Music

Not even Beyoncé is flawless but ‘Lemonade’ is a musical and visual masterpiece

“You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath”, sings Beyoncé. Questions race through your mind. Is she singing about Jay? Is this what that elevator incident was about? Is she about to serve her divorce papers while the whole world watches?

Lemonade is not a breakup record. It’s not tabloid fodder, not a literal account of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s relationship. It is immediately her best album – her most musically diverse, and her tightest sequenced. But unlike 2013’s BEYONCÉ, which felt like an album with 18 music videos, Lemonade is, first and foremost, a film. Pop music is about pure, unadulterated expressions of emotion – but Lemonade is black surrealism, in the grand tradition of Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Kendrick Lamar. It’s the black American Gothic, a portrait of two icons who aren’t quite right, and might never be.

Her best album and her most musically diverse

On ‘Hold Up’, a Diplo-produced dancehall jam, and ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, a Led Zeppelin-sampling Jack White collab, she’s the man-eating Beyoncé of our feminist dreams. She smashes in car windows while onlookers cheer; she’s draped in furs, taunting the camera with gangsta rap fury. She lets Malcolm X speak – “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman,” and 50 years later, it’s still true. Beyoncé, the most empowered woman alive, is still drowning in the world’s bullshit, and her husband’s alleged philandering. No amount of #flawlessness can fix that. Dear Jay, “What are you gonna say at my funeral, now that you’ve killed me?”

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So she becomes the predator. On ‘6 Inch’, The Weeknd welcomes Beyoncé into his amoral alt-R&B universe. She wields six inch heels like weapons, sucking men dry of their money. The camera zooms in on a blood-red corridor, as if Beyoncé’s about to reenact The Shining, but the violence never comes. Beyoncé’s no monster, and neither is the man who scorned her. Her nightmares turn to dreams, and so ‘6 Inch’, the darkest song she’s ever written, ends on a soaring major-key bridge. “Come back, come back,” she pleads with herself. She stands in front of a burning house, and the fire cleanses her rage.

Beyoncé steps back into the daylight. She’s hardly the first woman to suffer at the hands of her partner. So she brings it back to her childhood – to New Orleans jazz, Texas outlaw country, the Mississippi blues. ‘Daddy Lessons’ is a tribute to Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and former manager, and a diagnosis of their tangled relationship. He taught her fearlessness, and the work ethic that made her successful – and he passed down a masculine stoicism she’s spent her whole life unlearning.

‘Daddy Lessons’ is the heart and soul of Lemonade, the moment when Beyoncé realises she doesn’t have to repeat her parents’ mistakes. “My daddy warned me about men like you,” she sings. A warning from Mathew to Jay perhaps. A message from Bey to a grown Blue Ivy. We see Jay and Blue playing in the middle of an empty football stadium, and their love fills the field. It’s worth fighting for.

On ‘Love Drought’ and ‘Sandcastles’, the reformation begins. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.” For the first time, Lemonade’s theatricality falls away. We’re not in Beyoncé’s fantasies – we’re in her home. It’s just her, with natural hair and no makeup, singing to herself at a keyboard. We see Jay Z being held by his partner, mirror images. This is a man who once rapped, “Give my heart to a woman? Not for nothing, never happen” – and he’s submissive, and he’s equal. He’s not the macho gangsta rapper anymore – he’s just human.

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To move ‘Forward’, we must acknowledge the grief of our past. Black Lives Matter is Lemonade’s philosophy, and Beyoncé cedes the stage to those who’ve lost the most – the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. A Mardi Gras Indian girl waves a tambourine around an empty dinner table, honouring the absent spirits of the deceased, while James Blake sings in his otherworldly, alien voice. The darkest moment comes just before the dawn.

We’re transported, seemingly back in time, to a stage on a plantation. Beyoncé’s just a woman singing for her sisters, as she would have two hundred years ago. Suddenly, ‘Freedom’’s drums and organs kick in. From spirituals to the blues, gospel, soul, R&B, hip-hop and the sampler, you can hear the entire lineage of black music. Songs, recipes, hairstyles, clothing, houses, land – all of these things make up an identity. The richness of black culture comes from tradition, and the freedom to break from it.

Black Lives Matter is Lemonade’s philosophy

For the first time, we see a baby, innocent and free of baggage – and then we see Hattie, Jay Z’s grandmother, speaking at her 90th birthday. “I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” Beyoncé might be one of the most famous women in the world, but she shares a burden with all black women – including her unfaithful husband’s grandmother. Hattie’s recipe for lemonade, sour and sweet, is a philosophy for how to live your life.

And finally, a celebration, the horns of ‘All Night’. We see footage of Bey and Jay’s wedding, and it’s bittersweet, but their love is even stronger for their struggles. We rebuild. She’d go through all that pain again, just to see Blue Ivy smile.

Lemonade is Beyoncé’s gift to and from black womanhood, a story passed down from generations of mothers to their daughters. Her lesson is simple – no matter how flawless you are, you can be hurt. But no matter how broken you might feel, you can be healed. You can play the scorned woman, and you can stand by your man – as long as those are choices you make. Through her songs, Warsan Shire‘s poetry, and countless images of black women living their best selves, Beyoncé reflects their strength back at them. For all that black America’s suffered, there’s enough within black culture to heal their wounds. As for everyone else? We’re just blessed to have her. Only days after Prince’s death, Beyoncé gives us a thousand reasons to be optimistic.

9/10 stars

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. Follow him on Twitter at @Richaod.