The year is 2016, A.L. (“After Lemonade”). Years from now, our children may ask us where we were the moment Beyoncé unveiled her second surprise album in the form of a short film, possibly getting the most people to stay home on a Saturday night since the early days of SNL, before DVR and Hulu were things.
It’s easy to joke about Beyoncé, the cultural phenomenon. It’s easy to joke about anyone with that much power and that much control over their public image. It’s harder to talk about Beyoncé, the artist. It’s harder to talk about the deeper issues she tackles, the way she uses her power to shed light on topics that aren’t discussed in a meaningful manner in mainstream media.
Lemonade asserts Beyoncé’s position as reigning queen of the music industry, not that anyone really debated that. Musically, the album demonstrates mastery of a variety of styles, proving that the artist — and more importantly, black women in general — can handle any genre, be it rock and roll or country or soul or pop. But the cultural implications of Lemonade are what we really need to talk about.
Beyoncé has made a career out of being able to seamlessly blend well-crafted pop with empowering themes, and over the years, they’ve evolved: “Independent Women Part I” gave us “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which became “Run the World (Girls),” and bled into “***Flawless.”
Lemonade — both in short film and album form — pulls no punches with continuing this evolution and tackling even more difficult, but important cultural and political issues: Black Lives Matter, intersectional feminism, female independence. More than anything else, these themes of female empowerment on Lemonade are what Beyoncé addresses better than anyone else right now.
We’re at peak pop culture feminism right now. Women musicians have been singing empowering anthems for years, but it’s just now that people are really starting to pay attention. It’s also just now that some artists think making a song have a feminist slant is just as important as making it have a catchy hook.
Beyoncé isn’t trying to please people’s expectations that she blatantly be a feminist, though. She’s not trying to fit in; she’s not writing feminist songs to be trendy, and that’s why she does it so well. Her words are genuine and powerful. She’s not giggling about the media gossiping about her being a serial dater. She’s not shaming women in a pseudo-empowering anthem about curvy body types.
Instead, she combines her lyrics with words of Somali poet Warsan Shire to make statements about the societal difficulties of being a woman, misogyny, and the predicament of being in a relationship with a man who may be uncomfortable with such a powerful partner. Between songs, she delivers spoken word verses meditating on these topics:
I tried to change, closed my mouth more, tried to be soft, prettier, less awake. Fasted for sixty days, wore white, abstained from mirrors. Abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word.
But the way she so assertively addresses female empowerment stands up on the songs themselves, the songs that will be played over the radio for everyone — not just Tidal subscribers — to hear. She delivers “Hold Up,” vilifying a cheating partner and handles a baseball bat in a way that’s more gleeful than that time Carrie Underwood smashed in the windows of her cheating boyfriend’s 4×4.
Because when Beyoncé does it, there’s deeper significance: she’s reclaiming the angry black woman trope by doing so. She acknowledges the stereotype — “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” — and moves past it. She makes it clear that her feelings are valid, that any woman’s feelings are valid, and to reduce an angry woman to a stereotype is unacceptable.
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” takes the anger up a notch, but proves that she’s not playing around. It drives home the point of being confident in your power, knowing your worth, and never backing down to please someone else:
I am the dragon breathing fire
Beautiful man I’m the lion
Beautiful man I know you’re lying
I am not broken, I’m not crying, I’m not crying
You ain’t trying hard enough
You ain’t loving hard enough
You don’t love me deep enough
We not reaching feats enough
But I leave your love, I f*cks with you
‘Til I realize, I’m just too much for you
I’m just too much for you
She addresses income inequality by bragging about her wealth and status just like any man would. Women are still fighting for equal pay. Women have been made to feel like we should make ourselves smaller, like we shouldn’t show off our accomplishments, like we shouldn’t speak too loudly or draw too much attention to ourselves. Women are still being made to believe that we’re not worth asking for more. Beyoncé makes it a point on “6 Inch” to reject that notion. Your net worth may not be $450 million, but you “work for the money from start to finish” and you’re “worth every dollar and worth every minute.” Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.
And this theme of working hard and fighting for the best for yourself is continued on “Formation,” which was the topic of about a million think pieces when it was released in March. While the overlying significance of the song is its role as a black power anthem, it’s still making a strong feminist point. Beyoncé reclaims sexuality and power, singing about men in a way that most men sing about women:
When he f*ck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
She opens up the possibility of reaching the level of revolutionary financial influence of Bill Gates to women, particularly women of color (who are the most discriminated women in America): “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making — I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” Hear that, America? The future is female.
It’s incredibly easy to joke about Beyoncé being Illuminati or being a queen or question how she’s human. It’s easy to say that Lemonade is empowering AF and call it a day. It’s harder to talk about the deep meaning beneath the swagger. It’s harder to talk about how her lyrics have the ability to open up public discussions that are long overdue. And it’s time we start.
Listen to Lemonade exclusively on Tidal
1. Pray You Catch Me
2. Hold Up
3. Don’t Hurt Yourself
5. 6 Inch
6. Daddy Lessons
7. Love Drought
11. All Night