The first part of this post can be found here.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade album debuted as a “visual album” on HBO just before the album itself dropped. This short film contains all of the songs from the album along with Bey reading various poems by Warsan Shire in voiceover in between and around the songs.
The images have already become iconic: Beyoncé in her yellow dress, smashing cars with a baseball bat, Beyoncé in a parking garage, angrily tossing her wedding ring toward the camera, Beyoncé singing as the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin hold pictures of their sons. Much like the musical album, the visual album tells a complete story, using title cards to divide the film into sections.
What this visual album accomplishes is complex and powerful. Similarly to the “Formation” video, Lemonade emphasizes the strength of Black women, particularly when they are in community with one another (you know, in formation). The visual album illustrates this as a progression. The film begins with Beyoncé alone, but as it moves forward, she becomes surrounded by more and more Black women. The end of the film finds her in a household of Black women who are growing and harvesting their own food while they rely on each other for support, empathy, and spirituality. This progression mirrors the theatrical concepts of mimesis and methexis which I discussed relative to the “Formation” video.
Note: in terms of this movement from individual to community, it is seen primarily in the song clips, rather than the interstitial poem scenes. Thus, as I discuss this transition, I am referring primarily to the songs.
As the album opens with “Pray You Catch Me,” Beyoncé is alone, outdoors. However, the first images of her are on a stage, with a row of footlights in front of her and a red curtain behind her. If nothing else, this image should alert the viewer that she is not necessarily about to tell a one for one, true story about her life and her relationship with Jay Z. Certainly, since he shows up later in the film, that possibility cannot be discounted, but the use of that stage imagery–in a fashion reminiscent of the end of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video–indicates that what follows is a dramatization.
In the second song, “Hold Up,” Beyoncé is still alone, smashing up cars, but she draws the attention of passers by, children, and others on the street who can see her and follow her. The third song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” introduces a small crew of women who perform in that sequence with her, and the next song “Sorry” sees Beyoncé taking a larger crew with her on a bus, out of the city.
If we see “Pray You Catch Me” as a prelude, then songs 2 and 3 are clearly songs of the city, linked to the narrator’s home life and cheating partner. “Sorry” not only begins a transition toward a communal experience, but a rural one, as well. Beyoncé and her dancers travel to a Southern estate, where Serena Williams ushers us in to meet Queen Bey holding court.
Next, both “6 Inch” and “Daddy Lessons” take a slight detour from the larger story and dip into the narrator’s life away from her partner and into her perspective on her own work and her own family. The turning point in the larger story comes next, in the song “Love Drought,” which features Beyoncé leading a group of identically clad women down to the waterside for a baptism. This moment crystallizes the narrator’s entire journey into sisterhood, faith, and renewal. It is here that she also starts to turn back toward her partner, indicating that healing between them is possible.
While the album takes an inward turn with “Sand Castles,” which features Bey and Jay almost exclusively, “Forward” takes us back to the Southern estate, and the album reaches a climax in the extremely moving “Freedom.” In this sequence, Beyoncé and a host of other Black women are working, cultivating, creating, and performing with and for each other. The imagery is lush, beautiful, and evocative. Here, they find strength and safety. They can perform rituals together, whether it is the Mardi Grad Indian blessing the tables, or the ballerina dancing onstage, or the food preparation. The communal ritual performances are the acts which heal, and all of the women take part.
Just before the closing song, “All Night,” there is a shot of Beyoncé sitting on a porch with several other women. This image is so powerful, and it seems also to echo Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the novel, the protagonist Janie thrives on town gossip, conversation, story telling and matching wits with the men of the town. Men gather to do this on porches–and that space becomes contested ground as her husband refuses to let her sit on the porch and talk. In Lemonade, the porch belongs to women. It is their space now.
What Beyoncé and her team have created in this album and visual album is remarkable. I have a feeling I’ll be incorporating some of it into future African American literature courses. I usually include a unit on music, and because Lemonade has so many great connections to other significant Black texts, I think it would be beneficial (and possibly even fun!) for students to work with it. If you haven’t checked out the album, you can now get it on iTunes.