June 2016

Arts & Letters

The reckoning

By Anwen Crawford
Beyoncé’s powerful ‘Lemonade’

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” said Malcolm X, on 5 May 1962. It was part of a wide-ranging speech on racism that he gave at the funeral service of Korean War veteran and Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes, who was shot in the back by Los Angeles police officers while his hands were raised in the air. In 1962 Little Eva danced The Loco-Motion, The Shirelles sang ‘Soldier Boy’, and The Crystals hymned louche boyfriends on ‘He’s a Rebel’. In Detroit, Motown was stirring: Mary Wells and The Marvelettes. The Beatles had yet to invade. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman,” X continued, or, rather, continues, as a sample of his speech breaks in upon Beyoncé’s new visual album, Lemonade. While he speaks, the faces of half a dozen black women appear onscreen in quick succession – ordinary, contemporary faces.

Lemonade is a concept record about marital infidelity, but it is more broadly – and more powerfully – a reckoning with the persistent betrayal and exploitation of African-American women. The larger purpose of the album is to dissolve the present into the past, so that history is shown to be a fluid thing, less a river than a whirlpool, where troubles, debts and possibilities converge. “Unknown women wander the hallways at night,” Beyoncé murmurs, over images of Spanish moss, during the first of several spoken-word interludes that help to shape the filmic version of Lemonade. These women may be the ancillary loves of her marriage partner, but they are also the spirits of disregarded black women whose slave labour in the South (where the Spanish moss grows) made America’s fortune, and whose artistry birthed popular music as we know it.

Lemonade is Texan-born Beyoncé’s second visual album, and her sixth album altogether since going solo in 2002, following the global success of her girl group Destiny’s Child. Her best songs have been full-throttle excursions into one or another mood sparked off by romantic encounter: infatuation (‘Crazy in Love’, 2003, which featured her then boyfriend and now husband, Brooklyn rapper Jay Z), insecurity (‘Ring the Alarm’, 2006), frustration (‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’, 2008) and devotion (‘Countdown’, 2011). Her 2013 visual album, Beyoncé, was a candid and mostly celebratory exploration of sexual desire within her own marriage, the sound of a woman at ease with her appetites and confident of her worth. “Goddammit, I’m comfortable in my skin,” she sang on ‘Rocket’, a lengthy, sensual jam.

Beyoncé was brilliant pop music – its emotional roots in soul and Prince-style funk, but with enough rhythmic freshness to feel contemporary – and even more brilliant marketing. It arrived without any preliminary publicity, and was accompanied by a music video for every song. These two elements turned the release into a bona fide event, at a time when digital distribution (streaming services, iTunes, YouTube) had eroded the album’s formerly hallowed status as both a material object and the highest type of pop achievement. Following the release of Beyoncé it became de rigueur for the most forward-looking musicians to release their albums with little or no warning, so that the tactic itself had come to feel predictable – until the moment when Beyoncé outdid herself with Lemonade.

Lemonade premiered on 23 April via the American cable television network HBO, and was then made immediately available on Tidal, the music streaming service owned by Jay Z. Given that the news of Prince’s sudden death had broken only 48 hours before, one might say that Beyoncé was brave – even a little conceited – to presume that the world would pay attention to her in the immediate wake of the Purple One’s passing. But pay attention the world did. Those of us on social media could see the reaction forming in real time: an exponentially increasing number of posts, tweets, screenshots and emojis (lemons for the album’s title, bees for the Queen B) that immediately became annexed to one’s own viewing (and listening) experience. Beyoncé grasps the affective possibilities of the internet more fully than any of her pop rivals: Lemonade is a cohesive artistic statement, but it is also designed to be sifted and broken up into any number of redistributable moments (quotations, images, musical samples, even the credits list), so that our reaction is, in a true sense, networked.

A good part of that reaction has resulted from the seemingly frank way in which Lemonade pulls back the curtain on marital strife that Beyoncé only hinted at. “Seemingly”, because one of the first images we see is of Beyoncé in front of an actual stage curtain – as ever, the star of her own show. But she is kneeling there, as if exhausted. “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath / As you pass it off so cavalier,” she sings, accompanied by plaintive piano chords. That “cavalier” passes over the end of one bar and into the next, the sorrowful momentum of it pulling the song into a tight and solitary space. “Prayin’ to catch you whispering / I’m prayin’ you catch me listening.” In the film, the song breaks off there. The camera frames black women, each dressed in antique white, standing and sitting on various rural porches. Romantic love has foundered, but what remains in its wake – and it is no small compensation – is a sisterhood.

Since her days in Destiny’s Child there has been a feminist thread to Beyoncé’s work, albeit of an entrepreneurial kind: an insistence upon financial and creative independence that both complements and complicates her status as one half of a famous, wealthy couple. “I took some time to live my life / But don’t think I’m just his little wife,” she sang on ‘Flawless’, a stand-out track from Beyoncé. “Don’t get it twisted.” She tours with a female backing band, and her songs include frequent exhortations to “all the ladies” – to dump that cad, to earn their own money, to love themselves more. On Lemonade that engagement is made more explicit, and the album is unusual within the pop mainstream for the way it addresses an audience of black women without apology or concession. The athlete Serena Williams, who has so frequently been criticised for her “unfeminine” appearance, dances with Beyoncé through the defiant ‘Sorry’ (“I ain’t sorry,” runs the bouncing refrain). There are visual references to Nina Simone and to Julie Dash’s 1991 feature film Daughters of the Dust, and cameo appearances from Beyoncé’s young daughter, Blue Ivy, her mother, Tina, and her grandmother-in-law, Hattie White, whose homely wisdom – “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade” – gives the album its title.

Most effective is Beyoncé’s collaboration with the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, whose visceral texts are the basis of the film’s spoken-word interludes. “If it’s what you truly want,” says Beyoncé, using Shire’s words but seeming to speak to her husband directly, “I can wear her skin … her hands as gloves, her teeth as confetti.” The emotional violence of infidelity is collapsed into grotesque images of historic violence – “I whipped my own back,” says Beyoncé, at one point – and though the equivalence drawn between the two might seem, in theory, to be a terrible overreach, in practice it isn’t.

The turbulent material is handled with extraordinary organisation: no arrangement on Lemonade, either visual or musical, is an accident. Malcolm X’s moment occurs during ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, a song built upon a hypnotic, thumping drum loop, partially sampled from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ (1971). That recording was based in turn upon a 1929 original by the blues duo Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy (who were, incidentally, a married couple). “Who the fuck do you think I am?” demands Beyoncé, halfway to a scream. “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” Shadowed by X’s words, haunted by the ghost of Memphis Minnie, Beyoncé’s call for recognition isn’t only directed at a husband – it’s a remonstrance to all who would underestimate either her or her kin. Onscreen, as the song ends, the camera pulls away from a young black woman sat behind a drum kit. Who do you think invented all this? is the unstated question. And the unspoken answer, from Beyoncé, on behalf of her musical ancestors: We did.

As a visual album Lemonade surpasses Beyoncé. That collection of discrete music videos was secondary to an outstanding audio record, but Lemonade – part extended music video, part feature film – is vital. Seen once (or more than once, for it repays close viewing), it attaches itself indelibly to the listening experience. But the audio album taken on its own, even absent Shire’s poetry, contains some of Beyoncé’s best work. Aside from ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ there is ‘Daddy Lessons’, a country tune with a melody so effortless it feels plucked from the air, and ‘All Night’, in every sense the album’s redemption song, where Beyoncé’s voice soars over a bright horn line sampled from the Atlanta rap duo Outkast.

And then there is ‘Formation’, which manages to be both the album’s prologue – it was released, with accompanying video, in early February – and its epilogue, playing after the credits in Lemonade’s film version. The video is a fever dream of the American South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (when the levee breaks, indeed), while the song’s melodic hook sounds as if it were played on rubber bands. The camera glances past graffiti that reads ‘STOP SHOOTING US’, and a young boy dances in front of police lines. Beyoncé lies atop a sinking patrol car. “OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” she purrs. It’s both an instruction and a warning. Best get out of the way.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Beyoncé in a still from Lemonade.

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