beyoncè fan was to navigate the complexity of what it meant to shed society’s expectations of women. It was to embrace ourselves as multifaceted, flaws and all.
To be a Beyoncè fan was to navigate the complexity of what it meant to shed society’s expectations of women. It was to embrace ourselves as multifaceted, flaws and all.
Somewhere between the end of Destiny’s Child and what would become the iconoclast that is Beyoncè the black female had been slain, her body laid bare at the altar of degradation.
While Beyoncè climbed the charts –single after single—black women found themselves grappling with the highest rates of HIV and AIDs, the most salient cases of depression, and crippled homes fractured by the alarming rate of black male incarceration. Though our white female counterparts were making noticeable strides in the feminist movement, black women were still the most underrepresented populations in boardrooms and Statehouses across the nation.
The deepest blow was that our mere existence—our bodies were under constant ridicule. We remained the punch line of America’s cruelest jokes. Few black women will forget how many times first Lady Obama’s physical appearance was compared to the likeness of a monkey, or that Serena Williams had been mocked as too beastly on more than one occasion.
Despite our descent in society’s eyes Beyoncè always sang a song that we could relate to and we were better off for it. Once after an argument with my ex-husband I played Beyoncè repeatedly until the lyrics replaced the need for tears. When I decided to end said marriage I sang, “You must not know bout me,” at the top of my lungs until my neighbors had no other choice but to know bout me. And my ex-husband’s belongings were conveniently placed in a box to the left.
Following my divorce, when I found love again “Love on Top” was the hit song that summer and the perfect sound track for every feeling the man who had reinvigorated my heart gave me. Beyoncè, it seems, was always there. She always seemed to come through with a song or an album that was apropos.
And this time, with the release of Lemonade, her sixth studio album is no different. At a period when black women are emerging from the ashes of marginalization with our afros perfectly fluffed, Beyoncè has reminded us of the roots of our black womanhood and provided a clear charge for how we are to march into our future.
Here lies, in 12 tracks, the intersection of black femininity: to be part holiness, part lioness; to love only to be met with damage; to have a father whom you worship while also fearing; to know the pain of your mother and your mother’s mother; and yet, among all of this to find love within sisterhood; to forgive and move forward. If BEYONCÈ was the album that reintroduced us to the artist formerly known as Sasha Fierce then Lemonade is the magnum opus of what will undoubtedly be a new catalogue of prolific music that is refreshingly painful to listen to.
Lemonade is the magnum opus of what will undoubtedly be a new catalogue of prolific music that is refreshingly painful to listen to.
The album, which is accompanied by a one hour visual compilation that should not be divorced from the songs lest we miss the context of what is being relayed, opens with Beyoncè going back to her foundation, relying heavily on the ballad “Pray You Catch Me” to literally and figuratively set the stage for the journey the listener is about to be taken on. The visual compilation coincidentally starts with Beyoncè on stage and quickly cuts to her in a field pleading that the cup of her paranoia be taken from her. “I pray you catch me listening,” she sings. If only she is caught lurking then she can stop trying to find out if her man is cheating on her. From the field to the top of a building, Beyoncè outstretches her arms and dives head first to the concrete below—a nod to the fact that she’s about to crucify herself on the cross of vulnerability.
Each song advances the story while the visual album places black women at the center of the plot. We are there; so present that it is hard to ignore the richness of our diversity. And Beyoncè, dressed in African prints, stands at the side of her sisters—the women whom she gave songs to for more than a decade—as one who perhaps has also had her heart broken, whether by the indiscretions of a man or the injustice perpetually inflicted on people of color.
It’s easy to listen to an album that is so widely open and draw superficial conclusions. Much speculation has been made about the state of Beyoncè’s marriage to Jay Z, to our own detriment. That we would undermine such a prolific body of work with petty gossip shows just how much we’re missing the point. What happens in Beyoncè and Jay Z’s marriage is none of our business. The job of the artist is never to be voyeuristic but to assure the partaker of the art that they are not alone. Lemonade does this with great precision so much so that there are levels to the content. From the fear of infidelity on “Hold Up” to the awareness of daddy issues on “Daddy Lessons,” Lemonade reminds us that Beyoncè is not a woman absolved of pain no matter how beautiful or successful. And it reminds us that the lives of black women matter even if only to we—that is enough. Lemonade is the celebration of the black woman in all of degrees of our existence.
The job of the artist is never to be voyeuristic but to assure the partaker of the art that they are not alone.
What this album gives us that her previous ones have not is a story arc that is both socially awake and humbly crafted. Lemonade is Beyoncè at her most engaged with the world around her. She is well aware of this fact, admitting on the track Freedom “Lord forgive me I’ve been running, running blind in truth.” Whether it is she or the collective story of millions of black women around the world who sit as protagonist we’ll never know. What is certain is that each song bears truth to the struggle of what it means to fight for black femininity.
To that end she does not depart from her ability to rally women around an anthem. “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the makin’” she encourages us while concluding her masterpiece by telling us to get in formation. Lemonade is the culmination of black female solidarity we’ve craved for the last 18 years. It is the moment we’ve been waiting for. And in case she’s wondering: we’re ready, B.